Addicted to Everything: The Science Behind Addiction

Have you ever heard of an “addictive personality”? I used to think that this phrase described me to a T. Once I start something, anything, my brain zeroes in on it and I’m completely obsessed.

For example, when I start a project, I must finish it in one sitting. If I don’t finish it right away, my brain will not shut up about it until I do. My friends in college used to think I was insane, because instead of working on long essays in small chunks over a few weeks, I would sit in the library for 7 hours and do it all at once: the research, the notes, the drafting, the editing and the submission.

Then, at age 24 I was diagnosed with ADD. “Ooooh okay, THAT’S my problem!” Yes, this was something I needed to get under control, but even after being medicated and subsequently more able to put down a project and pick it back up later, I was still noticing a cycle of complete obsession over everything.

At age 25, I came to terms with a very destructive mental obsession over alcohol. I realized that I was doing that thing I always do, where I love something so much that I’m unable to stop. Only this time, it was wreaking havoc on every part of my life, not just my mental health. So I got sober. Everything started to feel better. “Okay, so ADD and alcoholism are my problems. Now that those are fixed, I should be fixed!”

Nope.

Actually, now that I’m no longer mentally obsessed with being drunk all the time, I have this space in my brain that needs to be filled with something else. After I got sober, I noticed that my “addictive personality” has moved to the forefront of my being and turned up to 11. It’s not an “addictive personality” that I’m dealing with. I’m just an addict.

But why am I an addict?

The downside of being a sober alcoholic and working on myself is the fact that I now can see everything I dislike about myself that I used to be able to completely ignore. After a 3-month crossword puzzle binge (seriously, it was a binge; I completed at least 6 puzzles a day) I got frustrated with my tendency to obsess over simple things. I wanted to know why I am the way I am, so I decided to do some research.

Unfortunately, there is no clear-cut answer for why I’m like this. There are actually several different factors that make a person more susceptible to being an addict. A sobriety program that I belong to taught me that we, addicts, are born this way. I like to believe this to be true, so I specifically looked for some scientific data to back that up. Here’s what I found:

-Genetics

Epigenetics play a big part in what makes someone an addict.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, “children of addicts are 45% to 79% more likely” (NIAAA) to struggle with addiction compared to those with non-addicted parents. Research by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) explains that although this correlation may be due to environmental factors, such as exposure to adults abusing drugs and/or alcohol, epigenetics play a big role as well. Epigentics basically means DNA being changed because of environmental needs, or by the choices people make in life. For the sake of my argument, I’m focusing only on the latter reason for DNA to change. Researchers explain how epigenetics contribute to the making of an addict with this example: “…when a person, [for example,] uses cocaine, it can mark the DNA, increasing the production of proteins common in addiction” (NIDA). This marked DNA is then passed on to that person’s offspring, and voila, a new addict is born.

So, one reason I’m addicted to everything is because my father is also addicted to everything.

Cool…but what is it about addicts that makes us the way we are in the first place?

-Wiring-

CT Scans show less dopamine receptors in the brains of addicts versus those who are not addicted.

The brain is an incredible organ. Apparently, as an addict, it’s scientifically proven that my brain is wired differently than others’. I was born with a gene that makes me prone to addiction, but that doesn’t mean I was doomed to be an alcoholic. What activated it was when I put alcohol into my body for the first time.

When a person who is prone to addiction puts a drug into their body, the part of the brain that I’ll call the “pleasure center” goes haywire. The pleasure center of our brains is where dopamine is released, or in other words, one of the “happy hormones.” When we do positive things, our brain releases dopamine. This reaction exists to reward us for doing good things, like passing a final exam or helping your neighbors fix their sink. However, drugs make an addict’s “pleasure center” confused, because it releases way more dopamine than it normally would, giving us the biggest high ever…until it doesn’t. This is why addicts need more and more and more of everything, because nothing ever releases that BIG dopamine jolt like drugs do. Eventually, drugs become the main source of your “happy hormone” as your tolerance builds. The National Institute of Health explains, “these brain adaptations often lead to…becoming less and less able to derive pleasure from other things they once enjoyed, like food, sex, or social activities” (NIH). This explains why even if addicts are sober, they find themselves doing other things in excess.

Okay, this all makes sense! But why did I have to be one of the addicts that chose to start using in the first place?

