I was waiting for Suyi. Again.
The lights were dim inside Drop-Off Service and I was an hour early. At the bar, I ordered whatever beer had the highest alcohol content and took a seat along the oaken counter next to the windows, took a long gulp that cleaned out a fifth of the glass, and looked out onto the street, waiting.
I missed this place, and having not been there in over a year, it was a full forced sledgehammer of nostalgia. At the same time, I wanted to run away as fast as possible. But I couldn’t.
Suyi was my ex from college and former living companion with whom I spent almost all of my undergraduate life conjoined at the hip. While we were at New York University, I couldn’t separate myself from her, and she couldn’t separate herself from me. We broke up for a few months, got back together until she went to study abroad where she met someone else. It sucked. I didn’t see her for five months, maybe six, but I still thought about her every day—two or three times a day, even when I was with someone else—day in and day out. We never got back together and I couldn’t put her and me in the past. She was there, in my mind, right next to the hope we would get back together. We never did.
I wasn’t there to win her back though. I was there as a journalist, to ask her for the first time since we broke up what she thought had happened to us. Really though, I was there to figure out something about myself: Why did I stay when things had gotten so bad? Why did I try to convince myself otherwise of what I probably already knew deep down: It was never going to get any better.
She looked the same: geometric-patterned button-up, spandex-tight jeans, and a mangled blue beanie, neon blue-and-green dyed hair and eyebrow piercing that she got when we first met. Suyi was impossible to miss.
I stood up and Suyi practically leaped into my body hugging me so hard that I thought I heard my spine crack. She got a beer and I got another. I was going to need it.
I turned on the recorder but couldn’t ask questions straight. I rambled and flooded her with a stream of words and ideas.
“Slow down, dude,” she said. “You’re fucking nervous. Just chill the fuck out. This is going to be fun.”
I did not make it fun. I went straight for the hard stuff – the fights, the insults that cut to the insecurities, the mood swings, the cheating, the venom. The stuff that hurt.
“I was crazy,” Suyi told me up front, unabashedly. “You made me crazy.”
Had I? At my 20th birthday dinner a light conversation about school and work had quickly turned into no-holds match of verbal bareknuckle boxing, probably the twentieth time that week that we were fighting about her rage over the fact I wanted to go to law school. She promised to “make my life a living hell” because she really hated lawyers for reasons so deep and embryonic that the mere thought of my studying to become one filled her with disgust.
“What’s the point of us even continuing to date then?” I asked her. “Why don’t we just break up now?” That’s when her mascara started to run. I felt my cheeks burning red with frustration and concern as I got the check.
I promised not to go to law school.
Now, we stepped outside Drop Off Service to smoke, and for a brief moment, just leaned against the window together in silence. I thought of what she had just said, that I made her crazy and could not shake it. I made you crazy? Why was it my fault? Why are you blaming me?
I had not been happy. I wanted it to get better but it never got better. It went in cycles, from bad to complacent to cutting off all contact. I loved her and I hated her and here I was, wanting to ask her to help me understand why I stayed.
Suyi told me that she had loved me, which was nice to hear, I suppose. But she was not going to be able to tell me what was going on in my head, and worse, whether I was doomed to do the same fucking thing again.
Having had a pair of rose-tinted glasses super-glued to my face while I was dating Suyi, it was hard to pin down the rationale behind trying to stay together, even when it was evident that that wasn’t the smart option; really, it was the worst. The knee-jerk answer when looking for a justification for staying too long is “you were in love,” as well as the more plausible yet equally unsatisfying “people do stupid shit when they’re in love.”
This was not satisfying. I mean, love seems like part of it, but that seems too cheap. Besides, given that I was in the relationship, I never had the outsider’s perspective: Essentially, I never really saw whether or not I really was in love with her. And given I had been perceiving Suyi this entire time as the Virgin Mary, Gisele Bündchen, and Carrie Brownstein, all wrapped up into one, and even she was telling me she was crazy, I badly needed some outside perspective.
Was there something wrong with me, with my brain and it how it worked, being so dumb in love?
I went in search of answers, and for once, it did not take a long to find them.
