From Druggie to Scientist

Marc Lewis, Ph.D

From Druggie to Scientist

I’ve been asked to write an autobiographical sketch, and I suppose my life has been unusual enough to make it something you might want to read, especially if addiction has ripped a hole in your own life. I went from screwed-up teenager to addicted young man – and I recovered. Or, rather, I kept developing, got straight, got a Ph.D. and got a job as a professor. And lately I’ve gone back to addiction, but this time as a science writer.

Here’s the story.

I was a typical middle-class kid, living in Toronto, scraping my way through adolescent awkwardness and surviving. And then, at the age of fifteen, my parents sent me to boarding school in Massachusetts. I now find myself shuffling from the dining hall to early morning assembly with four hundred other boys through cold, rainy mist, seven hundred miles from home. And I’m miserable. My room-mate is a pathetic slave to the bully in the room next-door. They both make my life hellish with taunts and practical jokes, but not as much as the guy across the hall who can’t resist noticing that I’m Jewish every time I walk by.

Within a year, depression had become a way of life. I had to endure one more year at that place and then the family plan was to move to California. That was a sweet thought. But enduring wasn’t easy. Isolation and anxiety were daily companions. So when a couple of guys espoused the glories of cough medicine, I was ready. And when the first joints got passed around, I wanted all I could get. This phenomenon of changing reality – changing how it felt to be me – was a miracle.

My family did indeed move to California. It was the summer of 1968 and I was seventeen when I arrived at U Cal Berkeley. It seemed like the Pearly Gates had opened. There were drugs everywhere. My friends would take LSD now and then. I took it three times a week. Pot or hash daily. Mescaline, uppers, downers…I tried them all. And I liked them all–because the depression had not gone away. It just went underground. I still felt inexplicably lonely, empty and anxious whenever I wasn’t with other people, and often even when I was- except when I was stoned. Having that switch to flip, I felt I could control my moods for a few hours– or until whatever it was wore off.

My first shot of heroin was no big deal, but by the time I’d taken it half a dozen times, I was infatuated. Within a few months, I only really cared for opiates. Other drugs were a diversion. By my last year at Berkeley, I would study many hours each day, then snort coke for a couple hours and study that much harder, then snort heroin and land in that familiar world of soft edges and dreams. I left Berkeley to get married to a Toronto girl. You’d think that would have straightened me out but my marriage got more and more difficult. Issues of immaturity and interlocking needs made both our lives miserable. By now I was a psychology student: late nights in the rat labs for my thesis research, but lonely and anxious, anticipating more arguments, more confusion, once I got home. Then I found morphine in the lab fridge. Someone had used it in their rat research and left the leftovers. It didn’t take long for me to start injecting again.

Next I found jars of morphine in a closet down the hall. It was a huge amount which I continued to pilfer several days a week for over a year. And when I couldn’t get my hands on that I was ready to try anything. I started breaking into medical offices. I know that sounds like a massive dive from being a struggling kid to a hard- nosed criminal, but somehow it wasn’t sudden at all. I attempted my first break-in after a terrible fight with my wife. I was stunned by helplessness and hopelessness. I was barely aware of what I was doing, and I climbed through an unlocked window.

It got easier and easier after that. I figured out how to cut a strip of plastic into the perfect tool for opening doors. I would plant myself in the lobby of a medical building– I still looked respectable enough to get away with it and then, when the medical staff went home, I would “visit” one office after another. I had learned by now to put aside my guilt, just like I put aside my depression and anxiety– with drugs, always with drugs. By the age of 27, I had been arrested several times but never convicted, my wife and I were in the throes of separation, and staying off drugs took too much effort. Despite my best intentions, I would fail again and again. Even after weeks of abstinence, when the day darkened and the depression came on, I would tell myself: go ahead; it’s not the first time. I was now in graduate school in clinical psychology. I had worked hard to get there, and I was proud of my accomplishments- but I couldn’t stop. Despite many bouts of withdrawal symptoms, I was not “physically addicted” in any continuous way.Rather, I was psychologically addicted. And that’s far worse.

Then came my first serious arrest. I was working as a summer intern in a mental hospital in a small city in Canada. I would grit my teeth day after day, fighting off the urges, the loneliness, and then finally give up. After several break-ins, I was caught with an arm-load of drugs, climbing out the window of a large medical complex. The cops were almost gentle as they relieved me of my burden and then cuffed me. We all knew it was game over, and a part of me was deeply relieved. My lawyer told me that I must get “character references” from everyone who knew me if I wanted to stay out of jail, and all I could think of were my professors. So I got a year’s probation rather than jail time, but now everyone knew.