-Mental Health-

People with mental health disorders are more likely to use drugs or alcohol to self-medicate.

Remember, the studies I referenced above did not say that children of addicts were 100% more likely to abuse drugs or alcohol; it stated that we are up to 79% more likely to do so. I just happened to be one of the “lucky” ones.

In my program, I’ve heard people describe someone they knew as “an alcoholic who never took the first drink.” We know that addicts are genetically predisposed to addiction. We also know that when an addict tries a drug, it kickstarts that addictive motor in their brains. But why feel the need to try drugs in the first place? This is where mental health plays its part.

Sometimes, people who battle mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder, “attempt to self-medicate with drugs and/or alcohol in an effort to numb the symptoms associated with their condition” (Lifeworks Rehab Surrey). So basically, if you’re born with that addiction switch in your brain, but you don’t suffer from mental health disorders, you won’t feel the need to ever flip that switch in the first place. However, you might still find yourself with an “addictive personality” because everything you do that releases your “happy hormone” pushes that switch just a little bit more toward the on-position each time you do it.

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I am capable of becoming addicted, obsessed, with anything and everything. My first year of sobriety was spent being absolutely addicted to Kraft Deluxe mac n cheese. I ate it almost everyday. This is not an exaggeration. My food jags extended to a few other things too. I went about 6 months or more eating Cinnamon Toast Crunch and Crunch Berries everyday. Then it was cookies and cream Pop-tarts. Then it was Oreos. Now it’s sparkling water and Diet Coke.

My phases of addiction do not only extend to food and drink, however. I’m also easily addicted to activities. Remember my crossword puzzle binge? Once I find joy in an activity, I constantly think about it and cannot stop doing it. “It’s normal to want to do things you enjoy all the time!” Yes, but there comes a point where it’s no longer a hobby and has become an obsession. There is a problem with anything you get addicted to, even if they are seen as harmless leisure activities. Leisure activities aren’t just for relaxation to an addict; they are an escape from what we see as our harsh reality. They are what send us into that desired dopamine high.

I’m still trying to figure out how to find balance in my life as an addict. It helps, though, knowing why I am the way that I am. I hope that any readers who struggle with addiction or who know other addicts can find some clarity in the fact that science proves we are not crazy. We are not careless. We are not ungrateful. We are not lazy.

We are addicts.

Works Cited:

  1. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) | National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). (2021). Retrieved 12 February 2021, from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/
  2. NIDA. 2019, August 5. Genetics and Epigenetics of Addiction DrugFacts. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/genetics-epigenetics-addiction on 2021, February 12
  3. NIH. 2018, June 6. Understanding Drug Use and Addiction DrugFacts. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/understanding-drug-use-addiction on 2021, February 12
  4. Why Are Some People More Prone to Addiction? | Lifeworks Rehab Surrey. (2021). Retrieved 12 February 2021, from https://www.lifeworkscommunity.com/blog/why-are-some-people-more-prone-to-addiction

My Sobriety Story

I wasn’t sure if writing this article would be too taboo. I’m still unsure if it’s a great idea to share such a personal story to the world. However if I had been able to find and article like this one 3 years ago, I could have recognized my need for a change sooner. I could have done less damage to my body. I could have saved myself from countless nights of panic attacks and depression. I could have stopped myself from ruining friendships and lowering my own standards. I could have, but I also might not have even opened that article.

You see, addiction is not easy to admit to. It’s even harder to recognize how helpless you are when you’re using. If you aren’t ready to accept it and start making changes, you won’t. I hope that my story can reach those who were struggling like me: in between acceptance of having a problem and readiness to make a change.

My story begins in high school. I was new to the public school, a transfer from the Catholic middle school in my town. I have zero bad blood with my Catholic school classmates, but I never felt like I fit in with them. I got “yellow slips” and lunch detention for wearing zip-up band hoodies or too many bracelets to school. I’d skip class to go to pop/punk concerts and I wore way too much eyeliner. I was the only “emo” kid in my grade! Although I had some friends, I hated feeling left out. But hey, middle school sucks no matter what, right?

