An addiction specialist discusses her patients’ problems and how she deals with them, and it’s an unsettling picture.
Lembke, medical director of the Stanford Addiction Medicine clinic, begins with a lesson in neuroscience. Nerves along brain pathways that process rewards (i.e., pleasure) use dopamine as a “neurotransmitter”—to deliver signals. The more dopamine an experience releases, the more we enjoy it. However, dopamine processes pain as well as pleasure, and a healthy brain maintains a balance. Most of us stop eating when we feel full. Coffee often provides all the stimulation we need. Gambling, drinking, shopping, or watching pornography are intermittent activities. Addiction, the mark of an unhealthy brain, is a compulsive behavior that continues despite the harm it causes, and it’s a worldwide epidemic. The biggest risk factor is easy access. History books proclaim Prohibition a failure, but it produced a big drop in alcoholism, public drunkenness, and alcohol-caused liver disease, which rose again after repeal. Today, it seems, all indulgences are accessible. Since around 2000, the rampant overprescription of narcotics has produced skyrocketing addiction and death. The internet allows us to engage in social as well as unseemly activities in private. Popular medical books rely on vivid case histories, and Lembke offers plenty. Her first is a lifelong masturbation addict who was ultimately able to achieve control. There follow accounts of other types of addicts, and she describes her treatment strategy based on the acronym DOPAMINE: data, objectives, problems, abstinence, mindfulness, insight, next steps, and experiment. Most readers will find it reasonable, and the author does not trumpet its success rate. Some of the most insightful passages involve lying, a malignant process in a cooperative society but essential to maintaining addictive behavior. Many people believe that honesty—unmasking our flaws—will drive people away, but it does the opposite.
A good education on addiction, fascinating case histories, and a sensible formula for treatment.