“Normies” vs. Addicts
The difference between addicts and casual drug users (people in recovery call them “normies”) is that addicts use drugs as medicine while “normies” use drugs for fun.
Here’s a news flash: for most people, using drugs is fun, at least initially. Considering the hundreds of millions of dollars spent every year drilling that precise message into the public mind by the liquor and beer industries, it’s rarely conceded for illegal drugs. But it’s fun to get high on drugs just like it’s fun to have a couple beers. Having a toke or a martini or a line of coke makes people feel better, happier, hipper, smarter, more attractive, more sociable, less inhibited. More fun. That’s why I did it.
It’s not a terribly original story. Most of us are introduced to psychoactive drugs by alcohol. We try it and like the feeling so we have more. We don’t know our limits or alcohol’s power, so we drink too much and get sick. We endure hangovers, recover and swear we won’t do that again. But we do, learning with practice how to calibrate intoxication most of the time.
Once you’ve experienced that pleasure, you want it again and it’s not necessarily pathological. You want to recreate the excitement, the newness, the exhilaration, so you chase the high. You don’t know it, but it can’t happen — you can never do something for the first time again. But since you don’t know it, you may keep trying (and trying and trying). Like Spaulding Grey searching for the perfect wave, you might even risk drowning to achieve the feeling you seek. You may add drugs to alcohol, mixing and matching and, knowingly or unknowingly, increasing the risk in exchange for the promise of a more satisfying high. Maybe, like John Belushi, you take a speedball — heroin, a depressant paired with cocaine, a stimulant, — blending polar opposites in search of the perfect combination. Or, less dramatically, Red Bull and alcohol.1
You weigh the psychological dangers and physical costs. Is drinking worth the hangover? Is pot worth the paranoia? Is acid worth the danger of a bad trip? Are illegal drugs worth the risk of arrest? Some say yes. Why? Because it’s fun.
Addicts, however, have a different experience. For them, alcohol and drugs are about much more than fun. For addicts, drugs are about the emotional payoff.
The payoff people get from drugs varies widely. For some, there is no payoff: some people have a genetic predisposition that makes drinking alcohol, for example, uncomfortable, like they’re losing control. (Ironically, considering how I turned out, my father was the first person who told me this. He almost never drank.) For others, alcohol makes them physically ill: a significant minority of Asians, Jews and Caribbeans have a gene that hastens alcohol’s metabolism, overwhelming the body’s ability to cope with toxic byproducts. People who have this genetic makeup feel uncomfortable even if they only drink a small amount. Unsurprisingly, they have a very low risk of alcoholism.2
At the other end of the spectrum are addicts, who get a profoundly positive emotional payoff from drugs. And there exists every shade in between. (For more, click on the Genetic and Environmental Components of Addiction.)
Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of addicts: “normies” who become addicted; and “born addicts.“ The first become get addicted from excessive drug use over of time (though they may have a genetic predisposition that makes drugs particularly beneficial emotionally). Over time, excessive drug use causes their brains to develop tolerance as a defensive reaction to the overstimulation of their Limbic “reward” systems that drugs cause. Tolerance makes the Limbic system less efficient, which temporarily protects the brain from drug-induced overstimulation. But it also induces a counter-reaction: more drug use at higher doses to get the same emotional payoff users used to get with less. This starts a vicious cycle of increasing tolerance provoking increasing drug use. Eventually, as tolerance deepens, the brain adapts by permanently reprogramming itself to deal with continuous drug use. It adapts to a “new normal” under which the tolerant brain needs drugs. Tolerance mandates that addicts have to use drugs as medicine to feel normal and avoid the physical pain and psychological panic of withdrawal. In rehab, people who develop addiction were likened to cucumbers that become pickles after brining: they can never go back to being cucumbers. It’s an apt analogy because of the permanence of brain changes that can result from developing ever-escalating tolerance.
“Born addicts,“ on the other hand, come pre-pickled. They use drugs compulsively from their first introduction to them. For “born addicts,” the emotional payoff is so immediate and profound they feel they’ve found the antidote to their previously unmet emotional needs. They too use drugs as medicine, they just do it right from the beginning. They also tend to be 2nd or 3rd-generation addicts who have inherited an addict brain.
In either case, people who become addicted and ”born addicts” use drugs to self-medicate. That’s the essential difference between addicts and those who can-take-or-leave drugs and alcohol. Addicts are long past the point where drugs are used for fun.
1. An odd combination? Miller launched a caffeinated beer called Tilt in 2006. Anheuser Busch created Bud Extra (using the slogan “You can sleep when you’re 30″), which was withdrawn in a settlement with 11 state Attorneys General in 2008. Those who mix energy drinks and alcohol were found to get drunk twice as often as those who didn’t, and had twice the risk of injury. But nothing is new under the sun: Benedictine monks in England have long made a sweet wine fortified with caffeine called Buckfast — a 750 ml. bottle has as much caffeine as 8 cokes.
2. A Form of the Alcohol Dehydrogenase Gene May Protect Afro-Trinidadians From Developing Alcoholism;medicalnewstoday.com, Jan. 30, 2007.