Anyway, at the public high school I only had one friend to begin with (Hannah-still my best friend today) who then introduced me to her group of friends. I fit in with them even though they didn’t go to concerts or shop at Hot Topic. It felt so incredible to find friends who liked me for ME, behind all the eyeliner and under my long, straight bangs. These were the people who gave me confidence. They were also the people who introduced me to whiskey.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not at all placing blame on my friends for my drinking problem! I didn’t have to drink with them. I never felt pressured to do it. I wanted to drink. This new world of social opportunity was at my feet. If I drank, I no longer felt uncomfortable to meet new people, to make more friends. If I drank, I was invited to parties and could create many hilarious stories with people that I never would have spoken to without alcohol involved. Liquor was my savior. It was my solution to feeling outcasted. Until it wasn’t.

In high school, I drank every weekend, but so did everyone else! I blacked out and vomited the entire contents of my stomach more times than I could count. I got into several fights with my friends, all of which were instigated by me (sorry, guys). This was destructive behavior, but I was young and carefree! I didn’t think I had a problem.

In college, I joined a sorority to make friends (hello again, social anxiety), which brought me to fraternity parties and “keggers” almost every Thursday through Sunday. On week nights, it was Margarita Mondays or Twisted Tuesdays or Wasted Wednesdays. Any celebration, loss or heartbreak was a reason to drink. I didn’t think I had a problem.

My Junior year, I studied abroad in the South of France. This was when my drinking started to escalate. I was only 20 for half of the year, but I was legal in France! I remember my first night there. I arrived in Aix-en-Provence around 10 A.M., had a panic attack immediately in my teeny tiny dorm and fell asleep. I woke up to a knock on my door. A friend that I met while getting my visa in Chicago was standing outside of my dorm! He coincidentally was placed in the dorm right above mine, and asked our program coordinator if I had arrived yet. I couldn’t believe he found me! Then he said those magic words, “wanna go get a drink?” I was elated! Again, alcohol had been my savior. He and I found what later became our favorite happy hour spot, La Grenouille. In our classes, we made more amazing friends and our nights were always spent out on the town, drinking. At one point, we started getting large bottles of cheap whiskey, sharing them, then smashing the empty bottles on a fountain. Later on, I got a large bottle of whiskey for myself to finish and smash (although I was never strong enough to really smash it and had to have one of my guy friends do it for me). Blacking out became the norm for me. I always wondered why my friends didn’t black out every time we went out, but I assumed it’s “because I’m smaller” or “I don’t eat enough” or “maybe their tolerance is better than mine.” I’ve come to realize now that I was out-drinking most of them every night. I started to think that I had a problem, because I had gotten myself in many awful situations while blacked out (i.e. getting very close to being arrested in Prague for peeing in the middle of a street and then arguing with the cops) and I started feeling worse and worse after every binge. However, I still made excuses for my drinking habits. I didn’t think I had too bad of a problem yet.

In 2016, I graduated with my BA and had no idea what to do next. I interviewed for one job, didn’t get it, then decided that graduate school was my step. I got accepted into Trinity College Dublin, and off I went to live in Ireland for a year. Some of you may not know this about Dublin, but it’s pretty well centered around “pub life.” God, did I love pub life. For the first 6 months, my life was centered around getting my school work done and when I could drink next. Every trip I went on had drinking tied into the itinerary: sangrias in Spain, winery tours in Italy and France, brewery visits literally anywhere. I made sure I did a pub crawl in every country I traveled to, and of course, I blacked out in all of them.

The latter half of my time in Dublin, I was incredibly depressed. I didn’t feel homesick, per se, but something in Dublin didn’t feel right. I made incredible friends there, who I still talk to today, and enjoyed my graduate classes and loved writing my dissertation. Dublin had everything I could need to make me happy, yet I was so broken and sad. I decided to try to drink less. The hangovers were terrible and the “hangxiety” was insurmountable. So I tried to quit drinking. However, when I didn’t go out drinking, I felt lonely and as if I couldn’t hang out with anyone. So I started binge drinking again. My blackouts were so terrible during that last half of my year that I did and said things to my closest friends that I never would have done if I were sober. My drunk alter-ego had it out for me and seemed to want to ruin my life. I realized that year that I could not just have a drink or two with my friends. If I had one drink, it was game over. My solution had become my enemy. I knew I had a problem, but I didn’t know how to fix it.

After I finished my dissertation, I knew I had to leave Dublin. I was too depressed and wanted a fresh start. I moved to New York City because, why the hell not? Unfortunately for me, I didn’t think that my problems would follow me wherever I went.

