“Normies” vs. Addicts

The difference between casual drug users  and addicts (“normies” vs. addicts) is that addicts use drugs as medicine while “normies” use drugs for fun.

Syringe, Booze & PillsHere’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

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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.

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5 Responses to “ “Normies” vs. Addicts ”

  1. Be aware of the claims you make.

    Longitudinal studies and review by Hester Reid and William Miller in the Handbook of Alcoholism (and other substances) has failed to find any “alcoholic” or “addict personality”. In essence alcoholics and addict do not have any special characteristics that do not exist in the normal population. You might have a good claim when you claim here is a norbies and addicts; I do not think the data stretches that far. I do not think there is any data that claims there are people born with “addict’s brain”. Maybe I am wrong, but I have looked for this data and I have failed to find such.

    Consider someone with some sound neuroscientific knowledge review your claims. The purpose of professional peer reviews it to find possible flaws in the author’s hypothesis. To accept peer review requires a level of maturity of gigantic proportions. I think you would want someone who is fair, but knows the subject well.

  2. I disagree with you. Neuroscientific research has identified specific neural differences between addicts and non-addicts in the dopamine “reward” system. In short, they have found that there is a distinct “addict brain.” And not recently, either. For example, the Oct.3, 1997 issue of Science Magazine noted the structural and functional differences between addict and non-addict brains, stating that these are what makes addiction a brain disease: “The addicted brain is distinctly different from the non-addicted brain … That addiction is tied to changes in brain structure and function is what makes it, fundamentally, a brain disease. A metaphoric switch in the brain seems to be thrown as a result of prolonged drug use.”

    Addiction researchers have also tied at least one personality type to these neural differences: addicts tend to be “new sensation seekers,” and have a documented preference for lesser rewards now over greater rewards later.

    And, as I point out, most neuroscientists aren’t yet ready to say that they are “born addicts. But some come pretty close. For more on this, please click on the article “What Neuroscientists Say About “Born Addicts,” (http://www.addictscience.com/born-addict-science).

    As for peer review, I have sent links to AddictScience.com to numerous addiction specialists seeking their input and soliciting corrections and suggestions for improvement and will continue to do so.

  3. I disagree with addiction being a disease. I thought it was as I was trapped in addiction for 7 years and could not get out. I struggled with alcohol and cocaine. I stole from my parents and from my friends. I lied and cheated my way around everything. I thought the only thing that would ever help me to stop was to kill myself. I am now 2 years in recovery and have the odd glass of wine every once in a while. I am even doing my thesis on addiction science and I find your website shocking!! You present this information as if it is fact! I have never felt the need to use compulsively like I did. Because addiction is not a disease. Yes emotional and psychological problems due to environments affect an individual to the point where they need to “self medicate” and repetitive use of this behaviour forms a pathway in the brain – the same as any habit. Your brain is plastic and changes according to behaviour and rewards for that behaviour. With the right cognitive psychotherapy and with replacing those habits with healthier ones, there is no need to walk around labelling yourself as an addict or alcoholic. I dont believe it defines people like us. I believe we have chosen a different way to cope than others. And this has caused us to go down this path. It by no means makes us sick with a so-called “disease”. I feel perfectly normal and have not craved any substance in 2 full years even after a glass of wine or a headache tablet.

    Maybe if you did some proper in depth real scientific research you might find your “factual” website is a bunch of speculation and a huge excuse for the behaviour that addicts exhibit.

    I don’t have to blame what I did on a disease. I can take full responsibility for my behaviour knowing it was my choice to begin with and from that can dust myself off and move forward.

  4. It sounds like you had a drug problem. And I was told that if you think the main problem is drugs then your probably not a addict. We’re talking about the disease of addiction not just drug using…drugs are just a symptom of the disease of addiction. Addicts can put down drugs and not use but if you have the disease of addiction it will manifest In other areas of your life if not treated. Just because someone uses drugs and craves drugs and steals money for drugs and what not does not make them a addict.

  5. I couldn’t disagree more.

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