News & Politics

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.

Dr. John Sharp is on the faculty at UCLA and Harvard Medical School and also works with patients on Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew. He knows that addiction can be a deadly business.

“If you’re love sick and you’re not an addict and you’re crying in your beer — while you’re setting up an exercise routine and talking to a therapist and getting back in touch with your friends and finding a way to feel whole again - that’s okay.” If you’re not an addict and you have other coping strategies, he says, fine. “But if you’re really overindulging that’s going to block you from being able to do those other things and if you’re an addict, you’re indulging in a very dangerous game which could be lethal.”

The traditional view, Dr. Sharp says, is that there’s a “biologic vulnerability of being able to handle the pull that comes from the dopamine system in the brain to get another fix or replace one kind of yearning with another,” so some people are biologically predisposed to addiction. For them self-soothing is really, really risky.

“One thing you need in order to return to a state of well-being after suffering a great loss is to be able to tolerate your distress and anxiety and you need to find a way to do that in a better and better way… first you’re overwhelmed and then, fast forward, you’re not anymore…and you get better, you get stronger. None of that happens when you’re always in a bottle, always smoking up.” He compares it to working out but building strength internally.

“Romantic love is an addiction,” says Dr. Helen Fisher, author and biological anthropologist at Rutgers University, “a perfectly wonderful addiction when it is going well, a really horrible addiction when it is going poorly.” Dr. Fisher and her colleagues did anfMRI study and found that brain regions associated with cocaine and nicotine addiction became active when rejected lovers saw pictures of their ex.

I asked her if love could be a sort of “gateway drug” for some of us - if we’re not careful, can our trials in it lead to other addictions?

“I would agree, in that romantic love can lead to all kinds of addictive behaviors, from stalking, drinking, drugging when things are going poorly, to constant sex and partying when things are going well. But I suspect this occurs only in people who are already susceptible to specific addictions.” It might not cause them but it can trigger and fuel them.

I didn’t know Amy Winehouse, am surely no afficianado on her and can’t say, apart from inference and her words about drinking because she was in love, that that was at the bottom of her drug problems because there might have been other things. I know that when I was in my 20’s, I drank my share, your share, and maybe even some of Amy’s share, sometimes for fun, sometimes as a shield and in my 30’s found other shields, especially from trouble in love. Guess what? It was still there for me in my 40’s, like Jack in “American Werewolf in London,” refusing to die and stinking worse every time he shows up. And I know what it’s like feel like the only thing you cared about is suddenly gone and to need to erase the pain.

We take lots of care getting into relationships but getting out can be much trickier. It might be the best course - with lots of support-to face the chemicals you can’t see and not hide, at least not for too long, behind the ones you can.

Liz Langley is a freelance writer in Orlando, FL.