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Love-Drug: How We Self-Medicate With - And Get Addicted To - Love

Examining how and why love cycles affect the brain (and our loves).

 Because love and sex don’t come from a bartender, dealer or pharmacy (unless you’re banging the bartender, dealer or pharmacist) we often don’t give their chemical powers the fearsome credit we give to drugs we can see. But they do trigger chemicals and those chemicals wield a crazy amount of power.
If one kiss effectively lobotomizes you, if your craving for their body could turn you inside out, if you would watch Jersey Shore because they love it, you’ve had that high. Roxy Music said it in 1975: love is a drug.

Because of my work I’m in that love-drug mindset and couldn’t help thinking about the connection when I saw A&E’s Biography of Amy Winehouse, who I admittedly knew no more about while she lived than any casual observer of pop culture would. Watching her story — the first breakup that inspired the lyrics of her first album, the relationship that introduced her to hard drugs — I couldn’t help wondering if her notorious drinking and drug use, while clearly dangerous, were surface symptoms that started out as the normal need for relief from other complex problems, including love. So many of her lyrics radiate the irony of love giving something to live for and making us feel like dying. As for love as a drug, she says in " Tears Dry on Their Own,” “We could a never had it all / We had to hit a wall / This is the inevitable withdrawal.” In People magazine she’s quoted as describing her famous 15 minute stay in rehab thus: “I went in and said, 'Hello' and explained that I drink because I'm in love and have f---ed up the relationship. Then I walked out.”

Fame might have put Amy Winehouse under a microscope but she was also said to have been diagnosed manic depressive, which make for a whole different ball game. How many of us do uncharacteristic, even dangerous things for love and connection and how many of us, when insecure or rejected, drink or drug ourselves to blunt the pain? Heroin addicts get methadone so the withdrawals don’t kill them — is it a wonder some of us vibrate towards the Absolut after being suddenly cut off from our greatest happiness?

Dr. Joseph Shrand, medical director of the CASTLE (Clean and Sober Teens Living Empowered) Adolescent Rehabilitation Unit at the High Point Treatment Center in Brockton, MA says that while the chemicals of love, primarily oxytocin and dopamine, can be addictive, they’re very different. Oxytocin is the pleasure we get from external relationships: connection to other people. Dopamine, on the other hand, is a loner, Dottie…a rebel. We can get it from an internal stimulus, like drugs and alcohol. It’s a “shortcut to relationships,” he says, because it gives you “an artificial affiliation with other people who are using drugs and alcohol, but it’s internal, it’s dopamine…it’s not oxytocin,” not about connection with value beyond the rush of the moment.

And it can undermine your confidence in a really tricky way.

“Many people use substances to avoid feelings, getting an artificial and temporary sense of relief,” Dr. Shrand says. “But every time you do so you convince your brain that you are not strong enough to deal with those feelings. When they arise again, your brain quickly learns the road to relief, and you use. But the vicious cycle has now begun, and you begin to use to avoid the very thing you are most afraid of: that you are not worthy, not valuable, and do not deserve to be happy.”
This isn’t to say that drowning your sorrows in the short term always leads to ruin. But it won’t help you learn to deal with “the inevitable withdrawal” when it comes up again. So it’s like skipping class because you can’t face a test, only to find the same material on the final.

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