It turns out that I don’t just have Affection Deficit Disorder. I actually have the thing I was punning on in the first place: Attention Deficit Disorder. Or, as the professionals usually label it, adult Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder… which makes a lousy pun, so screw ‘em.
Here’s a thumbnail description of adult ADHD from the book Driven to Distraction by psychiatrists Edward Hallowell and John Ratey: “An inherited neurological syndrome characterized by easy distractibility, low tolerance for frustration or boredom, a greater than average tendency to say or do whatever comes to mind, and a predilection for situations of high intensity.” People with adult ADHD tend to be “impatient, impulsive, distractible, energetic, emotional needy, creative, innovative and irreverent.” That is, I believe, the description on my driver’s license, right after red hair and green eyes.
In my case – and I suspect I’m not alone – ADHD was the perfect staging ground for all my addictions, including my least favorite: love addiction. My drug of choice? Cocaine, a substance pharmacologically identical to the stimulants they actually give ADHD kids, except in my case it was less a prescription than a felony. Rack up a few felonies on top of all those missed deadlines, unfinished projects, and foot-in-mouth disasters, and you can really mess with a lady’s self-esteem. Low self-esteem is fuel on the fire for someone who was emotionally needy to begin with. “I’m unworthy of love. Please love me harder.”
Here’s the paradox: At the same time ADHD was exacerbating the love addiction, it was also controlling it. Any alcoholic will tell you that alcohol isn’t what caused their alcoholism; it’s how they treated their alcoholism. When the side effects of that particular treatment get too dire, they have to find another.
According to Drs. Hallowell and Ratey, the flip side of hyperactivity is hyperfocus. On one hand, my motto is “Oooh, shiny” and I have the attention span of a cat chasing a laser pointer. On the other, I once wrote an entire magazine article and never noticed that the magazine’s offices were being moved around me at the time. It wasn’t until movers picked up my desk that I picked up my head.
This focus, properly harnessed, is the behavioral treatment for ADHD. Kids who survive their ADHD – or flourish in spite of it – usually do so because they find a sport or a musical instrument or some other organizing principle that takes this craving for high intensity and imposes a structure on it.
I have horrible hand-eye coordination and am tone-deaf. Sports and music weren’t going to cut it. I did it with romantic obsession. He was the object of my hyperfocus. What I assumed was my soulmate was actually my organizing principle; thinking about my crush o’ the month (and boy, did I think about him!) kept my head from flying off my shoulders. Which is a good thing.
Like using alcohol to treat alcoholism, though, using ADD to mitigate the symptoms of ADHD has a powerful backlash. Inevitability, what it’s doing for you will be overshadowed by what it’s doing to do. Then it’s time to seek another solution.
I’m thinking of taking up the tuba. The tone-deafness will be less of an issue.
Dr. Nora Volkow is the Director of NIDA, the National Institute on Drug Abuse. She’s also the granddaughter of Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, which is weird. Plus, when she talks she sounds like an outtake from a Rocky & Bullwinkle cartoon (“Boris, Natasha and Nora”), which is not what you usually find at websites ending in dot-gov.
Anyhow, Dr. Volkow has been making headlines lately (http://bit.ly/sKEfhp) with a scientific breakthrough that anyone in a 12-step program could have told her 50 years ago. I told you myself in a recent column (http://bit.ly/rB3Cf4). But now they have brain imaging studies, so that makes it official.
Says Dr. Volkow, “Originally we postulated that people who are addicted are so because drugs were more rewarding to them, more pleasurable. Thus, their brains would have a greater release of dopamine in the limbic area when they took drugs.”
Dopamine is what I call the brain’s woo-hoo juice and Dr. Volkow calls “the message through which you not just feel pleasure, but also the motivation to do behaviors.” The limbic area is the reptile brain, the knee-jerk part that makes us seek food and water and sex. And, she continues, “in three independent imaging studies, we find exactly the opposite. Contrary to what everyone thought, the sensitivity of the reward center of the brain, the part that motivates pleasure, is markedly decreased in people that are addictive. Which is fascinating.
“What we are observing is that in people who are addicted to cocaine or addicted to alcohol, the ability of the drugs to increase dopamine is markedly attenuated. Their subjective experience of the drug is decreased.”
