Are Addicts Really Superhuman?

Are Addicts Really Superhuman?

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This post was originally published on April 8, 2015.

This Good Men Project piece on why addicts are “superhuman” should be fascinating reading for anyone struggling with substance abuse or mental health issues. In other words, go read it. Now.

Low Dopamine, High Ambition

Writer Tom Matlack posits that addicts “tend to be among the most successful individuals if they manage not to kill themselves.” He claims that this idea is scientifically supported by research from Johns Hopkins professor of neuroscience David J. Linden, who found that addiction is genetically correlated to “blunted dopamine receptors.”

Translation: addicts lack fully functioning dopamine receptors that ordinarily “make normal people feel happy and complete—that should allow them to feel pleasure. That’s why addicts are a restless bunch, constantly in search of some artificial way to fill that gap.”

Sound familiar? It sure rings true for me (I told you it was interesting!) Linden’s research also concluded that addicts achieve greatness—in tons of different professional fields—not in spite of their condition but because of it. “The risk-taking, novelty-seeking and obsessive personality traits often found in addicts can be harnessed to make them very effective in the workplace,” Linden says.

The Never Enough Complex

Despite all of addicts’ obsessive tendencies contributing to us being potentially successful at work, our issues with ineffective dopamine receptors can prevent us from ever feeling happy or satisfied, no matter how much good work we do or how many successes we achieve; nothing is ever quite good enough. This notion definitely hits home for me, as I feel that way myself pretty much constantly—no matter how many things go my way or how many personal milestones I achieve from hard work and dedication, the pleasure I derive from that success is painfully fleeting and short-lived. I’ve beaten myself up countless time for not feeling happier or more grateful about all the good things in my life; maybe now I have a semblance of an explanation.

As a leading physical chemistry researcher that the author meets in AA describes it, “The prize I win today quickly goes into that ‘file of stuff that I deserved but someone has been screwing me out of for years’ and is promptly forgotten in favor of the research outcome that will stun the world. The problem is that outcome wins me another prize which goes into that same file and is immediately replaced with the need to do something even bigger and better. It never ends, and I’m never satisfied. Even for an instant.”

Forever Unsatisfied?

That reality—that addicts might be physically prone to feeling eternally restless and discontent—is pretty depressing, even as it makes me feel less alone. It’s another side of the enduring cultural belief that art is generally fueled by madness; that one must suffer to be creative; that most writers are alcoholic. And even while that stereotype bugs me (we’re not all messed-up, gah!), I can’t help but acknowledge that it might be kind of…true. At least somewhat.

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14 Comments

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  2. Diana Rosalind Trimble on

    It has by no means been scientifically proven that “addicts” are people born with abnormalities in their dopamine receptors. What is proven is that sustained use of certain substances, cocaine for example, impacts these dopamine receptors, making “normal” joy harder to feel naturally and resulting in larger doses of the substance being required. The brain can take years to recover its normal dopamine function after a period of drug misuse, which is one reason it can be so hard for people who’ve been addicted to stay off their drug. But I disagree strongly with the disease model of addiction promoted by 12 step movements and David Linden and actually, there is little evidentiary basis for this idea. There may well be genetic variants in how strongly a person is affected by specific substances (as with indigenous Americans and their low tolerance for alcohol) but this is not the root cause of substance dependency. Certain drugs, like heroin, are just extremely physically addictive and anybody taking heroin for a few days in a row will have developed a dependency, regardless of any ideas about being “born an addict”. Other drugs, like speed and cocaine, are extremely psychologically addictive for their performance-enhancing and confidence-boosting properties. It should be no mystery why they are especially attractive to people at opposite ends of the social spectrum: for high-achievers with crammed schedules they deliver empowerment and energy to keep going with sparse sleep while for street-people with little hope of future prospects they provide a euphoric illusion of power and excitement. The chemistry of how drugs work in the brain is only one part of the puzzle, the other part is to understand the psychology of drug dependency which I personally think has a lot to do with the desire to avoid painful realities. At least Linden notes that it could happen to anyone, which would seem to undermine the notion that some people have “addictive personalities”. Some people never go down that road, simply because of their social conditioning that makes it an off-limits choice (e.g. someone who has internalized a religious code forbidding intoxicants). This does not mean that they would be any more or less likely to develop a dependency under certain conditions.

  3. Someonefromnowhere on

    Cant find the Article but i read somewhere that the human brain seeks Exitement in any form to Evovle for example im in a constant state of stress for some reason im always restless day in and day out …. only time i feel at Peace is when im sleeping and i have had some issues with a Little to much hashish but i still build a 3d printer without buying a starter kit or anything so i dont think its because youre an adict and i believe the reason most addicts may seem better at controling themselves because they have used many years to fight their addiction meaning you have used many years honing your willpower your way of thinking will most likely also be more positive since thats a focus of treatment of addiction in Denmark

    I am sorry for the missing grammar and bad spelling …

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  5. desertvoice on

    That “addicts might be physically prone to feeling eternally restless and discontent.” is the most normal human condition! I feel like that, without being an addict nor taking any drug or alcohol for many years! This is the condition of the soul seeking where it came from and where it needs to go!

  6. is this the pre-promotion of your next advertisement that will probably be about the new legal drug to treat the lack of dopamine ? this is such a generalisation of a simple fact found on a couple of addicts, nothing more than that. if you gonna start a research about the reasons preventing people ever feeling happy or satisfied, please look around, start with the system. humankind is not robot.

  7. I do not understand the urgent to point out that Amy Winehouse was an addict?
    Apparently she was 27 years of the club (if I remember correctly) with Jimmy Hendrix and more.
    Personally, I liked her songs and does not consider her to be front figure
    to take on all the guilt of an drug addikted.

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About Author

Laura Barcella is a documentary researcher, author, freelance writer and ghostwriter from Washington, DC. Her writing has also appeared in TIME, Marie Claire, Salon, Esquire, Elle, Refinery29, AlterNet, The Village Voice, Cosmopolitan, The Chicago Sun-Times, Time Out New York, BUST, ELLE Girl, NYLON and CNN.com. Her book credits include Know Your Rights: A Modern Kid's Guide to the American Constitution, Fight Like a Girl: 50 Feminists Who Changed the World, Popular: The Ups and Downs of Online Dating from the Most Popular Girl in New York City, Madonna & Me: Women Writers on the Queen of Pop and The End: 50 Apocalyptic Visions From Pop Culture That You Should Know About…Before It’s Too Late.