Teen brains are uniquely primed for addiction — that age is all about novelty seeking, risk-taking, and impulsivity, a developmental stage with strong drives and little inhibition — and they “learn” the pleasures of alcohol and drugs a little too well.
Judith Grisel, PhD, a behavioral neuroscientist at Bucknell University who has written widely (and from personal experience) about the brain chemistry of addiction, explains why the urge to feel good “on demand” is so difficult to resist, and how the brain adapts to highs and lows.
Fortunately, she also explains the path to life after addiction. Plus… why smelling weed on every street corner these days makes recovery much harder.
Phil Stieg: Hello. I‘d like to welcome Dr. Judith Grisel, professor of Psychology at Bucknell University and an internationally renowned behavioral neuroscientist focusing on the pharmacology, genetics, cultural and behavioral aspects of addiction. Today we will discuss her book “Never Enough; The Neuroscience and Experience of Addiction.” In this book, she describes her own addictions, starting at the age of 13, as a framework for her life after substance abuse and her pursuit to understand the brain’s role in addictive behavior. Let’s learn from Judith how we as a society can grapple with this epidemic. Judith, thank you so much for being with us today.
Judith Grisel: Thank you for having me.
Phil Stieg: Can you kind of briefly summarize your personal history with this issue?
Judith Grisel: Sure. I had a pretty normal childhood. I grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey. My parents were married and everything looked great, I guess. And I was visiting a friend and she kind of randomly suggested, (and I think it was the first time for her too) that we try some alcohol that we found in her parents’ basement. So we opened up a half a gallon of wine. I drank at least half of that and was off to the races.
It was a transcendent experience, actually. I saw this later on a plaque behind a bar, and it kind of captured my experience that first time, which was that alcohol makes you feel like you’re supposed to feel when you’re not drinking alcohol. So suddenly I was well and whole and content, and I actually thought I had found the solution to growing up. I thought I found a shortcut, I guess, to growing up and being okay with myself. And so I drank and used every drug I could get my hands on for about ten years.
Phil Stieg: You start off by saying that life was normal, but in describing that, there must have been some hole, some emptiness, that you said that the wine made you feel whole.
Judith Grisel: Yeah. It’s a good question. I think, first of all, I’ve only met one person in my life, I think, who says that her life was actually normal. So I think most of us feel some kind of conflict or dilemma, and I certainly probably did, but really, I didn’t notice it until I had the solution in my belly.
Phil Stieg: Yeah. That’s intriguing. And one of the comments that you make in the book is that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety, but choice. Now, at 13, I’m not sure you’re fully capable of making choices like that. What are your thoughts on that?
Judith Grisel: Well, certainly my parents mentioned, “don’t use drugs,” and Nancy Reagan was saying, “don’t use drugs.” And I had heard some messages, but I was a kind of a high-risk-taking kid. I liked to try new things. I was the one who jumped out of the loft of the barn first and went over the waterfall first and went highest in the tree. So I think my natural tendency was to take risks and to try new things. So this was just another one of those. I don’t yeah,
Phil Stieg: You mentioned it in the book that you were the high-risk-taking kind of person. I’d like to clarify. Do you think that that is the nature of people with addictive personalities, number one, that they are more high risk-taking, and number two, you alluded to the fact that if you say no to something like prohibition, you’re driving the addictive personality towards the object of contentment.
Judith Grisel: Yes, I think you could call it a lack of maturity, maybe, that I had. So to answer your second question, I do think that I tend to go left when someone tells me to go right still a little bit. But I think back to your original question. Novelty seeking and risk-taking and impulsivity are components of addictive personalities. So I think the combination of being young and not really having a fully developed frontal lobe and maybe even having a little innate and anxiety, which is another kind of factor or aspect of the personality of a typical alcohol-use, disordered person.
Phil Stieg: In your book “Never Enough,” you talk about the scientific basis of addiction, and you refer to something called emotional homeostasis. What is that?
Judith Grisel: Well, everybody probably knows about homeostasis as it refers to body temperature or glucose levels or sleep drive. We try to go for this balanced state. Solomon and Corbett, who were two researchers at the University of Pennsylvania in the 70s, took that principle and applied it to our emotional states. And what they said is that any time there is a change in emotional status, either positive or negative, that takes us away from kind of the state of feeling.
Okay, so if I asked you right now, how are you feeling? And you said, I’m fine, that’s because nothing much is going on, but if something wonderful or something terrible happened, you’d be different than fine.
What they noticed is that one extreme leads to the other.
So that if I go on vacation, I’m kind of better than fine. But then when I come home, I experience a dip, and I’m kind of, like, ho-hum for a while. Or if I have some scary news, like I might have a tumor or cancer scare. And then I find out it’s benign, I don’t go right back to business as usual, but I instead probably would be especially grateful and especially relaxed and content for a while.
The thing about drugs is we think that we can feel great on demand. And, you know, the drugs are all around addictive drugs and their whole purpose in a way is to make us feel better than normal. The problem is that the brain goes back to homeostasis. So the more I take something that’s a euphoriant, for instance, the more suffering my brain is going to impose to kind of bring me back to normal.
Phil Stieg: Well, that seemed to me to be one of the key points of your book, is about the brain’s ability to adapt. when I think about emotional homeostasis, it’s a bell-shaped curve like anything else in life. There’s either extremely happy or extremely emotional or extremely unemotional. And what we’re all trying to find is that middle ground. And I’m presuming the drugs help. One starts thinking they’re going to help you find the middle ground.
