Addicts Are Superhuman

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About Tom Matlack

Tom Matlack is the co-founder of The Good Men Project. He has a 18-year-old daughter and 16- and 7-year-old sons. His wife, Elena, is the love of his life. Follow him on Twitter @TMatlack.

Comments

  1. Still think there’s a inherent question of quality. It doesn’t make a difference if someone is a risk-taker and creative if what they produce, or their ideas, are terrible. Similarly, plenty of “sane” people make great art, etc. Having certain brain problems can be a gift and a curse, sure, but only insofar as there’s substance to back it up. The same goes for mental illnesses other than addiction, and even for seemingly mundane personality traits like being organized and punctual.

  2. I think that this is an optimistic way to look at brain-chemistry imbalance, but a potentially dangerous one. If you can find a way to make dopamine receptor dysfunction work in your favor, then you clearly are finding a way to positively maximize your life. I like the idea that people are beginning to equate “freakiness” with potential for innovation and positive output, but not everyone with a chemical imbalance can handle high expectations–in fact quite the opposite. Most people don’t stop to ask which neurotransmitter in your brain is misfiring if you are an “eccentric” and though mine isn’t dopamine, I I would really hate it if “well you have issues! why haven’t you done anything amazing yet?” were added to the list of explanations I have to make for myself on a regular basis.

    • Chemical imbalance is just a theory at this point. I wish someone would remind the medical establishment of that.

  3. I’m unsure about these findings.

    Any population sorted by any characteristic will tend to create a normal distribution (bell curve). If we sort the population at large based on success, the variance (width of the bell) will reflect the average amount of risk involved with living life. If some group increases the risks they take, we would expect their distribution to have a higher variance (bigger wins, but also bigger losses, with most people still falling in the middle) for a wider, but flatter, bell shape.

    As a result, those with addictive tendencies that have been “successful” will outnumber, as a proportion of the total addictive population, those without addictive tendencies who have been “successful” as a proportion of the population at large.

    But on the low-end, the graph would be cut off. You cannot (presumably) fall lower than dead, and that is where many addicts wind up.

    So, did the successful addicts truly “harness their powers” or did they just take really big risks and win? Put differently, if I sink every dollar I have into the lottery and win, have I “harnessed my power” any more than someone who has done the same thing and lost? For every “Former addict founds successful company” headline, aren’t there an equal number of “Former executive turns to drugs” headlines?

    • True, one might expect the two overlapping bell curves.

      Modern humans are very unusual in that most people survive to reproduce. So “normal” people are successful. If you look in the animal kingdom, about 10% of young (depending on species) tend to reach adulthood so “normal” finches are dead, and it is only the extreme 10% that make it. So for a field mouse, being an addict and taking huge risks might be essential to getting yourself into the 10%.

      I am a different mike…

  4. Tom, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your willingness to put yourself out there. That is part of the genius that is tangled up with those defective dopamine receptors in your brain. As some of the other commentors have suggested, it is more complex than your article makes it. I’ve got an older brother who has lived most of his adult life with schizo-affective bi-polar disorder. It’s a similar diagnosis to that of James Taylor, but my brother didn’t have the musical talent and the artistic flair of JT, so rather than being a successful recording artist, he is living by himself in Section 8 housing, unable to hold even a volunteer job, and doing the best he can to stay alive every day. I think there is something to the chemistry of your brain that has contributed to your success. But I would suggest that it combines with the character that was developed over years of growing up to two very interesting and talented parents, going to some exceptional schools and then being willing to learn from your failures. Those have little to do with dopamine and a lot to do with Matlack genetics and Tom Matlack determination.

    As for your question: “The question, of course, that remains is how does an addict, even a sober one, possibly cope with never feeling enough pleasure to slow down or fight off the need to do the deal or write the novel that fills the void for an instant.” I think that is one of the challenges of every adult – addict or not – sober or not. It comes down to being content with what is. A lot of us are afraid of that. Because we fear that if we are content with what is, we will miss the next big deal. But the reality is just the opposite. If we are willing to “empty ourselves” long enough to enjoy where we are, even for a moment, we make room for the next big deal, or for the next small step – whatever it is we are after.

    Thanks for your great article. You make me think – always. And you leave me with more questions.

