Why So Many Hotel Room ODs? Ask Pavlov’s Dog
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Why So Many Hotel Room ODs? Ask Pavlov’s Dog


This post was originally published on June 24, 2014.

Cory Monteith. John Belushi. Whitney Houston. Janis Joplin. Anna Nicole Smith. Sadly, this celebrity crop is just a small sampling of the thousands of drug users who have fatally overdosed in hotel rooms. So we have to ask: Why do so many addicts seem to OD in hotels, rather than dying in their homes where they presumably get loaded most often?

The Psyche Behind Foreign Debauchery

Science suggests that getting high in an unfamiliar place is actually more dangerous than doing so on familiar turf. This research itself isn’t new, but it’s recently been summarized for the curious layman on nerd haven i09. It all boils down to classical conditioning—what a lot of people call a “Pavlovian response.”

In case you were asleep in Psych 101, a Pavlovian response means that some sort of stimulus (say, a bell, or “Mambo Number 5”) causes a seemingly unrelated reaction (say, drooling, or a panic attack). How does this happen? There’s always a hidden connection that comes from repetition. Famously, Ivan Pavlov repeatedly rang a bell when he fed his dogs, and eventually they would start drooling at the mere sound of the bell, even when there wasn’t a morsel of kibble to be found. Pretty basic stuff—it’s just part of how we learn.

The Marriott Effect

While Pavlov usually gets name dropped in the psych world, the brain isn’t the only thing that can get conditioned in this way. The entire body does—and not just salivary glands. When addicts are in an environment where they’ve gotten loaded day after day, their bodies learn to expect the effects of the drugs. Just the sight of a certain bathroom or street corner can trigger a physiological chain reaction: the body gearing up to receive heroin, coke, you name it. But in unfamiliar surroundings, even if our brains know we’re going to use, our bodies don’t prepare to the same degree that they do in our bedroom or our favorite club. And this means our body fails to brace itself for the heavy dose of poison that’s about to hit it. Effectively, our tolerance is lowered.

Every addict knows what it’s like to be triggered by surroundings, and the pesky temptation that comes with it. Even though the famous “geographical cure” is far from foolproof, it’s hard to get sober without breaking away from the people, places and things that formed the backdrop for your addiction. So the real surprise here isn’t that certain places can be triggering, but that our triggers are actually protecting us. They let the body know what’s coming, boosting our tolerance and making us less likely to overdose. So for any active addicts out there, if you’re going to use, stick to your old haunts and steer clear of those hotel rooms. Thanks to our conditioned responses, checking in all too often leads to checking out.

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About Author

Erica Larsen AKA Eren Harris blogs at Whitney Calls and Clean Bright Day. Their writing has also been published on Salon, Selfish, Violet Rising and YourTango. They live in Los Angeles with their husband and their enormous cat.