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Interview With an Addicted Brain

Marc Lewis spent his youth experimenting with every drug he could find. Once clean, he became a neuroscientist specializing in addicted brains. His memoir—just out—has been hailed as an instant classic.

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Author Marc Lewis photo via

By Walter Armstrong

05/23/12

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Memoirs of an Addicted Brain may be the most original and illuminating addiction memoir since Thomas De Quincey's seminal Confessions of an Opium Eater. What makes it such a standout from the genre's overflow of self-indulgent mediocrities isn’t merely its supple intelligence and subtle style but the unique perspective of the author. From the age of 15 until his recovery at 30, Marc Lewis spent most of his waking life under the influence of every drug he could get his hands on, developing an extreme addiction that cost him everything but his life. Twenty years after becoming sober, he switched from psychology to neuroscience, focusing on the drug-based brain changes driving cravings and relapse.

Lewis’ twin expertise as a longtime addict and a brain scientist enabled him to produce a memoir mapping, in remarkably lucid and vivid detail, entirely new ground. Weaving together his objective accounts of drugs' effects on the brain with descriptions of his mind's subjective experience, he brings to light how the very shape of intoxication on one substance or another mirrors the shape of the specific chemical reactions taking place inside your skull.

These pioneering observations fit effortlessly into the overall narrative, which is as over-the-top suspenseful as David Carr’s classic The Night of the Gun. From alienated adolescent introduced to alcohol and marijuana in a Machiavellian prep school, Lewis makes the leap to college at Berkeley in 1968 at the peak of psychedelia; never one to moderate, he gobbles hallucinogens by the handful and then moves on to shooting heroin, barely escaping death by OD.

Drugs are so powerful and fascinating that the experience just floored me. So I recorded that from the age of 17.

His early 20s find him backpacking through Southern Asia, sniffing nitrous oxide in the jungle, buying heroin hot off the factory line and paying nightly visits to opium dens (read excerpt). Back home in Toronto, he marries badly and begins stealing opiates from the science labs and medical centers where he is doing graduate work in psychology. Easily outfoxing the experts he works with, he has years in which to perfect his criminality and deepen his addiction until he is busted and sentenced to recovery. But as his marriage unravels, he relapses, frequently injecting morphine or Demerol, then popping clinical methamphetamine while working at a psychiatric hospital.

At age 30, after his last bust and an excruciating breakup, he finally finds the endless road of recovery and begins to rebuild his life.

For all its braininess and pain, Memoirs of an Addicted Brain is also seriously funny.

With this electrifying debut amidst rave reviews, Lewis is finding himself much in demand, a new (and somewhat unsettling) situation for someone who is after not celebrity but truth. He recently started his own thought-provoking blog, memoirsofanaddictedbrain.com, which already has a large following, and he has also signed on as a regular blogger at Psychology Today.

He spoke to The Fix from The Netherlands, where he teaches at Radboud University. —Walter Armstrong

The Fix: You titled your book Memoirs of an Addicted Brain—not an “addicted mind”? 

Marc Lewis: I call it brain rather than mind because I wanted to focus on how drugs affect the mechanisms of the brain to establish an addiction. But I also wanted to describe what takes place in the mind, the shape of the subjective experience of being on a particular drug, since each one gives a different experience—and I spent time on all of them. 

But in the end, the mind and the brain are interdependent, and your own personal subjectivity and the objective transformations in your brain are deeply interconnected. The brain gets “caught up” in the experience of the specific drug in a way that mirrors what happens to your mind.

I also wanted to tell a good story to the best of my ability—a narrative about my experience, my escalating drug use, and the extremes that I went to.

You describe your drug experiences, starting with alcohol, moving on to marijuana, hallucinogens, opiates, meth, etc., in remarkably precise and colorful detail. Did you keep a journal during all those years that you were then able to use when writing the book?

I kept journals from the age of 17. I have stacks and stacks of them. I got very involved in trying to describe the experience of being on these drugs. I would try to do it while I was taking them, and when that became impossible because of the actual effects I was experiencing, I would write about the experience afterward. But the journals are filled with all different aspects of my experience of addiction, as that came to define my life in my 20s, during the entire decade of the ‘70s. 

I wrote even more about trying to psych myself up to stop using them or get my use under control.

In each chapter, with each drug, you move from a description of your subjective experience to an equally vivid account of what is taking place in your brain. You write, “The psychological realities are precisely paralleled by the neural realities.” Have you faced any pushback from researchers who say that the parallel is not so neat?

My theories are generally in the mainstream of addiction science. I did a lot of research before I wrote the memoir. I spoke to many experts. I wanted to be able to represent the best thinking about how each drug works in the brain. The only parts where I went off on my own were in some of the modeling, for example, when I hypothesize about the internal voices we have in our minds and how this internal dialog may be caused on a neurobiological level.

The brain gets “caught up” in the experience of the drug in a way that mirrors what happens to your mind.

I also wanted to reach the common reader who may be dealing with addiction either firsthand or not, and communicate the science in as compelling a way as possible.

Many addict memoirs look back in condemnation and often some voyeuristic bravado. You write about the drug experience and your former selves in a sympathetic, largely nonjudgmental way, acknowledging that you did some truly crazy, criminal things in order to feed your habit.

I have always had a reflective, analytical nature. I am as driven to explain experience as I am to have the experience. So I took that into my addiction and also into my writing. 

But drugs are so powerful and fascinating, so outside the bounds of normal, everyday life, that the experience just floored me. And I wanted to record that. It’s very hard to capture in the moment what a drug experience is like. So many of the effects are novel but fleeting. I wanted to hold onto the images that were vanishing before my eyes as long as I could.

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