My name is Noah Anderson, and I’m a recovering addict.
I’m currently going through a sort of modified 12-step program (please, I beg you, read Russell Brand’s “Recovery: Freedom from Our Addictions”), not because I feel like I need to, but because I feel like it will make be a better person. And isn’t that what life’s all about?
Throughout my life, the most central and severe addiction that I’ve struggled with has been sugar. Sugar is a drug. Until a few months ago, my standard binge would be five or six full-size candy bars, a Big Gulp and a bag of chips — around 2000 calories — all downed in five minutes or less. This would happen more or less every day at my worst, maybe once a week when I had it in better control. If that’s not fiendish behavior, I don’t know what is.
This may sound funny or trivial to some (and I deeply envy your self-control) but when you examine the evidence — ever-increasing rates of obesity and diabetes in this country correlated with increased sugar consumption, along with sugar’s ability to release large amounts of dopamine (the same neurotransmitter that makes you enjoy both sex and heroin) — it becomes very clear that we are a society of sugar junkies.
More than two-thirds of adults in the United States are overweight or obese, and around 8 percent of us have diabetes. Sugar certainly plays a major causal role in all of these conditions. It has also been demonstrated that sugar addiction contributes to depression, by causing an inflammatory response in the gut that then moves to the brain and prevents proper neurotransmitter function. This is known as the immune cytokine model of depression. Around 16 million adults have diagnosed major depression in this country, and very few of them know that sugar could be involved.
The second biggest devil in my life (at least drug-wise) has always been alcohol. I never really enjoyed drinking much, but there was something to the social bonding and “letting go” of it all that had a sort of appeal. I remember the first time I got wasted. I was 14 years old and downed nearly an entire fifth of liquor in a night.
After that initial binge, I took a short break but returned to liquor within a few months. I discovered that alcohol is an anti-anxiety drug. As a very anxious 14-year-old with interest in social connection but few skills to pursue it, alcohol naturally became a bit of a social lubricant for me. This is a very slippery slope (and how could it not be?) that led to me making a large set of very poor decisions. I got wasted at least twice a month for pretty much the entire first half of high school. I never really thought much of it, it was just what we did.
The main biological effect of alcohol is on a receptor known as GABA. This receptor is generally inhibitory, meaning that when it is activated, brain activity overall decreases. Alcohol activates this receptor (as do Xanax and Klonopin) and thus causes the brain to shut down its functioning. There’s a reason it’s hard to get your homework done with a buzz on.
This is an important fact to consider every time we consider drinking. Sometimes, anxiety keeps us from doing things that we might regret later. Too little anxiety can be a bad thing. For me, alcohol would very often cause me to do things I would later regret, especially in high doses.
It’s funny — I’m actually yet to have the night of taking shots where, at the end of it, I think back to myself: “Isn’t it wonderful how this liquor helped me figure out all of the complex and nuanced problems that life presents me with on a daily basis?” If you have, I’d love to hear about it.
Now, it was actually my third addiction that pulled me away from the second (and reinforced the first a bit as well). I’m talking about cannabis. You can say all that you want that cannabis isn’t addictive, but you’re simply wrong, and quite possibly in denial about your own cannabis use patterns. I can attest to this, as can thousands of others who have suffered from compulsory cannabis use. Spend a few minutes watching Terence McKenna lectures and you’ll know what I’m talking about. I’m not trying to say that cannabis addiction is necessarily a bad or unhealthy thing, but it is a real phenomenon.
I first hit a cannabis vaporizer when I was 16 years old, and that day changed my life significantly. I had suffered a series of serious head traumas playing football and rugby and, as such, dealt with symptoms of CTE and PTSD. Cannabis helped these symptoms immensely and allowed me to reintegrate into society much sooner than I could have without it. It is well demonstrated that cannabis can be beneficial to the brain after a head injury, and after that first puff, it was as if a monkey had been lifted off my shoulders.
But of course, like any good thing, a hedonistic teenager will take cannabis to extremes, and I reached a point where I was smoking hash before class almost every day during my final years of high school. A different monkey emerged — this time in the form of cannabis addiction. I justified it to myself back then, but there is no part of me that looks back now at that behavior and doesn’t think, “what a bloody addict.”
My final addiction, the most recently acquired, is caffeine. Caffeine is a drug. Our society seems to have accepted its use to the point where we no longer consider it taboo to wake up and take dopaminergic stimulant drugs every morning just to “get through the day.” Caffeine acts on the same dopamine pathways as amphetamines, heroin and sugar. We stigmatize someone using amphetamines every day, but not someone drinking coffee. That seems illogical to me.
I started drinking coffee every morning before class winter quarter and noticed that my productivity immediately increased to an immense degree. I got so much more done, felt better, talked to people more and overall felt like I had really figured something out. There must be a reason that so many adults do this every day!
But after a few weeks the magic started to taper off. I started needing caffeine just to feel “normal.” And then I took a day off. And another. I started noticing the withdrawal symptoms of caffeine: headache, lethargy and anxiety. At this point, I realized that I had picked up yet another addiction. Studies show that in high doses, caffeine can lead to psychosis and delusional thoughts, just like amphetamines, as well as increased heartbeat and anxiety. In this context, “high dose” is defined as above 200 mg of caffeine. A regular size light roast coffee from Starbucks contains 300 mg of caffeine. This is not a drug to play around with.
Our addictions hold us back. For me, letting go of these four crutches as my main ways of “dealing with life” has granted me a clarity and freedom that I can only describe as Godly. I still use some drugs in safe dosages and with adequate time between experiences to integrate what I’ve learned, but no longer am I the passenger holding on for dear life. I’m the driver now.
I’m still an addict, and I always will be, but at the very least I’m in control. If you or anyone you love suffers from addiction, please don’t hesitate to reach out and seek help. I’m here for you, as are thousands of others who have been through it.
We all make mistakes; the important thing is to learn from them.
Contact Noah Anderson at noah2212 ‘at’ stanford.edu.