Interview With an Addicted Brain - Page 2

By Walter Armstrong 05/23/12

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.

Author Marc Lewis photo via

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Your memoir starts when you are 15 and shipped off to an all-male military-type school where you were miserable, to put it mildly. Do you think that if your parents had allowed you to leave school and come home, your life, and your addiction, would have been better?

Yes, I do. The school was a very dark place, with constant bullying and hazing. For a bookish, Jewish Canadian boy like me to be dropped into a kind of Lord of the Flies environment, with American Navy traditions and discipline, was such a radical change that I fell into a reactive depression that last for the entire two years. I had been a relatively happy teenager until then.

I very well may have gone on to have problems with drugs, but I doubt whether I would have developed an extreme addiction if I had not had that depression at such an impressionable age.

As a neuroscientist, I now recognize that a long, deep depression can have a very negative impact on the developing teenage brain. Also, that age is a pivot point in life, when a child is becoming an adult, forming his or her own identity and a strategy for dealing with the world. And what I was learning was that I did not know how to deal with the world. I was alienated and isolated.

When I OD'd, I felt more shame than fear. I couldn’t believe I had been so stupid as to almost kill myself for the sake of getting high.

After you graduated, you went to college at Berkeley just as the Bay Area was becoming the world capital of the countercultural revolution. Drugs were a routine part of everyday life. You moved quickly into hallucinogens and then into heroin. In fact, you OD’d on heroin when you were 20 and almost died. After that, some people would swear off drugs for good, but not you. Why?

I was so young that I actually felt more shame than fear. I couldn’t believe that I had been so stupid as to almost kill myself for the sake of getting high. But I did take one precaution after that—I stopped using needles. Shooting up was on my “forbidden” list. Of course, over time my forbidden list kept getting winnowed down, and a few years later, when I was traveling in Asia, I was shooting heroin and methamphetamine again. And in the last year or so of my addiction, I was shooting almost everything. 

Some people would say that you were trying to kill yourself.

I was certainly taking serious risks that I often did not have control over, but I don’t think I was trying to kill myself at all. At the end, I was in a state of disassociation, I was impulsive, and I wanted immediate gratification. I was not able to realistically weigh the benefits against the costs for my present or my future. This is the way children think at about age four or five. It is also the way people in end-stage addiction think.

Many researchers believe that some people are “born” addicts, due to a combination of genetics, early environment, etc. Yet you make little mention of genes or heredity in your book. Why?

One reason is that genetics is not my expertise. But I also have doubts about what it can really tell us about addiction that is useful. It seems clear to me that there is no such thing as a single addiction gene. Addiction is far too complex a behavior to be reduced to the expression of one gene, or even a group of genes, that science might someday be able to turn off. Addiction is not a physical disease like cancer in which a fairly clear line can often be drawn between genetic mutations and disease development.

It’s true, however, that certain kinds of addiction run in families. But there, I think, it has more to do with the underlying causes of—or orientations to—addiction, such as impulsivity. And we do absorb through early experience the fuckups of our parents, and if alcoholism, say, is a major source of dysfunction in your family, you’re going to be deeply influenced by it one way or another.

On the subject of early development, do you look at your dependence on drugs as an effort, however inadequate, to solve certain psychological problems?

Taking drugs, particularly opiates, was for me about taking in something warm and safe that I had control over and that no one could take away from me. In that respect, I was dealing with certain early issues involving my relationship to my parents. My father was a busy doctor who was often uncommunicative and absent, and my mother was impulsive, kind of wacky. I was drawn to opiates because they can make the world seem like a secure place. 

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, popping 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.

It seems clear to me that there is no such thing as a single addiction gene.

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.

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Walter Armstrong is the Medical Editor at  Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness and the former deputy editor of The Fix. You can find him on Linkedin.