This is the first thing I learned: people act like idiots. A lot. Especially when it comes to hope, and its psychological home, optimism.
This was made clear to me by Steven Hayes, a professor of psychology at the University of Nevada, Reno, who told that there really is no difference in terms of being optimistic about healthy things – like careers – and bad things, like shitty relationships.
In the right context, he said, any sort of emotion— including optimism—can lead to toxic outcomes. Known by academics as “experiential avoidance” or “psychological inflexibility,” people begin to develop habits in order to avoid particular emotions – as well as thoughts, feelings, and memories, thereby providing relief from the discomfort they were seeking to avoid. So, for example, by being overly optimistic about my relationship, Hayes told me, I was avoiding confronting the fact that the relationship was dead.
“You start denying the validity of your own emotions or thoughts,” he said. This means acting in ways that you – and everyone around you – know, and say is wrong, but which nonetheless you cannot help yourself from doing. “Building habits predicts bad outcomes as far as the eye can see.”
Loving Suyi, and believing that this love could succeed, had become a nasty habit that I was doing my best to sustain.
Beyond just hindering your social relations, creativity, mental stability and productivity, Hayes added that “experiential avoidance” actually takes a toll on your physical health. In a February 2016 study published in Mindfulness, researchers compared the telomere lengths of practitioners of Spanish Zen Buddhism practitioners with those of basic, stressed-out coffee drinking adults. Telomeres are the like the plastic ends of shoelaces, but for DNA strands, protein complexes that protect the DNA from being damaged or frayed. They can also be used to predict the onset of several diseases like cancer and hypertension: The shorter the telomere, the more likely you’re going to die. Age is the largest cause of telomere shortening, but can be shortened by such factors as stress. The study concludes that the Spanish Zen Buddhists, masters of chill towards undesirable thoughts, had longer telomeres than their non-Zen counterparts and will most likely live longer lives than their non-Zen-practicing counterparts.
In elucidating the behavioral aspect of being an extremely hopeful person, Hayes noted that “you can get addicted to anything from the sense of the patterns that you’re building, like addiction to exercise [or] addiction to pain,” and even optimism. It is one thing observing someone’s obsessive, and harmful behavior. It is another to know what is actually taking place on the neurophysical circuit board that cause these sorts of emotional addictions.
We love saying that the human brain is still a giant black hole of a mystery. Philosophers of the Mind may still argue that the consciousness is a floating, ethereal blob, even as neuroscientists try to understand whether everything from our thoughts to our emotions represents neurons and synapses firing in particular sequences.
Dr. Lucy Brown, a professor of neuroscience at Albert Einstein School of Medicine, has spent years in the lab with her colleagues trying to decipher and map out what exactly is going on inside our heads at the neurophysical level. In particular, they’ve conducted research to try and determine the biochemical factors that figure into our emotions and physical states during romantic relationships.
“It starts in this primitive brain system for reward and uses dopamine, which is also where you see activity when people are on a cocaine high,” Dr. Brown told me. “So all the areas in the brain we found in love are also found to be involved when people are abusing alcohol, cocaine, or heroin. So the way we look at it is that, really, romance—the attachment to another person or falling in love, so it’s not just the romance but then the attachment—it’s like hunger or thirst, and these are natural systems we were given, because you need to be addicted to food or water. You can’t just not pay attention if you’re thirsty.”
So essentially, this addictive-like property of love isn’t anything new; rather, it’s a common necessity is most of our loves. In her explanation, however, Dr. Brown mentioned one chemical that I’d heard quite a lot about: dopamine. Of course, when studying all the physiological aspects of the brain during relationships, there are many other important chemicals involved like oxytocin, or the “love” drug, and serotonin, which regulates moods. Still, when it comes to the survival of the relationship and the feel-goodness, in particular, the addictive factor that resonated for me in trying to keep the relationship alive, is linked to dopamine.
In the brain, dopamine functions as a neurotransmitter. This means that it’s a chemical messenger released by neurons, which then proceeds to pass through a gap known as a chemical synapse to a “target” neuron. Located on these “target” neurons are dopamine receptors, which the dopamine neurotransmitter will bind to and send the signal to the “target” neuron to produce the designated effect.