  5. Thank you. This knocked my grin sideways. You have provoked questions, which I think earmarks anything worth our attention. The bell curve is real. The risk taking is real.

    To think an addict – told forever and especially in recovery to calm down, to NOT CARE so much – might have something good and powerful in their reckless abandon, the way they care and what they care about, is counter-cultural but feels pretty damned good to me today.

    The way I care, the fact that I care, is the best thing I’ve got. To sober up and settle down is hardly a good idea. Of course, dangers are real, we are not all genuis, and taking risks will cause grief and mistakes. How to be firey without setting fire is an interesting question.

    K

  6. Black Iris says:

    But can’t anyone become an addict? Most people who take up smoking, for example, get addicted.

    Also, I think Winehouse’s problem may have been a mental illness that she was treating with her addiction.

    • Can anyone become an addict? It’s an interesting question. It’s clear that there is a strong genetic component, and that some people are considerably more prone to addiction than others. Some people have a high enough threshold that they may be unlikely to develop dependence, simply because they never get to that point. Conversely, it is quite possible for many people to drink alcohol for decades without becoming alcoholics. There are even a few people who smoke regularly, but infrequently, and who don’t appear to show addiction. (As one article notes, most of the world can’t afford more than occasional cigarettes, so infrequent smoking is normal.)

      Still, I would be sorely impressed to see someone chain-smoke for a year without becoming addicted.

  7. OMG Tom, THANK YOU!!

    I once ran a website for porn addicts and I had described porn addiction in such a similar way to how you’ve got it here but never quite so eloquently. I now see my own struggles with this addiction as the cloud with the silver lining. I have become so daring and bold in so many areas of my life and I honestly LOVE IT!! No longer seeing it as a hindrance is such a liberating feeling…and it means I get to enjoy my randomness and adventure so much more than others will allow.

    Anyone struggling with any addiction, I always tell them that they have to find the thing they need to do to get that buzz without going to their addiction. In every addict I’ve met, I’ve seen the same damned thing! It amazes me. It’s like we’re a team of superheroes who haven’t quite been discovered to have superpowers yet.

    This really made my day, thank you!

  8. Celebrating thirteen years of sobriety this week, I have new cause for hoisting a sparkling cider, thanks to your thought-provoking article.

    What I found most valuable was being afforded the rare occasion to champion our advantages as addicts, instead of relying almost wholly on our pathologies and their attendant consequences as reminders of our addictions.

    (Still, I’m not sure I’d say this to anyone still contemplating recovery, or in very early recovery. My own inner addict, pre-recovery, would read this research and light up, telling me I should extend my drinking as part of my innate risk-taking, just till the next big insight hits me. It would convince me that I actually need the suspension of inner chaos alcohol provides, long enough to reach the next epiphany. Maybe that’s just me, though. Has anyone else had that Trickster/ Saboteur voice in them?)

    My risk-taking from early ages has often garnered envy from others when I succeeded, and denigration when I failed (like you, Tom, more failures than successes) but it just felt super-compelling to pursue, like catnip. To be able to contextualize it within the parameters of addiction sincerely helps me understand the perpetual seeking of “edges”….or maybe I should say “ledges.”

    This article also helped explain how the relentless seeking of a compulsive so easily jumps from addiction to addiction as a maladaptive response when dopaminergic dysregulation occurs. Without biochemical findings like this, one can so easily feel hopelessly defective, wrestling one addiction only to replace it with a new one.

    Thanks for shining a light on this important topic, Tom.

    To all of us in recovery, Cheers- and here’s to our sitting still long enough to enjoy a “modicum of greatness”!

    • I agree strongly with the above poster’s point about being wary of sharing this message with a current addict, and Tom, as much as I enjoy your writing, I think it’s bordering on criminal to neglect it. It seems to me that you’re discussing the benefits of addictive behavior (what’s also been called an obsessive personality), rather than the specific circumstances of being addicted in the moment (to a substance, behavior, or whatever). If you’ve interacted with addicts before, you’ll see the difference between the two: someone who’s able to harness addictive behavior can, as you point out, accomplish many things, whereas someone in the middle of an addiction is probably destroying their life without realizing it, or possibly while realizing it but feeling helpless to change their course.

