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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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.