Addicted Brains

A neuroscientist examines life on drugs.

Countdown in the Rat Lab

The morphine in the fridge was ever so tempting

Help me!
Below is an excerpt from my book, Memoirs of an Addicted Brain, soon to be released in the US. The excerpt deals with ego fatigue, like the last post...(and the next one). But it doesn't get into the neuroscienceā€”not yet. It's just a read-out of the fantasies, the self-talk, the loosening sense of self-control that all start to slip and slide as you approach the pivot point. Or maybe it's more like an accelerating ride over the crest of the toboggan run. The excerpt is from a chapter that details my early days of stealing drugs as a psychology student. 

I went in. I hung up my coat. I unlocked the door to the inner sanctum and made my way to the cages. My rats were all there, busy doing nothing, as usual. Scratching and whispering, scurrying, hiding, perhaps talking to each other in little rat voices. They paid me little attention. I was a familiar sight, or more likely a familiar odour, and we'd have time enough to visit as the night wore on. "Hi, little guys. Who wants to go first tonight?"

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I pulled a cage out from the middle of the grid, just to make life interesting, and carried it to the procedure room... I filled the pellet tray. I filled the water bottle. I made sure everything was perfect. On a fresh data sheet I recorded the date, February 12, 1977, the subject number, and his weight -- before supper. Then I picked up the rat and placed him in the left wing of the experimental chamber... Finally, I lifted the slide between the two sections of the box and watched, horrified and amazed, that this little rat obeyed so perfectly the commands issued by his brain and his stomach. He did what he was programmed to do. Flawlessly.

I went through a dozen more animals, and I was still only half done. I wouldn't arrive home until nearly midnight. Another long, lonely, boring night.

[The only sound in this soulless place was the hum of the lab fridge.] The old lab fridge. Sitting in the corner of the procedure room. Would I? Should I? No! Once was enough. Somebody would find out. No they wouldn't... Nobody is saving it up for the rats, that's for sure. It's going bad. It's probably five years old. Yeah, but it works. It still works. Oh, does it ever. Yeah, and it's probably toxic. You're probably going to die. If you do what you're thinking of doing. Don't even think about it.

But I am thinking about it. I can't stop thinking about it. And there were no ill effects last time . . . The bell went off and brought me back to reality. If this was reality. My first reaction was a rush of shame: it was vile. Shooting some undefined liquid into my veins. Okay, it was morphine. Morphine, the wonder drug. Morphine, the perfect narcotic. The pure essence of which everything else -- even heroin -- is a derivative. But it was disgusting to shoot that stale stuff in the fridge. A familiar glare from somewhere inside.

I picked up my now well-fed and well-exercised little beast, and it seemed as though he was smiling at me: I know what you're thinking. No you don't! I weighed him again, a bit more roughly this time, then put him back in his cage. You don't know what I'm thinking, you dumb rat. It's not your morphine anyway. To get my mind off the fridge..., I put the next rat into the box and picked up my novel, plunked myself down on the musty sofa and started to read. Nobody was around. Not only the lab but the whole subbasement was deserted. No sound. Except for the scurrying of those rats still awaiting their moment of glory. And the others, the sated ones, licking their fur contentedly. A sound that grew louder in my imagination: soft tongues scratching and scraping as they cleaned their soft white fur. They were at peace. Like I would be if I . . . No no. Don't go there. Not again.

I'm a big boy. I'm studying to be a psychologist. But I still like to read horror novels sometimes. Especially lately. And Anne Rice evokes the most compelling images. A newcomer has entered the parlour. One of the older vampires crosses the room so swiftly his movements are invisible. He grasps the visitor fondly by the lapels. He whispers to him, part seduction, part warning: "So you want to become one of us? But are you strong enough to bear the curse of isolation that will be yours forever? With a taste of my blood?" And I'm thinking about the morphine in the fridge again, because it is like the vampire's blood: dirty, poisonous, yet offering me its singular powers. It will plunge me into the land that is inhabited by the few, the outcasts, those who prowl by night and sleep by day, whose business is the sating of a shameful hunger. And now other images are awakened. My memories of [old Berkeley friends, part-time junkies], both fond and repugnant. Ralph putting Jim to sleep with a shot of Seconal, a drug that would one day kill him. And my childish wish to be one of them, despite the foreshadowing of destruction that hovered there.

Only fifteen or so rats to go. I'll never make it. Too long. Too tempting. Don't think about it. Don't think about the little bottles in the fridge. You might never have noticed them if you hadn't been searching for a can of pop. And don't think about the syringes lying so neatly in their paper wrappers in the cupboard. Don't think about them! But I look at the vein in my arm, so rapidly I can't stop myself. Up until a week ago, I hadn't shot drugs for over two years. That's all over. A youthful folly. With its share of horrors, to be sure. Nobody knows the trouble I've seen. Nobody knows . . . but Jesus. I'm actually humming this as I get up to replace one rat with the next. I'm humming this and I'm smiling a little to myself, smiling with a sneaky little smile, a sneaky little rat smile. A smile for no one. A smile no one can see. But there is a quickening in my pulse. A part of me has given up.

 

Marc Lewis, PhD has been a professor of developmental psychology and neuroscience for over 20 years and is the author of Memoirs of an Addicted Brain. 

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