      I am all for making lemons out of lemonade, but to tote around the lemons as “OMG THESE LEMONS ARE SO AWESOME” seems a little short-sighted. If you tell someone currently in the grip of an addiction that their addiction will help them accomplish cool things, what’s to stop them from abjuring treatment in favor of chasing those cool things while remaining addicted? Taking too positive a view of addiction seems like it could be potentially dangerous.

      And since it seems to me that we still don’t fully understand the mechanics of addiction, who’s to say that it’s a biochemical process, and not also a personality-related one? I’m a little concerned about the impulse to fall back on a (sometimes shaky) scientific explanation as though to say, “See! Science says it is so! That validates my experiences!” Why not also look for culture’s role in addiction, or for the role of the individual’s personality?

      Lauding an addiction for pushing you to extremes seems about as sensible as attributing success to a particular mental illness: some people produce great art in spite or because of it, while plenty of others struggle with it their whole lives. The fact that a few succeeded doesn’t mean it’s an invaluable aid to the rest; again, there are so many factors–culture, personality, environment, family, religion, gender, and so on–that we can’t even begin to decipher yet. The impulse to celebrate your accomplishments seems rooted in the particularly American brand of individualism, of which I’m highly wary.

      If you found a constructive way to relate to your addiction, then good for you; I don’t mean my comment to take anything away from your accomplishments. However, the implications of your message for others could range from illuminating a part of their life they didn’t understand yet to reinforcing self-destructive behavior; since different people relate to addiction differently, there’s just no way to know.

  9. Since I read your first article last fall, I felt a kinship to you. While I am not an addict, I married and then divorced one, learned co-codependency, understood what addiction was and became a lot more open minded.

    I don’t know if I totally buy into the idea that addicts are better or superhuman at anything but survival. For that I will always congratulate and celbrate you, Tom. I’m glad you survived to share your art.

    I wish Amy had too.

  10. Tom, this is an excellent description of the inner experience of those of us who share your dopamine receptor issues. As a fellow traveler, and a mental health professional specializing in addictions, I can tell you that Dr. Linden’s work has been like opening a window into my own experience and the experiences of my patients. Interestingly enough, the description of the alcoholic’s problem, and the nature of the alcoholic mind, was accurately described by Bill Wilson in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous over 70 years ago. I don’t think that our minor affliction makes us superhuman, and it causes no end of grief until we come to recognize our differences and what they mean in our shared existance with others and in our own approaches to life’s many challenges, but neither do I think that it keeps us from doing good things. We will simply never be all that pleased with ourselves for very long, nor will we be happy doing the same things over and over again. Thanks for the article.

  11. over the last 60,000 years man and women traveled an average of around 25km per day and so the brain evolved to cope best while on the move, your legs are here to take you there. Follow the direction of your toes for 25km a day, the interest will satisfy the dopamine levels and the ‘addiction’ will magically disappear until you stop. There’s a quote I once heard, the name I forget which goes something like “the only reliable way to measure of success is in miles traveled” so the thing that keeps addicts alive is not to be sedentary and keep on movin’.

  12. As a clean-&-sober addict myself I give you big bonus points for this. There’s no reason NOT to try & get some good out of the way we’re made. Just as many talented folks are dyslexic–perhaps being assisted in their skills by the fact they actually *see* things differently–so addicts may well be hardwired for behavior that’s actually useful in some areas. For example, I’ve always said addicts were good in a crisis b/c things were like that for us all the time anyway, so we were used to it. The condition is neutral. What we do with it doesn’t have to be.

  13. I felt like I was reading an autobiography. I’ve written before on the advantages of ADHD, though everyone focuses on the negative side of things. Hyper-focus v. No Focus is a constant battle for many out there, myself included. I wish more people wrote about this topic with the grace you displayed in the above article.

    I’m actually in the middle of writing a piece about the most recent research examining the role of the substantia nigra and associated structure’s on addiction. Food addiction also hails from the same area, which I think looms large in our society.

  14. When I read this it was like I was looking into a mirror. Thanks so much for sharing this with us. I will be incorporating this new knowledge into my own coaching for sure.

    Thanks again!

  15. This is a great write Tom. I am not always sure that in my life, my experiences after active addiction equate “risk taking” per se, but a willingness to charge forth with less regard for outcomes surely does. An ability to withstand, and survive the world, as it comes is the greatest gift though I get tired. Tired, I believe to a point where the “average Joe” may simply call it quits. For that I am daily grateful, because I’ve needed it. So, with that in mind, I think the premise of the article is right on.