In other words, people who get addicted to, say, cocaine — me, for example, back in the day — are getting less of a charge out of the stuff than those folks who can take it or leave it. Dr. Volkow finds this fascinating. I find it sucky on every level. It’s cosmically unfair that we who forfeit our money, our integrity, our career, our family and even our freedom for drugs (or alcohol, or poker, or hookers) are getting shortchanged by the very altar at which we sacrifice.
It’s like the Spider Robinson short story, “God is an Iron.” As in, “if a person who commits a felony is a felon, then God is an iron. The story was about a future in which people directly stimulated their brain’s reward centers until they pleasured themselves to death. He wrote it in 1977. I guess NIDA didn’t talk to him, either.
Lucia interviews Ethlie this Sunday 11/6/2011 on The Art of Love — live at www.latalkradio.com on channel 1 3pm PT/6pm ET. You can hear the show in real time by clicking on: Click to Listen Live or catch up later in the archives. It gets podcast via iTunes, too.
I think we’ll be talking about Cougars and Cubs. Sounds like fun to me!
I had emergency root canal surgery yesterday. I tell you that, first, to make you go “awwww, poor baby” and feel sorry for me and, second, to explain why I had a wackadoodle Harlequin Romance dream last night
Here’s the connection: As a former drug addict, I avoid all mind-altering substances when humanly possible. As a root canal patient, I will take a painkiller as prescribed. The endodontist sent me home with a temporary filling and a handful of Vicodin. Now, I haven’t had a drink or a street drug in more than 20 years (23 years, 7 months, and 13 days, to be precise) and one hydrocodone probably isn’t going to send me to the nearest bar or dope dealer. But it can — and did — trigger my addiction. I had a love addict slip dream.
Clean and sober addicts and alcoholics know what a slip dream (or “using dream”) is. It’s when you don’t actually drink or use drugs, but you have such vivid dreams about it that you wake up thinking you did. Slip dreams are pretty common early in recovery, and tend to lighten up over time. But when I quit smoking, I kept dreaming about snorting cocaine. And when I swore off married men, I found myself dreaming about smoking cigarettes. Just another day in the life of that cosmic whack-a-mole game that is addiction.
Last night I came down off Vicodin, and I dreamed a fairytale love-at-first-sight romance with… okay, the details are fuzzy. I remember he was tall and tousled with a golden tan — I think he was the handsome heir to a Greek shipping fortune or something equally exotic. There was a beach, and horses. What I do remember is that it felt sexy and sunny and warm and I never wanted to leave. We were in love and it was utter bliss. It felt like… Vicodin.
My subconscious simply can’t tell the difference between one addiction and another, an empirical observation which is currently being confirmed by hard science. In Nick Kristof’s New York Times op-ed column last week, he talks about the latest research by neuroscientist David J. Linden in a book The Compass of Pleasure. The brain’s pleasure circuitry, Linden found, is all interconnected. Writes Kristof:
“Brain scans suggest that everything from sugar to sex lights up the brain’s pleasure circuitry. These all can have neurological consequences that correspond to what we think of as addiction. Lab rats can develop an addiction to exercise on a wheel. Orgasm, in men and women alike, lights up the pleasure centers much like cocaine… Gambling and overeating can be addictive behaviors, analogous to narcotics addictions. In particular, foods with sugar or fat seem to trigger cravings that then rewire the brain’s pleasure circuitry to amplify that craving.
"One study found that rats fed foods like cheesecake and chocolate showed differences in brain circuitry after just 40 days. The impact was that the pleasure centers of their brains were numbed, so they apparently needed to gobble even more cheesecake to generate the same satisfaction. Whether it’s sugar or heroin, the body steadily ratchets up the quantity necessary to provide the same high.
"Cravings are complex phenomena with strong ties to brain chemistry and genetics. Maybe that’s why President Obama has shown astounding self-discipline in his political career while enduring a long struggle with nicotine.”
Neurological Whack-A-Mole. It explains why Ethlie pops a Vicodin and dreams about Prince bloody Charming. But it doesn’t make me like it.