Wednesday, 21 March 2012

On Pleasure, Dopamine, Oxytocin and Bullshit Therapy (Dear Diary 3)

Recently I read David J Linden's book Pleasure: How Our Brains Make Junk Food, Exercise, Marijuana, Gernerosity and Gambling Feel So Good. For a pop science book about sex, drugs, gambling and other pleasures, it's a refreshingly Vulgar Evolution-free and judgement-free treatment of the subject. (If you're a man, the stuff about women's sexual responses is going to freak you out: if you're a woman, it will be perfectly normal.)

There are only a few books I've read and recognised myself in. Melodie Beattie's Codependent No More of course, and Janet Wotitz' Adult Children of Alcoholics. Linden's description of how addicts respond to pleasurable events felt like the answer to why I react the way I do, or rather don't, to what are supposed to be pleasures.

Addiction, it seems, comes with its own brain chemistry. The counter-intuitive part is where the addict gets less pleasure, not more, than the Normals, from whatever it is. Addicts don't do dopamine as well as the straights, and it's dopamine that gives you that, well, whatever it is that you feel when you have sex, or see your baby, or whatever. I have no idea, because I don't feel it. All that stuff Normals think is wonderful and pleasant and makes their days worth living through get this reaction from me: "well, uh, it's... okay. I guess. Yeah. It was all right." And that's not because I'm trying to be cool or am afraid of showing my emotions or can't engage with the world or any of that guilt-tripping therapy crap - it's because I don't get the chemical high the Normals do.

I don't do oxytocin either, and if you don't produce or respond well to oxytocin, you're not going to experience a lot of bonding urges. It's not fear of commitment, or being vulnerable, or being known, or being rejected or any of that blame-the-victim therapy garbage - it's because I don't get the bonding chemical surge and reaction that Normals do.

If I were inside a Normal's body, I'd feel like I was blissed-out by the slightest thing. If they were inside mine, they would feel that they had gone to a hell where everything was an effort and nothing was a pleasure, and a shoulder-slumping weights of willpower was needed to do the simplest thing.

Linden says that the research suggests that what keeps the addict going isn't the pleasure - that's what keeps the Normals going. That feels like my life. The addict keeps going on anticipation. Addicts hope against all experience that the next time will feel, not better, but whatever it is they are supposed to feel to make it all worthwhile. Whatever it is the Normals feel. We never do feel it: drugs, booze, food, a moment of peace and tranquility under a blue sky - these are all respites from the weariness, the un-satisfaction, the sheer effort of grinding out day after day for no good feelings whatsoever.

This explains why the majority of people are over-weight, under-exercised, don't go beyond pop-culture, are innumerate, and so incredibly self-satisfied: they are blissed out just from waking up. Achievement takes a huge capacity for dissatisfaction, and you can't be dissatisfied with a brain full of dopamine making you feel good at the slightest trivial thing you do.

I'd rather be sober than drunk, clean rather than high, single than divorced or in a worn-out marriage, and if you knew what Normals look like to me, you would not want to be a Normal. But anticipation only works until the day you stop believing, then the weariness sets in. That's where I am now. I don't believe that anything will make me feel better, or even make me feel anything except
uncomfortably numb. And I don't know when it changed.

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