These neurophysical systems by which dopamine transmits information in the brain are known as dopaminergic pathways. So far, scientists know of eight of these different pathways. Depending on which pathway the dopamine neurotransmitter travels leads to different results. But I’m focusing on the pathway essential to my inquiry regarding hope and relationship addiction, which is the mesolimbic pathway, also known as the “reward pathway.” When dopamine is released by neurons located in the ventral tegmental area — a cluster of dopamine-producing neurons found in the midbrain section — it is transmitted through the mesolimbic pathway to the nucleus accumbens (essentially a mass comprised of spiny neurons).
This process is stimulated during rewarding experiences, particularly when it seems that your needs are going to be met. Contemporary research, however, points to evidence that dopamine isn’t directly related to the actual “pleasure,” but rather the desire of the pleasure. The firing of dopamine in the brain will occur when we expect a pleasurable outcome of an event, regardless of whether that event comes true or not. If this theory holds true, this means dopamine is our body’s way of training us to take notice of experiences that can be rewarding and, as a result, to repeat these behaviors. We want to anticipate being happy as much, if not more, than we want to be happy. Dopamine makes this possible.
This also can explain why such substances as cocaine, heroin, amphetamines, and marijuana—each of which produce some euphoria—can lead to addiction. The presence of these drugs flood the mesolimbic pathway with an unusually large amount of dopamine. Given the neurotransmitter’s reinforcement capability, dopamine teaches you that only these substances will produce that high. Unfortunately, constantly trying to hammer your brain with dopamine overload through drug abuse can cause the development of a “tolerance,” whereby you’ve actually destroyed your dopamine receptors, making you lust to consume an even greater amount of the drug to achieve the same level of a “high.”
So now I was beginning to see that I was a type of junkie — and that it’s not completely uncommon. But of course, we all go through break-ups, and yet for some reason, I couldn’t let go afterwards. When Suyi and I broke up, she moved on pretty quickly. At the bar, she said that she got over it by “having a lot and lot of sex.” For me, though, it wasn’t so quickly. Even months after we broke it off, I was still in withdrawal: There was still part of me hoping, yearning, wishing that the relationship would somehow work out. My dopamine system was at it again.
So, as Dr. Brown put it, we are all susceptible to addictive tendencies when it comes to love. But can it be possible for some of us to be more sensitive to a particular substance, or in my case, emotion? Isn’t that what makes you an addict?
Take a moment to think of cocaine users. Almost everyone that has lived in some urban environment has those friends who did blow every now and then at a house party or concert. On the other extreme are people who snort coke like it’s their coffee. Why the different responses?
Gabor Maté, a physician specializing in addiction and author of In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, a book that analyzes the root causes of addiction, believes he has some answers. While he does not discount the likelihood that genetics come into play in determining our predilection towards addiction development, he believes that environmental factors during early childhood development—in particular, the mother-child relationship—play a tremendous role in addiction-prone personality development. His studies and research regarding addiction personality, along with those of several other experts in the field, has led to him conclude that the way children are raised by their mothers is one of the most important factors in influencing whether a child will develop an addiction-prone personality, and what your vice will be.
Maté writes that a mother can possibly impart her own anxiety onto her child by not providing the child with emotional stability, thereby preventing the circuits responsible for the brain’s ability to feel “love” from developing properly. The case study he cites is that of three mother-child pairs of monkeys, where each mother had to forage for food to feed her child. One mother was given an easy path to finding food; another had an extremely difficult time; and third mother’s paths fluctuated between easy and hard. The study confirmed Maté’s theory: it was the third mother, the inconsistent one, whose child wound up an addiction-prone basket case.
Maté also points to factors in early childhood that could have functioned as coping mechanisms for stress. For example, he writes that infants or children who are anxious or upset and are subsequently given human or plastic nipples as a form of comfort may develop an association between “emotional nourishment and oral feeding or soothing.”
When I interviewed Dr. Maté over Skype, I tried to ask him about the neurophysical aspects of addiction, namely, what in our DNA or genes makes us addicted to emotions. I also admitted that the story had begun with an analysis of my own turbulent relationship with Suyi and my curiosity as to why I seemed unable to leave her.
