Unbroken Brain

Journalist Maia Szalavitz talks about her former drug use, debunks myths about addiction and shares an excerpt from her book, Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction.

Maia Szalavitz was reading at 3 and voted most likely to succeed in seventh grade, but the “gifted” child was also miserable. “I was unusual,” Szalavitz says. “If I was growing up now, I’d be placed on the autism spectrum.”

Easily overstimulated or overwhelmed by sensory or emotional experiences, Szalavitz struggled to make friends. Although intellectually smart — she cycled through intense phases of special interests, from opera to science fiction to volcanoes — she was socially clueless. When she discovered drugs, she realized she had stumbled upon a special interest other people were interested in, too.

“I realized I could make friends and be cool,” she says.

It wasn’t long before Szalavitz went from having a scholarship to an Ivy League school to shooting cocaine 40 times a day.

“Going to college was very difficult for me,” she says. “I couldn’t connect to people. I was intimidated. I felt like I had toilet paper on my shoe. I had a boyfriend who was into coke, and I ended up selling it. That gave me a way to be popular again — or at least people wanted me to come to their parties. That ended up with me getting busted by the school. I got suspended for a year. I thought I had ruined my life, so I tried heroin, which nearly did ruin my life. In 1988, I got into recovery.”

Today, Szalavitz is one of the premier American journalists covering addiction and drugs and the author of Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction. Szalavitz sat down with Recovery Campus to talk about the history and nature of addiction and how to effectively prevent and treat it and shares an excerpt from the book.

Recovery Campus: What happened in 1988?

Maia Szalavitz: In 1986, I got arrested with 2.5 kilos of coke, so I was facing a 15-to-life sentence. I will note that I responded to that by doing more drugs, not less. For two years, I got radically worse. I was shooting up 40 times a day. Then, I needed heroin. It was awful. I was 80 pounds. I was covered with tracks. I felt horrible. Nothing worked anymore. I had a court date, and when I went, I told the judge I was volunteering to seek treatment. I did a traditional 28-day rehab, went to a halfway house, and did the 12-step thing for five to seven years.

During that time, my obsessive interest became figuring out what happened to me. I started reading about addiction. I wanted to write about addiction. My goal was to be a journalist. I started writing so I could debunk myths about addicts.

RC: In your book, one of your main arguments is that addiction is a developmental disorder, a learning disorder, and not a chronic, progressive brain disease. You write: “Addiction doesn’t just happen to people because they come across a particular chemical and begin taking it regularly. It is learned and has a history rooted in their individual, social and cultural development.” Can you talk about that?

MS: It is impossible to become addicted to something if you don’t know what it is. You have to learn heroin is what fixes you. Otherwise, you don’t know what to go buy. Addiction is a compulsive behavior despite negative consequences. If you define it as needing a substance to function, cocaine doesn’t count. But as someone who has done a lot of cocaine, let me tell you, cocaine is addictive. You have to learn the drug works for you. Then you have to continue to do the drug despite negative consequences. Punishment learning is a form of learning; therefore, addiction is a type of learning disorder.

A lot of people like this view because it accounts for why people’s choices are impaired, not eliminated. If you see people as zombies under the control of a drug, you want to lock them up to protect everyone else. But if you realize it’s contingent on impairment, you can reach people before they’re ready to recover. You can reduce harm. You can keep people alive till they’re able to stabilize.

RC: Why are teens and young adults particularly vulnerable to addiction?

MS: This is the other reason I see addiction as a developmental disorder: 90 percent of addictions start in the teens or 20s. There’s something going on in the brain. The cortex is finishing being built. You have a giant engine with very bad brakes. During those college years, it can be hard to avoid relapsing both for social and biochemical reasons. But a lot of people recover in their late 20s and early 30s.

RC: What do you think about the current state of treatment in our country? What are the implications of the developmental perspective?

MS: Addiction is defined by resistance to punishment, so why are we using punishment as our main way of treating it? By definition, it persists despite consequences. But if you take away people who were forced into treatment, the industry would collapse. They need to learn to be customer friendly. The most important element of addiction treatment is that connection between people. If you can get people to have that warm, social support — whatever it is — and enough sense of having a meaningful life, they’re going to recover. If you actually make treatment attractive, make it more friendly and less coercive, and treat people with dignity and respect, you’re going to get much better results.

It’s great to see young people, college students, people newly in recovery who are into these ideas and want to take them into treatment, into counseling, into policy. Anything that gets us to a more compassionate treatment system and less punitive policy has got to help.

RC: What does “Unbroken Brain” mean to you?

MS: Well, there is a secret piece of that. “Unbroken Chain” is a Grateful Dead song. But I wanted to convey the idea that your brain isn’t broken. You have fallen in love with the wrong thing. You have taken a path that allows you to learn something that turned out to be harmful.

But you’re not broken. The very same thing that allows you to persist despite negative consequences, when you put that to good use, you can have a great life. The neurodiversity movement gets at this: When you can turn a bug into a feature, that’s a good thing. It’s the same case with addiction.

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