Readers of my recent book, Memoirs of an Addicted Brain, sometimes complain that I went into great detail about my addiction but very little detail about how I quit. In the book I recount how, one day, I had a very emotional, very intense talk with myself, and that was the day it all ended. I did not go through any standard form of treatment. In fact my treatment was self-directed: I wrote the word "NO" on a piece of paper, decorated it, put it up on the wall, and followed my own instructions.

Could it really have been that simple? That easy? 

It wasn't easy at all. Here's a little more detail about that period of my life:

First, I had tried to quit taking opiates and other substances many many times by this point. I estimate approximately a hundred, before I was finally successful. This period of sporadic attempts lasted for several years, during which my life became more and more unbearable. All that is detailed in the book.

So it's not like I woke up one morning and said "I'm going to quit today" and it worked, just like that. In fact, it's typical for addicts to try to quit repeatedly before they are successful. Some people say you have to hit bottom before you can start going back up. I skidded along the bottom for years. Nevertheless, a large proportion of addicts do quit "spontaneously" (without treatment), whether we're talking about drugs, booze, or smoking. The statistics are around the 50 percent mark — actually higher for smoking. Being an addict for life simply doesn't work very well. 

Back to my story: I had recently endured two particularly shitty events. My girlfriend of two years left me, and this broke my heart. She said she couldn't take it any more, and I didn't blame her. Then my friends found me, semi-comatose, on a toilet seat in a public building with a needle sticking out of my arm. This was intensely shame-inducing, needless to say, and I could see that my friends would not continue to be my friends for long.

I think by then I had built up a lot of rage, not just self-contempt and all that but real rage — toward drugs, I could say, or toward what seemed to be a force or a malevolent spirit, or maybe something like the Greek Chorus idea of a "fate" that keeps wrecking the protagonist's chance of getting out of Hell. Something pivoted on that particular day, the day I put up the "NO" sign. The rage seemed to pivot around and focus on this external entity, rather than on me, for a change. And that was a big change. I remember feeling: you have no right! I deserve to live! You can't do this to me!

That was how it started. There was also the small matter of saying to myself "never again" — rather than never again for at least a year, or never again injecting, or other half-assed self-promises. I truly at that moment didn't want to EVER do it again. For the first time, the aversion to taking drugs was stronger than the aversion to living the rest of my life without them.

And I just kept going on like that, day after day, telling myself NO fifty times a day...then less and less as the days went by. By the second or third week, I thought it might really be working, but I didn't know for sure until about two months had gone by. And during all that time, the horror of my recent life kept returning to me in vivid images, and I kept telling myself: I don't WANT to go there again. This is ME speaking: I DON'T WANT TO. Of course the withdrawal symptoms and the depression and all that were pretty nasty for a couple of weeks, but even within a few days, there were rays of light. Maybe even that first day.

Things like that happen. Big life changes can turn on a dime, even in the case of addiction. How can that be, you may ask, given all the "wiring" that's already taken place in the brain?

While I was building up this elaborate synaptic network around the identity of being an addict, I was also building up an elaborate non-addict network. I never stopped trying. I still wanted to be a regular person with a good life. I went to see a variety of therapists. I remember one who wouldn't even talk to me (a psychologist, in fact) because he said I was too far gone. In fact, none of them helped much, but it meant (at least to me) that I was trying. Meanwhile, I was applying to jobs in mental health agencies, and getting some, and I was still aiming to get back into school. All that equals a whole OTHER synaptic network — one that usually lost out when drugs got their hypnotic hold on the dopamine circuit that fed my addiction. Maybe the pivot point for me had to do with connecting a day-to-day/hour-to-hour sense of self with that "other" network, long enough for it to "take"...and start sucking up its own helpings of dopamine: This is what I want!

I have no idea if I'd have stayed clean IF I didn't get accepted into grad school a few months later and restart my life as an ambitious student. Turning my energy to other highly absorbing, challenging, attractive goals was surely helpful to me. 

So that's how it was. And since that time, I've had a number of flirtations with drugs, I occasionally drink too much, but I have never gone back to the hell I lived in before that day.

Addicted Brains

A neuroscientist examines life on drugs.
Marc Lewis, Ph.D.

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 and The Biology of Desire.

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