Addiction: Pay Attention

Heroin and chocolate cake have a nasty way of crowding out the rest of the universe. The country’s chief addiction expert argues that the propensity to drink, overeat and take drugs is a matter of attention gone awry.

Meeting her now, it is hard to believe that the Mexican-Russian great-granddaughter of the revolutionary Leon Trotsky ever felt the need to impress her friends. But the universal teenage urge to look more glamorous drove a young Nora Volkow, then in high school, to smoke her first cigarette. It could have been the first step toward a nasty habit, but something in her neurochemistry rebelled. She hated it.

Volkow, now one of the country’s most prominent drug addiction researchers and the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), doesn’t think that her disgust for cigarettes had anything to do with morals or self-control. She says she’s just naturally intense; the additional stimulation provided by the nicotine was simply too much for her. “I like coffee, but I cannot even drink it because I get so wired,” she says. “I was probably born like that. I’m very protected against drugs. It’s my neurobiology, and I’m lucky.”

Listening to her explain her theories about addiction and the brain, her self-diagnosis sounds right on target. Even though she’s petite, with a jogger’s lean physique, she dominates the room. She speaks very fast, with a Spanish accent that rounds her vowels, and ideas tumble out one after the other so quickly that it’s almost impossible to keep up.

She’s a fast-moving example of one of her most interesting theories: that addiction may be a malfunction of the normal human craving for stimulation. Volkow thinks that drugs and other addictive habits tap into some of the deepest forces within us—our lust for newness, our yearning for vitality and the deep-down thrill of being alive. “We all seek that intensity,” she says. “There’s something very powerful about that.”

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Unwanted consequences

Not too long ago I was working at a Blockbuster Video in West St. Paul.  This job was like every shit job from every high school graduation teen comedy ever made.  A business with no future, people who were trying entirely too hard to find a long term place in it and a steady group of regular customers.

A dying business like video rental attracts a peculiar type of person as a regular.  First and foremost they are nostalgic, not necessarily actively nostalgic more like it was a personality trait.  This kind of person is willing to put up with quite a bit of inconvenience just to keep their hold to the past around.  Next, they are unique and I mean unique.  We had the middle aged divorcee who chain smoked cheap cigarettes and would talk for an hour, waiting though the service of other customers to finish her complaints, about her children not appreciating her or her job or even the fast food joint across the street.  We had the 90 year old guy who would boast about his server in the Netherlands that he is hosting 1000s of movies on for himself to watch when he wants, and soliciting people in the parking lot to buy his pirated movies.  

One evening I struck up a surprisingly polite conversation with one of our regular angry dudes.  This was after about a month since his last outburst, yelling at one of our cashiers because he didn’t get a coupon for renting a movie on a weekday.  The conversation was innocent, he shared a name of a friend of mine who was a drummer in a band about to come though town for the first time since I moved.  As time went on, I developed a kind of friendship with this guy.  He would come in two or three times a week to rent movies and we would chat for a casual amount of time but never a casual subject matter.

The second time we talked he told me this story about drunkenly running from the cops on his motorcycle, hopping the curb to the sidewalk to get away and ultimately getting arrested in his driveway for evading the police and driving while intoxicated.  When we talked about the movie trainspotting, he proclaimed ‘of course I loved that movie, it was about heroin and I love heroin.’  After dislocating his shoulder he was prescribed opiate based pain killers and explained how worried he was about it because of his former addiction.

This got me thinking about how I have always kind of romanticized addiction.  Joking with friends that I have an alcohol problem or secretly wishing that I did have an alcohol problem just so I could beat it and make it out with a really compelling story.Recovering addict is a personality trait that I find overwhelmingly attractive.I know that is weird and a little disrespectful to call it a personality trait but it is true none the less.  There is something about a person who has wrecked themselves a thoroughly as the caricature of an addict and by their own sheer will and determination rebuilt themselves.

That story will always be compelling.  


Put Your Hands Up- Alex Roots

Wicked good!