WALLY'S WORLD: Sometimes the personality is addictive

Good morning, class. Today’s topic is addiction and some of the mistaken ideas we have about it.

Many of us who came of age in the Sixties believe drugs like heroin and methamphetamine are more addictive than milder drugs like marijuana. I know I used to believe that; in fact, I used to argue that pot isn’t even addictive. And I certainly felt heroin was more addictive than a behavior where nothing was ingested, like gambling.

Well, surprise and double surprise! Based upon extensive scientific research over the last 10 or 20 years, none of these assumptions are true. It turns out heroin and meth aren’t any more addictive than cigarettes or grass or gambling.

How can this be? Well, it has recently become apparent that addiction has little to do with the drug or food ingested, be it a narcotic, psychedelic or sugar. Instead, it has everything to do with the genetic code of the individual involved.

Owing to biochemical difference, certain people are more prone to addiction than others. There are doctors who have used morphine on a regular basis for 20 or 30 years, then abruptly quit and experience few if any withdrawal pains. Similarly, there are people who have consumed a pack or two of cigarettes every day for 20 years and than decide to quit – cold turkey – and have no withdrawal symptoms whatsoever. Not a single chill or tremor.

At the other extreme, some people are easily hooked on any damned thing that comes down the pike, be it cocaine or coffee or soap operas (yes, even soap operas.) Psychologists call them “addictive-prone” personalities. If they smoke two cigarettes, they’re immediately hooked for life. Drop a hit of acid once and, thereafter, they never want to come down. They can’t drink just one cup of coffee in the morning; they have to ingest caffeine all day long. What’s more, if their habitual behavior or drug of choice is discontinued, the withdrawal pains are so agonizing they have to be institutionalized. If they miss even one episode of “Young and the Restless” they come completely unglued. (Norman Mailer was quite correct when he observed that, for some people, “kicking a two-pack-a-day nicotine habit is just as difficult as kicking heroin.”)

Of course, most of us fall somewhere between these extremes. We can consume alcohol socially without making complete fools of ourselves. We can smoke weed now and then and not lapse into a continuous need to be stoned 24/7. Of course, we can certainly be hooked, but it takes longer and, when we decide to quit, the change isn’t as traumatic.

It’s important to note that addiction-prone individuals aren’t necessary “weaker” or less intelligent than anyone else. They’re simply prone to addiction, that’s all. Some eminent, world-renowned leaders and artists are addicts. Winston Churchill was an alcoholic. Elton John and Ray Charles were into heroin. However, I’d quickly point out that, for every Winston Churchill, there are tens of thousands of wasted alcoholics crashed on city sidewalks and, for every Elton John, there are tens of thousands of heroin junkies shooting up behind garbage cans in rat-infested alleys.

Socially, these new insights into addiction could have some pretty profound consequences. No one likes to be told he shouldn’t do something that other people can do. But that’s simply the way it is.

On a more positive note, scientists are close to isolating the genes responsible for addiction. When they accomplish this, addiction might finally be laid to rest by simply adding a little protein to the chromosome mix.

In the meantime, when your children ask you about addiction – assuming your relationship is such that they will ask – tell them the truth: depending on the individual, cigarettes and booze and anything else from food to heroin, aren’t necessarily addicting. Also explain how dangerous drugs can be and emphasize that they shouldn’t be played with. But don’t lie to your kids. Teenagers have a built in bunk detector that can smell nonsense in a heartbeat.

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