    Where my frustration comes in is that in ongoing discussions and commentary about addiction and its causes and conditions we always want to explain , or understand and while these things are not without merit, ultimately addiction is a ten cent word to describe away a much bigger, and global issue. Sure dopamine is affected and all the rest, but the issue IMHO is more about a human condition, not just a medical one. Gamblers have similar responses, sex causes similar responses, as I am sure success, and a feeling of unshakable safety do.

    Look, I am a retired addiction counselor. I get the medical aspects, and even agree, but what happens so often is that the old adage that if you’re not one, you can’t possibly understand, often gets propped up as the proper view. So we explain it. It allows people to sit in their comfort zones and point fingers at the Amy’s of the world, and say, “oh isn’t that tragic.”, when another junkie bites the dust, or even worse- “one less doper committing crimes, clogging the jails, or wasting our tax dollars while corrupting our daughters.” Isn’t the truth of the matter that those who point the fingers or preach the loudest are also as equally addicted to success, the media, stress, money, power, food, gambling, or the likes? Is the man or woman who has a heart attack from working eighteen hours a day to keep up with the Joneses any less an Amy Winehouse than anyone else?

    And now that the latest “rumor” is that an unattended self detoxification may have caused her seizure, what shall we do if that turns out to be true?

  16. What about the issues that lead a person to the habits that become addictions? There is a certain amount of wanting to escape reality that leads to many addictions. Especially when it comes to substance abuse.
    Great information either way! Love the bumper sticker and the Ultraman pic!

  17. i think the argument is a slippery slope. Often when we equate our mental health challenge as a “gift” is exactly the point where we stop seeking the help we often need for it. I do, though, like the underlying argument of accepting our abilities/brains for what they are and using them for our advantage. Thanks for this post and sharing yourself openly! I continue to really dig this great “good men project” site!! I wish I had found it a long time ago!
    cheers.

  18. Tom, I admire your candour. And naturally, respect your point of view.

    But I strongly disagree.

    “Over time I realized that no matter how many times you fail, the world measures you by your greatest successes, not your many failures. In fact, if you blow up and come back, it’s called heroic.”

    And this is how stuff like the current global financial crisis comes to happen. Juggling insane risk becomes the norm in business. Modern commerce, in the last several decades, has demanded it.

    Tom, you were lucky. In my observation, most people who regard risk-taking as a virtue in itself rather than a calculated bet, move from failure to failure. They drive companies into the ground. They blow off investors. They shrug off losses like it it were yesterday’s coat. And like so many addicts, they leave a trail of misery in their wake. Those who were close to them, or had to trust them because they were in a position of power, suffered.

    Are the spectacular successes, when measured against the trillions squandered, actually worth it? Worth it not necessarily for the individuals involved–who often make out rather well–but for what it does to our economy and community as a whole?

    Milton is right to remind us what 12-Step programmes say. Tom, if you follow such a programme, recall the stories of grandiosity. They sound an awful lot like what you call “heroism”.

    Addicts go after quick wins. In business, this can mean a failure to see the long term. Look at many of the real, spectacular, long term successes. Warren Buffet, Steve Jobs, and their ilk. They take risks, but intelligently, not compulsively. George Soros has become rich, according to sources, by knowing when to quit. Do addicts know when to quit?

    The company you saved, which now has a five-billion market cap, is perhaps a good example of your recovery. Obviously, it had sound fundamentals. Tell us about some of the failures. Could they be rescued by a superhuman hero? Would you have taken some of those risks, now?

    It’s easy to apply the metaphor of human addiction to the economy. The financial system is addicted to the thrill of speed. The stock market is a casino run by problem gamblers. Risk becomes a virtue–nay, a fetish. It counts for more than skill, wisdom and hard work. The President, in his forbearance and compromise on economic matters, is beginning to look less like the adult in the room, and more like an Enabler.

    Of course, nothing worthwhile comes without risk. Having a child is an example of surrender to risk; you embark on an enterprise whose outcome is not always in your control. And the stakes are high.

    But just because heroes take risks, that doesn’t make all risk-taking heroic. Super-human? Sounds like magical thinking to me.

