Review: Memoirs of an Addicted Brain, by Marc Lewis, Ph.D.

>>Published: October 2011

>>Finally got around to it: January 2012

I am a little boy rummaging, drawer after drawer. And there are drugs here. So many. Sure enough, drawers full of boxes, piled high, free samples. Must be. And ohhhh, there’s the Demerol. Multidose glass vial: 50 milligrams per millilitre! That’s the strong stuff. Almost full. Now, the apparatus. Drawer full of syringes and needles, each cozy in its wrapper. I am literally chuckling with glee. I am pretending to be Mr. Hyde, or I’m not pretending. You’re fucked, I tell myself. But I’m still smiling. The accusatory voice has no power now. No mother, no father, anywhere. And look, a nice folded plastic bag. I start to stuff it. Halloween in Drugland. My mood is off the charts. Intense excitement, glee, power, triumph, and anticipation of the… oh yeah… shooting Demerol is just so nice. There is nothing like it. I once read that if there’s anything nicer in the universe, God saved it for himself.

***

That Marc Lewis is still alive, and has the remaining brain cells to accomplish all he has as a neuroscientist, is nothing short of a miracle. From his miserable teenage years interned in a New England boarding school, through university life during Berkley’s drug-addled 1970s, and crossing continents to Malay and Calcutta, Memoirs of an Addicted Brain is an engrossing first-hand examination of addiction—an account of its power, its ability to rewire the brain through perceived physical necessity, and its very unforgiving nature.

Marc Lewis writes about drugs with a split personality; he approaches his life and his various travels into and out of the world of drugs with both a scientist’s respect for knowledge and fact, and a child’s wonderment and eagerness to experiment with everything he can get his hands on. His memoirs, as it were, are part psychedelic travelogue, part detailed-yet-accessible breakdown of each drug’s effect on the human body and mind.

The appeal of drugs, as Lewis describes, is at once mythic and chemical. The dangerous proposition of removing oneself from the frustrations and difficulties of a less than ideal existence, spiking dopamine levels past risk and into reward, is effectively broken down and explained:

Dopamine—the fuel of desire—is only one of four major neuromodulators. Each of the neuromodulators fuels the brain operations in its own particular way. But all four of them share two properties. First, they get released and used up all over the brain, not at specific locales. Second, each is produced by one specialized organ, a brain part designed to manufacture that one potent chemical. Instead of watering the flowers one by one, neuromodulator release is like a sprinkler system. That’s why neuromodulators initiate changes that are global, not local. Dopamine fuels attraction, focus, approach, and especially wanting and doing. Norepinephrine fuels perceptual alertness, arousal, excitement, and attention to sensory detail. Acetylcholine energizes all mental operations, consciousness, and thought itself. But the final neuromodulator, serotonin, is more complicated in its action. Serotonin does a lot of different things in a lot of different places, because there are many kinds of serotonin receptors, and they inhabit a great variety of neural nooks, staking out an intricate network.

In four parts, chronicling his first steps into drug use and abuse, through world travel, failed relationships and marital missteps, and ultimately a minor (but still deplorable) life of crime to fuel his ever-expanding narcotics addiction, Lewis’ approach is honest and without apology. He acknowledges his failings without sugar coating them; instead, he offers insight and analysis few who have struggled with the same demons would ever find themselves in a position to provide.

Memoirs of an Addicted Brain is an uncomfortable, but still captivating exploration into a life most of us would fear for reasons of health, safety, and the sake of family and friends. Experiencing Lewis’ life, knowing he comes out on top in the end, doesn’t negate the nervousness and uncertainty one feels reading his exploits and the risks taken for that one extra hit of whatever he was pumping into his veins at any given moment. His eventual success with career and family doesn’t make his breaking and entering and failing our of grad school any less disheartening, or the many times he falls off the wagon any less demoralizing.

There’s an element of “taking one for the team” that permeates Lewis’ work—an almost indescribable fascination one feels reading the combination of science and gratification devoid of reason, and the knowledge that such an experience could only come from a mind wired for the darkest trips into self satisfaction and pleasure seeking. That he manages to walk away from his past with only a scarred brain, but still a high-functioning brain, is incredible.

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