Redefining Fun

By Kristen McGuiness 03/12/15

Because we absolutely insist on enjoying our lives.


I remember when I was 16, we used to like to play a game called, "Dead Driver." In it, the driver of our car, usually my ex-boyfriend Rob, would pull over into the emergency lane and then while driving around 80mph, would slump over the wheel of his car while his best friend steered from the passenger seat. 

We girls in the back would scream out the windows to the people driving next to us, “He’s dead! He’s dead!” Hilarity ensued.

Now, as my husband's speedometer pushes 80 along an open stretch of highway, I feel my eight-month pregnant stomach tense up. 

“Be careful,” I warn, though I am not sure it’s about the concern of lurking CHP or the fact that we are hurtling through space at such unnatural speeds. Either way, I know this, I am a long way away from "Dead Driver." And everything that happened in between.

According to researcher Laurence Steinberg in A Social Neuroscience Perspective on Adolescent Risk-Taking, “It is widely agreed among experts in the study of adolescent health and development that the greatest threats to [the] well-being of young people in industrialized societies come from preventable and often self-inflicted causes, including automobile and other accidents, violence, drug and alcohol use, and sexual risk-taking.”

But what happens when that adolescence gets extended into adulthood? What happens when addiction keeps you behaving like a teenager far past the legal drinking age? When I was 25, I got into sailing while drunk, and simultaneously an abusive relationship. What this meant was my former partner and I would frequently physically fight while drunk on open waters. And in that drunken, sobbing adrenaline-fuelled stupor, I loved every minute of it. I had taken "Dead Driver" up a notch, and if anyone asked me what I thought I was doing, I would have sheepishly responded, “We were just having fun.”

No doubt my definition of fun was being clouded by a number of factors, but that definition didn’t change much over the next few years, as fun began to include increasingly riskier behaviors. By the time I was 27 years old, I had begun to notice that for my peers, fun included getting married and starting a family. For me, it meant staying up until 10am the next day and avoiding DUIs.

Rachel Winograd, a researcher and doctoral student at the University of Missouri conducted a study that examined emotional maturity and alcohol use and found that when participants were interviewed at 25 years of age, some showed signs of alcohol-use problems, but did not report any feelings of immaturity or lack of emotional development. However, when the same participants were interviewed later at the age of 29 and then again at the age of 35, there were individuals who showed signs of alcohol abuse and/or dependence as well as self-reported feelings of immaturity for their age.

According to researchers the reason most young adults begin to decrease risky behaviors is through the development of self-regularity capacities that occur over the course of adolescence and during their twenties. According to Steinberg, “Considerable evidence suggests that higher level cognition, including the uniquely human capacities for abstract reasoning and deliberative action, is supported by a recently evolved brain system including the later prefrontal and parietal association cortices and part of the anterior cingulate cortex to which they are highly interconnected. The maturation of this cognitive control system during adolescence is likely a primary contributor to the decline in risk-taking seen between adolescence and adulthood.”

But for alcoholics and addicts, this developmental process might find itself stunted by the chemicals themselves, not to mention the psych-social dynamics in which addiction resides. By the time I was 27, I had been using consistently for 10 years. In fact, the idea of not using was deeply tied up in the concept of “not-fun.” What would I do with myself? What would my life look like? Would I ever have fun again? Risk-taking and living on that adrenaline-addicted edge seemed like the only way to enjoy life. Needless to say, I had little knowledge of what I had been actually doing to my brain over the last 10 years, or what sort of developmental delays the alcohol and drugs had been creating on a physiological level.

According to researchers Kenneth Abernathy, L. Judson Chandler, and John Woodward in Alcohol and the Prefrontal Cortex, “Acute ethanol administration in humans has been shown to cause deficits in executive activities that are thought to require the Prefrontal Cortex. For example, performance in a spatial recognition task and a planning task was decreased in social drinkers while inebriated and acute [alcohol abuse] has been shown to cause poorer decision.”

For chronic users, these consequences are even steeper. As Abernathy et al, explain, “One study showed that a significant number of substance-dependent individuals, including alcohol-dependent subjects, showed deficits that were similar to patients with lesions of the ventromedial Prefontal Cortex (PFC) functioning. Even in alcoholics who do not demonstrate deficits in certain executive tasks, differential patterns of activity in PFC are observed that suggest changes in the way that the brain performs the tasks. These alterations in PFC activity may go unnoticed under low-level cognitive demands but may underlie deficits associated with higher-order cognitive function.”

Basically, I could get by doing daily tasks, which at that stage of my alcoholism still included holding down a job (barely) and attempting to pay bills, but far more sophisticated functioning, such as emotional growth, relationship-building, risk-aversion, I was far less equipped to manage. Hence, my interest in one-night stands, abusive relationships, and “getting away with” illegal behaviors.

I sit back in the passenger seat of my "new mom car" as I watch the speedometer settle back to a more reasonable 70mph mark. I can feel myself relax. My husband and I are going on a Sunday drive. We are expecting a baby in the next two weeks. We are having the time of our lives. We go up to Mount Wilson and get out to drink some water and have a snack overlooking the view. We are both pushing 40, and we have both been sober now for almost (me) or over (him) 10 years. And if asked what we are doing, we would both gladly reply, "We are out having fun."

And I know that choice is as much an emotional one as it is a physical one. We have been sober long enough that our brains have begun to heal. 

In a 2006 Los Angeles Times article, they reported that, “a team of European researchers used magnetic resonance imaging to assess the brains of 15 alcohol-dependent and 10 healthy subjects and tracked the volume of two key brain chemicals that are indicators of cell health and activity. The subjects were given a battery of tests of cognitive function at the beginning and end of the study. As the 10 male and five female alcoholics embarked on a journey of sobriety, the team of radiologists plotted a remarkable story of comeback.”

The tests showed that in less than two months, the brain volume of the alcoholic increased—their brain cells were better able to relay messages, proper functioning of the cells increased by 10%, and cognitive function was greatly improved. As the Times explained, “The study is among the first to show where regeneration occurs most robustly in the early days of an alcoholic's recovery—in the brain's ventricles and in the white matter that helps brain cells and brain regions coordinate and communicate more smoothly with one another.”

According to Steinberg, it is that white matter that makes all the difference in determining risk versus reward: the basic tenets of fun. As he writes, “An increase in white matter, reflective of myelination… should be associated with subsequent improvements in higher-order functions subserved by multiple prefrontal areas, such as response inhibition, planning ahead, and weighing risks and rewards.”

As my husband and I get back into the car so we can get home in time for him to go to work, and for me to head to Target (yet again) for more baby preparations, I realize that maybe it really does just come down to the white matter—not the kind that I used to snort until 10am, but the kind that my husband and I have been working to rebuild over 10 years of recovery, and the belief that the fun doesn’t actually begin until you get sober.

Kristen McGuiness has been a regular contributor to The Fix since 2011. She last wrote about the walk of shame and ten addiction movies you have never seen. She is the author of 51/50: The Magical Adventures of a Single Life

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Kristen McGuiness is the author of the bestselling memoir, 51/50: The Magical Adventures of a Single Life. In addition, she has co-written numerous books in the genres of self-help, business, psychology, and dating, and has written for Marie ClaireAOLHuffington Post, and Salon. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, daughter, and dog Peter, and recently finished her second book, The Beautiful Lives of Sad Children. Kristen can be found on Linkedin. You can also follow her on Twitter.