My first year in NYC, I made a friend who drank like me. She’s still one of my best friends today. I loved that she also went out on the weekends with a mission: to get fucked up. The first night I went out with her, I blacked out, fell in the middle of a busy street, and woke up in her bed in China Town. She didn’t judge me! We ordered food and I got a cab home that evening. The difference between her and I though, is that she doesn’t really black out. She can tell when it’s time to slow down, drink water, eat something, or stop drinking for the night. I, on the other hand, simply cannot. That year, I consistently depended on her to take care of me, whether I realized it or not. She got me cabs home, ordered me food, took drinks away from me…I’m sure she even had to lug my dead weight around a few times. She saved my ass too many times, and even though our friendship began with drinking, I’m incredibly grateful that it didn’t end there.

In that same year, I got a job teaching English to speakers of other languages. I was so excited to teach and came prepared with lesson plans on hand for the first two weeks. Then I realized, my students didn’t really care to learn about grammar. They already knew how to speak enough English they needed and were only taking the course as a requirement from the state. So I stopped caring. I started showing a lot of movies and reading articles from the NY Times. Eventually, I started letting my students out of class earlier and earlier so I could meet friends at a whiskey bar around the corner and get drunk. It got to the point where I would let let them leave after 2 hours, get a six pack of tall boys from the bodega downstairs, and drink and them in my classroom. I felt defeated. My job was useless. I wasn’t using my degrees or any of my skills. My brain hadn’t been stimulated for at least 6 months. I figured, why not just get drunk every night? I knew I had a problem, but I admitted defeat and didn’t want to change. I assumed that drinking defined me, and I couldn’t fathom my life without alcohol.

For some reason, in the midst of my depression, I thought that getting a new job, an important job, would fix it all. I got hired as a second grade teacher. I never wanted to teach elementary school, but I knew it was important, so I took the job and threw myself into it. My pay raise allowed me to move to a one bedroom apartment in the East Village. The first night I stayed in my new place, a Wednesday, I had a friend come over to drink wine to celebrate. I had to teach a bunch of 7-year-olds in the morning, but I assumed I’d stop after 2 or 3 glasses. Like always, I didn’t stop. I drank 2 bottles of wine and blacked out in my bed. My alarm went off at 5 A.M and I rolled into the school with the worst hangover ever (actually, let’s be real, all hangovers are the worst) and still smelling like alcohol. After that day, I knew I couldn’t drink anymore on weeknights and needed to try to control or limit my drinking.

Remember that friend of mine that drinks like me? Well, she told me one night after that incident, at a bar, that I needed to try to cut myself off. We gave me a limit of 4 drinks. After the third drink, I always said “fuck it” and would sneak a shot or two away from her so she didn’t know I was over my “limit.” Since the 4 drink thing didn’t work, I tried many other ideas: only drink beer or wine, only drink dark liquors, only drink light liquors, drink a glass of water after every alcoholic drink, eat A LOT before going out, cut off drinking at midnight. None of these ideas worked. I was back into my depression and I had panic attacks every morning like clockwork. I was paranoid that everyone hated me. Then, I started hallucinating when I drank. One morning after a night out where I planned to stay sober, I woke up in my own bed with no recollection of how or when I got there and I realized I had had enough.

This was December of 2018. I joined a program for addicts and alcoholics. I had my first sober christmas since I was 14. It was horrible, but I felt proud. I relapsed on NYE back in New York City, but that champagne toast was my last drink.

My sober date is January 2nd, 2019. I have over a year and a half of sobriety under my belt. I hated being sober for the first 9 months or so, struggling to socialize and deal with emotions that I never let surface before. I have a therapist now that I love and I’ve been working on how to be myself, my best self, without alcohol. I still crave a drink sometimes, but I know that drinking again will be my downfall. I feel so lucky to have gotten the chance at a sober life at such a young age, and I never want to go back to my old ways.

Alcoholism doesn’t always look the way you picture it: homeless, jobless, dirty and panhandling with a bottle in a paper bag in hand. Alcoholism can look like a harmless 20-year-old going to brunch or having a night out with friends. If you suspect that you might have a problem with alcohol, you probably do. The sooner you realize it and make a change, the better. However, it’s never too late to start over and drop the bottle for good.

Here’s to being sober at 26.

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Universe,

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

the courage to change the things that I can

and the wisdom to know the difference.