He resisted reducing addiction simply to neurobiology, and instead began asking me what my mother was like raising me, adding that whatever sort of social and emotional relationships I had with my mother would be associated with my addiction to hope.
“Some people, they get their dopamine flowing by being in a challenging relationship,” he said. “The template for that goes back to your early childhood. So you tell me about your relationship, and I’ll tell you about your relationship with your mother. It’s that simple.”
“Oh dear,” I thought to myself, “Freud has come back from the dead in the form of a Hungarian Jewish shrink.”
Hoping to find something here, I went along: I told him about my nervousness at her random aggression, the fear she would get mad at something I might say about law school or some girl, and the underlying optimism that it’d get better.
“So how far back do you remember that feeling?” he asked. After a moment of silence, he answered for me: “That’s the point. And whose love did you most want as a kid?”
You’ve gotta be fucking kidding me, I thought.
Skeptical snarkiness aside, looking back, I can see quite a bit of substance to Maté’s theory that child-rearing is partially to blame. There was an uneasiness that has been burned into my memory of the stress of my mother screaming at my father for his constant residency at his office and working Herculean hours. When they’d get into shouting matches during my toddler years, I recall running in between them and freaking out over for the fear that they were going to be getting a divorce (to this day that’s yet to happen, but for some reason, it was a deep-rooted fear for much of my youth, possibly due to the stigmatization of divorce at the time). As I grew older, I recall being more and more on my toes about whether something I would say could cause my mother to simply SNAP, suddenly switching the conversation from good to bad.
The phone interview I had with my mother, Debra, highlights such emotional instability, I think.
Debra probably hated Suyi deep down, and Suyi definitely made it clear she how much she hated Debra. More often than not, I found myself getting yanked back and forth between the two on what to do in life: law school or journalism grad school; go to a commodified Jewish deli in Midtown or a haute Asian fusion restaurant in the East Village; find an apartment to live in on my own, or move in with Suyi. As I learned through my father, you’re going to end up accommodating the person you end up sleeping next to at night, even if it’s not the preferred choice. Either way, I ended up hurting on the inside.
I called my mother to talk about Suyi. She had things to say, a lot of things to say actually. For all of the 40 minutes, her tone was aggressive, piercing, dominating, as if she were trying to reach through the phone to drive home her theories about my ex. Halfway through the conversation, it became questionable whether she wanted to hear what I really thought about the relationship, or just what she wanted to hear she thought about the relationship. She reminded me how miserable I seemed whenever I was around Suyi, how much the people we hung out with were burnouts, and, well, point blank asked me if I really was happy.
The more and more she spoke, the tighter I could feel myself clenching my jaw, mostly in confusion. At one moment, she was coming across as antagonistic; minutes later, she was breaking down into tears and telling me how proud she was of me. The emotional see-saw was stressing me out so much that midway through transcribing the conversation on my laptop, I had to step outside for a cigarette, which I puffed down to a nub.
“You’ve always had hope,” Debra said through her tears over the phone. “You’ve always tried to do better. You’ve always tried to learn. You’ve always tried to do good. You’ve always tried to be the best at something.”
It is true. In college I worked myself to what felt like death for an A, or for the praise. For Deb, when it comes to work, this is all great to have ingrained in one’s personality because, to her, this brain-melting drive is what’ll get you ahead in life. But, she said, “when you’re dealing with human relationships hope works in different ways, and I guess that’s what you have to learn: that it’s a different kind of hope.”
As difficult, maddening, infuriating and illuminating as the talk my mother was, I still had to question Maté’s theory that my mother is largely to blame. I’ve constantly felt her love, always doting and telling me that “I was the perfect son” or “I couldn’t have gotten a better kid.” Rather, it felt like I had an oversaturation of love. My mother was proud, so proud that she’d always brag about it. As I write this, it’s coming together. I felt good making my mother proud. It meant the world that’d she’d blab about me at dinner parties about being a son that she was “so damn proud of.” But therein lay the problem: I was scared to fail and disappoint her.