I was promptly kicked out of school. My dreams of becoming a psychologist were shattered.

Back in Toronto, washing windows, painting houses, working finally at group homes for troubled kids, I still couldn’t seem to stay abstinent. I’d remain sober for weeks, even months, and then dive back in. The whole thing became deeply intolerable. My girlfriend left me, my friends became distant, and I hated my life, hated what I was doing to myself and began to hate the drug itself. I forced myself to meditate every day. I knew that meditation was powerful stuff. Then there was one final binge which left me weeping with self-disgust. And the next morning, something was different.

I wrote the word “No” on a piece of cardboard and stuck it to the wall of my apartment. I told myself over and over that I could say that word whenever I had to. I could keep saying it to myself for an hour, which meant I could keep saying it for a day, a week, even a year. And maybe because I was old enough, maybe because I was ready, maybe because the attraction to the drug was so tainted with revulsion, this time it stuck. After roughly two hundred failed attempts, this one worked. I was thirty years old and I was done with drugs.

About a year later I applied to half a dozen graduate schools in psychology. I was so sure I’d be rejected by all of them that I made back-up plans for my back-up plans. I even applied to undergrad programs in other fields. Whatever it took, I was going to do it. And then, to my amazement, I got asked for an interview at the University of Toronto and I met the man who would soon be my supervisor. He listened to me recount my life as an addict – there was no way to hide my record – and he appreciated that the person was much more than the addiction. He saw that there was more to me, and I showed him that he was right.

I got a Master’s and then a Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology at the University of Toronto. By the time I graduated in 1989, I had published enough of my own research to be competitive for a university job. I did not attempt to hide my criminal record, and I got a couple of rejections, but I was offered a professorship at my own department. They knew me and they liked me. And I was good at what I did. Then I got a license to practice Clinical Psychology, and I started seeing clients when I could. Students, clients, grants, publications, a large endowment to build a lab, a shift in my research from psychology to neuroscience… Life was very busy, and very satisfying. Only now, at the age of 64, I’m starting to slow down a bit. I’m able to reflect, to look back, but also to look forward. My present family and I live in the Netherlands, where my wife is the professor and I’ve become what I’ve always wanted to be: a writer. I’m a science writer, and I write about addiction.

Around 2006, I began to review and synthesize the literature on the neurobiology of addiction. As a neuroscientist myself, I was able to analyze it. As a writer, I was able to put it into accessible language and interpret it for ordinary people. And as a former addict, I was able to blend the science of addiction with the experience of addiction. I began to see that this blend was exactly what was needed to make real progress in the field. We could start to understand how addiction works in the mind, in the body, and in the lives of those it affects, all at the same time. It’s my goal to continue to work at this juncture for the rest of my career.

My first book, released in 2012, is called Memoirs of an Addicted Brain, and it combines my life story with a low-tech account of how drugs affect the brain and how alterations in brain function help explain addiction. My new book, to be released in July, is The Biology of Desire: Why Addiction is Not a Disease. Here I argue that the scientific facts don’t support the disease model of addiction. But rather than say more, I’ll leave you with this description from the back cover:

Through the vivid, true stories of five people who journeyed into and out of addiction, a renowned neuroscientist explains why the “disease model” of addiction is wrong and illuminates the path to recovery.

The psychiatric establishment and rehab industry in the Western world have branded addiction a brain disease, based on evidence that brains change with drug use. But…Marc Lewis makes a convincing case that addiction is not a disease, and shows why the disease model has become an obstacle to healing.

Lewis reveals addiction as an unintended consequence of the brain doing what it’s supposed to do—seek pleasure and relief—in a world that’s not cooperating. Brains are designed to restructure themselves with normal learning and development, but this process is accelerated in addiction when highly attractive rewards are pursued repeatedly. Lewis shows why treatment based on the disease model so often fails, and how treatment can be retooled to achieve lasting recovery, given the realities of brain plasticity. Combining intimate human stories with clearly rendered scientific explanation, The Biology of Desire is enlightening and optimistic reading for anyone who has wrestled with addiction either personally or professionally.

This book brings it all together and shows how a change in our thinking can initiate crucial changes in the policies and treatment options that govern the lives of addicts.