    Tom, you’ve achieved physical and emotional sobriety. Luckily, you’ve also achieved financial sobriety. Do you take the same risks now with your money that you did when you were an addict? More important, do you take the same risks with other people’s money?

    There are plenty of financial Amy Winehouses out there. You might have become one of them. Remember that.

  19. I wish this argument came with a step by step instruction manual for those of us who fall into the attenuated dopamine function category but are desperate not to become addicts. I would love to “succeed” in an artistic field but my bursts of creative energy never seem to live long enough to see the light of day. I also have a history of addiction and am so cautious with it that I think I’ve driven it away. I’m glad you started this conversation because I feel less alone, however I now feel more frustrated that I can’t do anything about my state.

  20. Thank you for such a concise, thought provoking article. As a recovering addict this made a world of sense to me.

  21. I think a better term for ADHD would be Reward System Avoidant. The brain structures develop several years later than our peers, by age seven, but we don’t recognize the skill as important due to family stress, the inability to emotionally bond, and learn to avoid the dopamine, but are constantly in a state of chemical withdrawal without it – it is genetically the human reward system.
    So, we’ve been taught, by rich people who own all the TV stations, and newspapers, to see people who have this condition as criminals, not as people who need help understanding what most of society has learned by age two: If we let it, being around someone else can be extremely pleasurable (or petting a rabbit). The point is we have a drug lab in our brains, and we need to learn to use it, and responsible use means subtracting the emotions and specific activities which often get bundled up with it in our beliefs. It feels like a slight pressure in the frontal lobes, and emotions become fluid, not stuck, but deeper and brighter. Adderall in very low doses seems to lower the threshold but just a little too much and it becomes a white-out, and your ability to organize the dopamine into an experience you can recognize goes out the window. My cognitive pathway has me close my eyes and imagine I’m wrinkling my brain at the top, imagining petting my rabbit and feeling the connection through my arm and hands. The real trick is to recognize where in your life you already get dopamine and refine the skill. I’m still learning, but see it as the most important skill I need to teach my daughter, and I need to work on deeening the pathway, and building better triggers, to remind myself to use it, But its a foreign land to me, even tho my experience of it has been so strong.

    • Really interesting comment and commentrary but what happens when you add childhood trauma to the mix? – it simply becomes too much for most to handle unless they are privileged with wealth or sufficient education and they get called addicts or homeless and become the ones no one can tolerate. But also isnt it the case that the trauma causes the addiction?: The article and this comment seems to imply its simply genetic make up but I ve yet to meet anyone who has experience childhood trauma who isnt prone to addiction and usually a much more chaotic and less sucessful outcomes in their lives than the author of the article. My great interest is what is required for the so called ‘homeless addicts’ to have the opportunities of the sucesses or even a semi- satifying existence. I think the article points to some way forward in this respect but unless we incorporate trauma in the picture it is simply inadequate. I wlcome response and discussion on this area…

  22. I am a Super Addict

  23. I think addicts are just missing out on one of their needs and they try to fill the void with something else.

  24. @VWFringe – That’s an interesting idea, that people with ADHD have learned to avoid dopamine- increasing behaviour and thus are always in withdrawal from it, but where did you get that idea from may I ask?

  25. AT LAST somone has explained what is the reason for the tortured brilliant all over the place existance of us strange freaks/ For a time I did find a profession that fitted in quite well with this disposition Its called “community development” – but even that’s not enough!

  26. Wow! Thank you for that.

  27. I relate to this piece. My current job keeps me on the road traveling to buy “widgets” for my company and lots of different kinds . It is a thrill to find them and then negotiate the price. I am always looking for more and trying to be the best. I never feel satisfied in any area of my life whether parenting, work, athletic activities, etc. TM we may be kindred spirits.

  28. Nice spin. I can run with this.
    Note* Just lost everything I had during a 6 month cocaine relapse. Kids,, finace, job, house..the works…all within the first month toothen in the second month my father passed away from brain cancer…wow.

  29. I’d like to suggest reading the book ‘Flow’ by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He argues that human happiness consists in occasions of ‘peak experience’, defined by flow, a state in which arousal and control are perfectly optimised. He offers an account similar to what you’re arguing here, albeit evidence based and non-pathologising.

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