Despite Maté providing copious evidence showcasing that the mother-child relationship plays a major role in addictive personality development, I still didn’t feel satisfied by putting so much blame on Debra. With alcoholics, scientists have pointed to genetic hereditary traits as a causal explanation for why an offspring might develop alcoholism. But can addiction to emotions, material goods, drugs, and even alcohol, be based solely on how well mom raised you? I mean, we all have that one adrenaline junkie friend who gets his rocks off on BASE jumping or skydiving. And what about the neurosurgeons who only truly feel alive when they’re scrubbed up and a mere slip away from turning their patients into a couch potato and a medical malpractice lawsuit? Do we really just have an ongoing epidemic of less than ideal child rearing and these guys are all products of questionable parenting?
Maybe, but I don’t think it’s the whole picture. Addiction, according to several professionals in the field, is the result of several factors. Richard A. Friedman, a clinical professor of psychiatry, at the Weill Cornell Medical School, wrote an article noting the presence of dopamine “addiction” in kids with A.D.H.D. Essentially, people with A.D.H.D. and adrenaline junkies are likely to have less dopaminergic receptors for the neurotransmitter to bind to in comparison to your average human. This ends up making these lower-dopamine-receptor-individuals, at the baseline state, less sensitive to desire-reinforcement prompted by dopamine transmission. As a result, normal, repetitive activities like math homework and cleaning the dishes are perceived as, well, intolerably boring.
“The number of dopamine receptors in your reward pathway is plastic, meaning it’s susceptible to change,” Dr. Friedman told me. “There are lots of things that can change [your dopamine receptor count]: experience can change it, exposure to drugs can change it.” Then he added, “They’re not causal.”
But of all the neurosurgeons who experience a god-like high in the operating room, it’s almost certain that not every one of these guys has A.D.H.D. So how do adrenaline junkies develop their neurophysical addictions? There’s no firm evidence at the moment, but Shahram Heshmat, PhD, an Associate Professor Emeritus, University of Illinois at Springfield specializing in Health Economics of Addiction and Obesity, noted in an interview withe the blog Hopes & Fears that adrenaline junkies might have a neurochemical connection with drug-users that you’re probably all-too-familiar with now: dopamine.
“High sensation-seekers may be over-stimulated by novel experiences because their brains release more dopamine during these events than those of low sensation-seekers,” Dr. Heshmat said. “The feeling of pleasure and satisfaction leads to the sensation-seeker coming back for more.”
So if adrenaline junkies are in fact experiencing both the adrenaline rush along with the sort of euphoria associated with a flooding of dopamine, then a low level of dopamine receptors—as is the often case for people diagnosed with A.D.H.D. and drug-addicts—could explain why the speed-demons become junkies in the first place. Essentially, then, addictive personalities might not be wholly Mother Nature’s fault in terms of genetics, but a combination of what Mom and Dad gave us at birth along with influences from our surrounding environment.
Doctors and experts may spend their lives researching the neuroscience behind addiction—more specifically, drug addiction—looking at neurons firing and DNA to figure out what, at the micro-level, makes a person tick. But, in the end, there’s one thing that subject testing in the lab cannot replicate: the true sensation and experience of unmitigated addiction. Lisa Whittemore, the author of “Heroin: A Love Story” was an addict, and experienced the highs and the lows that came with being a junkie. She has been sober for 15 years.
When I called Whittemore, I had one goal in mind: to get inside her head and figure out what it’s like to be a junkie. Why, and how, does someone end up pursuing and ingesting a substance that they know will make them a slave to actual, physical cravings? And why do so few ever leave their addictions behind?
Luckily, Whittemore ended up being completely uncensored in telling me her life story. She was born into a well-off New England family in Boston (though her parents did divorce), who had no ties to drug culture and preferred their seemingly-perfect fancy dinner parties to anything at all linked to Skid Row. Whittemore, on the other hand, integrated herself into the local punk scene and became a devout follower of all things distorted. From there, she began experimenting with drugs, with her friends introducing her to weed, then cocaine, and finally, the shooting up heroin, and unable to stop. When I asked why—why she started, why she couldn’t put down the needle—all that she could say really was, well, it felt good. But more frightening was the fact that eventually it stops feeling good, but rather it just becomes a routine.
