Trying to describe what it’s like to quit drugs to someone never before addicted is a bit like trying to describe a breakup to someone who’s never been in love. Much like romantic love, addiction almost always has two chapters: falling in, and then, when it’s no longer tolerable, clawing your way out.
The most prominent model of addiction in North America frames it as a disease – a brain disease. But I never saw addiction as a disease. Not now, after studying it for eight years as a scientist, and not 40 years ago when I was living it. Back then, I could easily see how destructive addiction was. I knew how miserable it made me, but I never thought that I was ill. Like racism, domestic violence, jihadism and certainly romantic love, I’ve come to understand addiction as a complex psychosocial process (which of course involves the brain). It should not be shelved under a simplistic label – especially one that bequeaths a sense of powerlessness. To me, addiction is best seen as a habit of thinking and acting, entrenched (psychologically and neurally) through repetition, and driven by powerful feelings of attraction and loss.
I hated being an addict. If there’d been a pill to cure it, I would have taken it in a heartbeat. But taking pills was the problem, not the solution. I started with heroin at age 17 while going to school in Berkeley, California. I knew that heroin was a supremely bad idea, but I wanted to break some rules and soothe myself at the same time. I vaguely understood that my years at a militaristic boarding school had sown the seeds of a depression that fuelled my addiction. Now I know the research showing that child and adolescent trauma indeed foreshadow addiction.
At 20, my greatest joy was an afternoon by the ocean tripping on LSD. By age 24, heroin had become my drug of choice. By 26, I was living in Toronto, applying to grad school in psychology, and injecting or swallowing pharmaceutical opiates up to several times a day. I would steal morphine and its chemical cousins from the lab where I worked, from doctors’ offices and pharmacies, or I’d write my own prescriptions. By 28, I’d been arrested, convicted and kicked out of graduate school. I’d lost a girlfriend I deeply loved, and my other friendships were shedding like dry skin. By 29, I was injecting combinations of drugs that still make me shudder.
Then, at age 30, I quit.
It wasn’t the first time I’d tried. More like the 257th. I’d written a stack of journals full of self-analysis, self-admonishment and pep talks, and sworn to everyone I knew that this was it. I’d thrown away my stash regularly as a symbolic gesture, and tried to replace drugs with booze, sex and music. I’d had regular sessions with an addiction counsellor (as part of a probation order) and then found three psychotherapists on my own. I was convicted and put on probation a second time. I lost at least three jobs because I came to work high or acted irresponsibly. I even (finally) left a marriage that was just plain wrong – for both of us. But none of these things stopped me. Which is to say, they might have stopped me for a few days, a week, a month, even several months. But then I’d go back.
Until I didn’t. Until I got really, really sick of being an addict.
I didn’t know for sure that it was working the time it worked – not until a few weeks went by and the thought of going back to drugs was not only less and less appealing but also increasingly repellent. Over several months, thoughts about drugs became boring. In a year, I found it hard to remember exactly what the attraction had been. By that time I was back in graduate school and had lots to keep me busy.
What was my magic formula? I told myself that I not only couldn’t do drugs anymore but didn’t want to do drugs anymore. I reminded myself over and over that I hated drugs and the way they’d appropriated my life. I wrote the word “No” on a piece of paper, tacked it to the wall above my staircase and read it 20 or 30 times a day. I meditated a bit and did tai chi in the park at night.
But my magic formula isn’t the point. Of the thousands of former addicts I’ve talked with, via email, Skype, in person or on my blog , no two of them quit in exactly the same way. For some, psychotherapy was key. For others it was an overdose scare. For still others a commitment to a loved one; a practice, such as meditation or exercise; or jail time (probably the least helpful). The point is that, despite these variations, most addicts do quit – everything from alcohol to porn to gambling to heroin – and the majority of them quit without professional help or intervention. (Though some addicts do need professional help, and that help should always be made available and tailored to individual needs.)
Most addicts quit when they’re ready. When they’ve had enough. When they want, more than anything else, to keep growing. (It’s called “aging” or “maturing” out of addiction.) In fact, I see quitting as a developmental process. I see it as the second half of the developmental journey that got them into addiction in the first place.
I was stubborn. Quitting came hard for me and took a long time to stick. For some people it’s harder. For many, it’s easier. But if there’s any lesson to be learned from my own struggle, it’s that addiction is complicated, blending psychological, social and biological factors along a timeline that’s both highly individual and ultimately universal. Nobody likes being an addict. Given the opportunity, and the time to make it work, most of us do what we have to do to stop.
Marc Lewis (PhD 1989) is a U of T professor emeritus in developmental psychology. He is the author of Memoirs of an Addicted Brain (2011), which he wrote with the benefit of 30 years of hindsight, and The Biology of Desire: Why Addiction is Not a Disease (2015).
Do you have a story about overcoming an addiction that you’d like to share? Write us at firstname.lastname@example.org .