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Why Our Brains Are Prone to Addiction -- A Neuroscientist Explains

Marc Lewis spent his youth experimenting with every drug he could find. Once clean, he became a neuroscientist experimenting with addicted brains.

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In the classic narrative of addiction and recovery, “hitting bottom” plays a pivotal role—getting to a point when life on drugs becomes unbearable. In what ways was that true for you? 

I certainly did hit bottom, many times! The story I tell in my book can seem like one of going from bottom to bottom—not simply overdosing but stealing drugs, getting arrested, shooting up methamphetamine for days at a time while trying to hold down a job at a psychiatric facility. Unfortunately, I was quite adept at hiding my drug use, and I also had a high tolerance for the negative consequences. 

Why do you think you were eventually able to stop using drugs? Can you explain it scientifically?

It’s very hard to analyze what takes place in the brain to enable quitting to stick. For one thing, it is a development that is probably unique to each person and their own capacities for self-regulation. The closest I can come to describing it is with metaphor, such as a switch being flipped, or a pivot point being reached. 

My own recovery was partly based on how terrible I eventually came to feel when I was on drugs. Whatever rewards that being high had once had were no longer available. Being so immersed in constant drug taking became associated with so many awful feelings that it was a far worse experience than anything sobriety had to offer.

You do not mention going to AA or any other 12-step program as part of your recovery. Did you ever attend a meeting? 

The more I become an “addiction personality”—with my book, my speaking, my blog—the more I come to appreciate what stormy political waters talking about AA can land me in. All I can say is that I was not attracted to the idea of working my problems out in a group setting. I had already done two relatively short stints in therapy, and these did not help me quit, and I think I was convinced that my recovery was going to come from me alone or not at all.

I stopped using in 1981, and I was living in Toronto, and AA and other 12-step programs were not the ubiquitous presence that they are now. It wasn’t like I was talking about my drug problems and the immediate response from other people was, "Go to AA or NA." In fact, I very rarely talked to anyone at all about my drug problems. After college, my drug use was mainly a solitary act. I went to graduate school and I went to work often on some combination of drugs, but I took pride in the fact that I could get away with it. Almost no one knew the trouble I was in.

You appear to have been drawn to meditation with a curiosity about your mind similar to the way you were drawn to experimenting with drugs. Did you use meditation to help recover from drug use?

Meditation, like drugs, was very much a part of the culture when I was coming of age, and it also involved entering a certain mental state that I could observe myself experiencing. But meditation didn’t work for me as a way to deal with the problems that were driving me to do drugs, though it may have proved helpful in extending the periods of time when I was trying not to use drugs.

I am much more disciplined about meditation now than I was then. I do what’s called insight meditation. I find it very helpful—it is centering, I feel at peace, I can suck in all those spurts of negative emotion better.