“You’re initially addicted to the feeling and you keep repeating the behavior in order to get that same feeling,” she said. “And then even when the feeling starts to dissipate because of overuse, overindulgence, you’re so addicted to the action of doing it that you just keep doing it, even when it doesn’t feel good anymore.”
Hearing Lisa say this—that her addiction eventually transformed from being a source of pleasure to a nightmare that ran her day-to-day thinking—resonated with my own situation. Like her, my family was not poor, and the only addictive model I saw was overwork. So like Whittemore and heroin, it felt good being with Suyi at first: we did enjoy each other’s company—eating dinner, watching movies, moving in together into an apartment—but eventually, it wasn’t so much “fun,” but rather the norm. We got dinner together all the time, so it became a question of how do I eat dinner and not wait for her if she’s home.
Whittemore even noted, as she did when writing the title for her story, that being an addict to drugs isn’t all that different to being in love, from a psychological standpoint. After a certain point you’re just going through the motions, too scared to go outside because when you first try being sober, she said, even the most basic, normal routine like getting groceries “is fucking terrifying.”
Both of us confessed to each other that, when we both started noticing that our relationships with our substances were turning toxic, neither one of could find the strength to pull the trigger. Lisa kept on calling herself a “pussy” and too scared to deal with the skin-ripping pain that is heroin withdrawal; I just couldn’t say “die” and handle the possible emotional trauma. Even at the points when I was high as Mr. Kite in the relationship trauma, I was fully aware that this cycle of highs and lows needed to end to save my sanity. So I’d plan it out.
Two, three times a week, I’d psych myself up like a football player up just before a game, thinking over and over “just call her and end it. You know you’ll feel better.” But even when I did try to end it, only hours later, she’d be calling me—completely confused and tearful—and dissolving any sort of value in the effort that went into my emotional steeling and readying my mind, and heart, to end it. I was a slave to my own addiction.
“When you’re loaded you think ‘I can get clean,’” Whittemore said, recalling numerous points during her addiction where she had this grandiose conception of going through a full-blown heroin cleanse—like Ewan McGregor in Trainspotting, tomato soup cans and all—only to wind up getting high the next day, and the next day; eventually giving up the idea as a whole. “And all I can say is I guess it gives you like a false sense of courage.”
“I’m not an expert, scientist, doctor, just a drug addict speaking my own personal experiences,” Whittemore said, repeatedly. Rather, everything was based on what she had lived through. For her, there was no defining checklist that determined what could have prompted her addiction. She just knew that it happened, and somehow, eventually she fought and defeated her addiction.
At Drop Off Service, after an hour and a half of testimony, reminiscing, and plenty of drinking, I finally hit “stop” on the iPhone recorder. I exhaled a huge sigh and checked the time. Suyi asked me if I had a date, and I told her I was going to go see a girl. She squealed with excitement and went 20 questions in on her and her background; I did the same about her guy. It felt odd, finally being able to talk to my ex about us—more so, who we were dating. I hugged her goodbye after closing the tab and headed to the L Train subway. The plinking xylophone beats of “(I Know) There’s Gonna Be Good Times” by Jamie xx flooded my eardrums through the headphones I was wearing, with Young Thug squelching “Good times, ther’s gonna be some good times”. Honestly, that couldn’t have been more the opposite of the case.
I realized in that moment—and even more so now after digging down the neuropsychological rabbit hole—that to a large degree I’m probably fucked in my future relationships. If anything, I have merely figured out the explanation to why I stayed with Suyi and confirmed a hypothesis that, innately, I probably knew all along: I’m always going to stay in relationships that keep me on the insecure edge; I’m not going to leave when all the signs are right there in my face telling me I’d be better off in the long-run. I’m an addict. That tension, that hope for love, in a weird masochistic way, feels really, really good.
But, I guess, junkies can get clean. At least that’ll allow for some foresight of how to handle these things in the future.
If I really am a hope junkie, all I can do is hope for the best.
Matthew Sedacca is a graduate of the Columbia Journalism School and a freelance writer. Originally from Houston, Texas, he has written for publications like Eater, VICE, and the Diplomat.