The Origins of Addiction

I’ve been clean of drugs for six months now. This halfway-to-an-anniversary achievement has me reflecting on why I became an addict and what premeditated my condition. The fact is that I didn’t become an addict, I was born with a brain that suffers from a deficiency of dopamine. From my perspective my brain doesn’t “suffer” from ADHD, as the disorder isn’t something you’re aware of until it’s made obvious. To me, my brain simply has to deal with my destructive and greedy personality, but then again, my brain is my personality, so I should probably just check it off my organ donor card.

Scientists have observed that a lack of dopamine is a contributing factor to ADHD, a condition I was diagnosed with as an adult. In other words, it was far too late a diagnosis for it to predate my unfortunately constant practice of self-medication. Scientists like Professor David Nutt, who heads the Center for Neuropsychopharmacology (quite the impressive term) at Imperial College in London, have through groundbreaking research further uncovered the connection between a deficiency of dopamine and addiction. According to David Nutt, one of three contributing factors to addiction is impulsiveness (the other two being stress and pleasure). And impulsive rats, which were used in Professor Nutt’s tests, have a deficiency of dopamine in their brains.

Testing was performed by allowing the rats a button which they could press, and after five seconds they would get a reward. The “normal” rats would hit the button and then wait for the reward to appear. The impulsive rats, on the other hand, would not adhere to the short wait, and would persist in harassing the button in a manic fashion. David Nutt and his team soon realized that the dopamine-deficient rats really like cocaine and would ingest a lot more of it than their “normal”-brained counterparts. This makes these “tweaker” rats an effective representation of the 10% of people who are likely to suffer from addiction in their lives.

This lack of dopamine is what generated the abusive aspects of my personality and I can feel it to be true. As I stated previously, a lack of dopamine isn’t apparent until it’s made obvious, but now that I know my makeup, I can feel my amphetamine-based medication fill what was once an inherent need. This is how my brain was the perfect canvas to paint an escalating drug addiction on.

I was a very introversive child. An imaginative auteur, with an extraordinary ability to entertain myself. I would shape a scenario that was appealing to my taste, often something grounded in popular culture, but with a lot of twists of my own.

I remember enacting the siege of Helms Deep (from The Lord of the Rings) in my room. My imagination was rich enough for me to assume the roles of both sides of the conflict, voicing the sounds of battle in hushed tones so not to alert anyone to my childish role-playing. In another memory I’m at my grandparents house, strolling the entry-floor hallways (an area of their house where I could find privacy), back and forth, from window to window. The windows we’re my eyes into a world of fast approaching dangers. With my grandmother’s old toy-rifle at the ready, I would defend what was ours to the last drop.

I can still remember how different the thrills of my imaginative state were compared to any other play-like activity. I could get an almost otherworldly sense of satisfaction from it. It wasn’t just enjoyable in the way that I now see my little sister enjoy similar acts. It was meditative, but in a greedy, “escaping reality”, kind of way.

I’ve never been satisfied with the ordinary. Nowadays people would diminish this as a result of some grandiose view I have of myself, which is only true to the naked eye. But the fact is that this lack of contention with boredom has always been me, and it’s been as such long before I could hold any kind of broad opinion of myself or my abilities, especially in comparison to others.

My first tool for escaping the boring, day-to-day nature of the ordinary, was through video games. This is where my addictive personality disorder, my quest for dopamine, manifested itself for a long time. Video games are not only fundamentally out of the ordinary, but instant in their return. While you might have to put hours of life into generating an equally rewarding sensation in the real world, video games reduces the same process to a brief session. Video games also present a buffet of realities that are all more exciting than our own.

For someone of my disposition, I entered the video game landscape at the most inopportune of times. The massive multiplayer phenomena had been realized to perfection with Blizzard Entertainment’s opiate-esque fantasy game World of Warcraft. In the same way that soda will be sweetened to the optimal level for maximal selling power, World of Warcraft was tuned to produce an all-encompassing experience. The scale of the game was easier to compare with our actual society than any video game that had come before it. From the reward-injecting grind of trying to increase your avatar’s influence on the game world, to the social dynamics of live interaction with other players, it was the complete substitute for the ordinary. The anonymity of being veiled behind an avatar was very enticing for oddballs like myself. The social playing-field had been leveled in terms of physical appearance and face-to-face flair.

My most obsessive gaming period was between the ages of 10 and 15. To maximize my game time, I would sign up accounts on both my native European servers and on the North American side. When my European counterparts would feel that their time by their computer had extended what was reasonable, I could switch over to the American servers and join another set of friends who were just getting started for the day. During this time I would play the game for 10 to 20 hours a day, sometimes depriving myself of sleep in favor of my addiction.

You might ask yourself how a boy in his last prepubescent years was able to get such an extreme amount of gaming done with school and all. Well. This is what I know as my first foray into the gray area that is the outside of society. When I was eleven years old, I caught a cold and had to stay home from school. This was something I saw as a blessing in disguise. My life was wholeheartedly centered on video games and my ability to spend time playing them. An empty apartment free of parents, was an apartment free of obstacles. It wasn’t only the fact that my father could tell me that I’ve spent too much time at the computer for the day, there was a grander scheme at play. As I was well aware of how problematic my relationship with gaming was, especially in the eyes of my parents, I choose the spend every single minute of alone time playing games. This would then allow me to spend time off the computer in the presence of my parents, to prove to them that I could control my use.

As my sick-days were coming to an end and my cold was fading, I remember feeling very anxious over losing my absolute limitlessness. I had already begun strategizing like an addict by trying to paint an alternative picture to my parents than what was true. That kind of strategizing is what builds the mentality of an addict, self-indoctrination. Because of this, figuring out how to extend my stay at home was far form reaching. My cleverly addicted brain figured out that I could cheat the system. I could call the school reception myself to report my ever continuous illness. This episode is the earliest recollection I have of withdrawal. The feeling when you know you shouldn’t, but you just can’t let it go. Surrendering to withdrawal is an act of procrastination (a symptom of ADHD), as you excuse yourself in the moment and make your current problem, tomorrow’s problem. Procrastination had always been present in my life, thus I became the perfect victim of my own bad habits. This act of surrender was far from the start of my video game addiction, but it is the earliest direct connection I can make between obsessive gaming and my future drug addiction.

Addiction is still a struggle that tests my mettle every single day. My drug use began when I was in a very dark place. It allowed me to breath again, to feel not just wonderfully euphoric, bathed in tingles and captivated by normalcy, but also act as a guiding light out of depression. Just like with video games, I instantly asked myself why I hadn’t tried this previously. How could I have been so ignorant to allow myself to be fooled by scare-tactics and propaganda? This perfect cure. A cure that would act as a way out of the total hopelessness that is suicidal depression. A cure which had swung me into a reality that had not just unchained, but outmatched my potential for feeling awesome.

But as I know now, it was all a ruse. An emotional mirage. An oasis of well-being in an otherwise desolate existence.