Judith Grisel: The middle ground is the natural state. So I don’t think drug users are aiming for the middle ground. You know, the research that shows if you win the lottery, you’re happy for a short time, but then you go right back to where you were and if you have your legs amputated, same thing. You’re down for a while. But people are not despondent forever. It’s pretty hard to move that baseline, which is just our kind of neutral state.
And I think one reason the brain adapts to counteract perturbations from that neutral state is that if we didn’t have a neutral state, we wouldn’t be able to tell if good things or bad things happened. And if we can’t tell good things like, you know, a potential mate or a pot of honey or something else or bad things, then we wouldn’t survive. So the brain really kind of disallows extremes over long periods to provide us with a platform to evaluate everything we encounter.
Phil Stieg: I was just in a conversation last night about this with our children and are concerned that in our society today, children don’t have the grit. Something comes along and it really throws them off and they don’t know how to get back to where your brain wants to be, which is in the center. And we’re discussing why we seem to be in that situation. Is it parenting? Is it sociologic? I’m sure it’s all those things.
But do you think that an addictive personality is also an individual that they don’t necessarily want to be in the middle ground. They want to be on one end or the other of that bell shaped curve.
Judith Grisel: They want to be on one end for sure and not the other. And I think kids, though, have a very labile baseline state. If you’ve raised children, and I have also, it’s hard to know where their baseline is. And I think in a way they are the most tumultuous at that time for good reason, because they’re testing out lots of different experiences and they need kind of extreme responses to help form their identity. So many things are changing in their brains, in their bodies, in their lives, because all of a sudden, for the first time, they have some independence. So I think they’re probably the least stable – and for good reason. I think this is part of the evolutionary design. I also think, though, that I just was reading this that kids are more depressed and anxious than ever in history. l
I think there are a lot of reasons for that. I think one is a lack of connection and community and seeing things virtually. And virtual relationships are not the same as face-to-face relationships. So I think they feel isolated, and so they’re more fragile than normal. I also think they’re less exposed to natural risk, natural novelty. So their homes are in many cases, pretty protected and safe. And I think that’s kind of against their nature in a way.
And then finally, I guess, getting back to the brain. The brain is organized at this times to have strong drives but not very robust inhibitory control. So they’re not very equipped in general to think about the consequences of what they do. Again, by design. With that combination, loneliness, despair, a quick way to change your homeostatic level to wonderful from not so wonderful. I think they’re kind of sitting ducks.
Phil Stieg: Let’s get into that a little bit. What do you think – what are the positive and negative effects of drugs on the developing brain?
Judith Grisel: The single biggest predictor of problems with addictive drugs is using before you’re 18. Not only while the brain is not mature, but it’s very immature. And I think the simplest reason for that is that the young brains are better at learning everything. And addiction is a form of learning.
One out of four people who start using before they’re 18 develop a problem. And if you wait until you’re 21, it’s one out of 25. So this is a really steep slope of risk.
What we learn young, we learn best and most strongly. And so when we feel this change from homeostasis early on, when there’s a lot of emotional turmoil to begin with and novelty seeking and not a lot of cortical control, it really piques that reward pathway that helps us feel pleasure.
When you have any experiences when you’re young they have a lasting and more profound impact than when you have those experiences when you’re older and your brain is finished. More or less. It’s maturation –
Phil Stieg: – not finished, just mature.
Judith Grisel: Yeah.
Phil Stieg: I hope I’m not finished!
Judith Grisel: No, you’re good. Well, it can always change, but it changes much more readily when it’s not mature. Our brain is capable of changing until the day we die. But it’s really primed to do so before maturation in the 20s.
So during that time, the experiences we have permanently alter the structure and function of the brain and therefore behavior. So that in this case, by enhancing pleasure and a feel-good state our brain is very good at counteracting that and in making us come back to homeostasis, emotional homeostasis. And so then to feel high, we have to take more drugs.
And this process that leads to tolerance, for instance, and dependence where you need the drug to feel normal can happen in anybody. But it’s much more likely – it happens more quickly and more profoundly in younger people.
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Narrator: In the 1980s, the White House launched an anti-drug campaign led by First Lady, Nancy Reagan. It was founded on an overly simplistic catchphrase – “Just Say No.” But while the message was simple, addiction is not. The campaign framed addiction as a moral failing, and relied more on fear than on science to get its point across.
(Excerpt from the Reagan’s Address to the Nation on the Campaign Against Drug Abuse, September 14, 1986):
Nancy Reagan: “Today there’s a drug and alcohol abuse epidemic in this country, and no one is safe from it — because it’s aimed at destroying the brightness and life of the sons and daughters of the United States.”
Narrator: This wasn’t the first time that the White House took aim at drug use; Richard Nixon declared a “war on drugs” in 1971. But public support for “Just Say No” was unprecedented, with thousands of clubs springing up in schools across America.
Under “Just Say No,” all drugs—from marijuana to crack cocaine—were lumped together as equally addictive, which is scientifically inaccurate. And according to “Just Say No,” abstinence was the only solution.
Celebrities like Clint Eastwood were recruited to add a dramatic flair to the public service announcements. The menacing voice of “Dirty Harry” was intended to magnify the tone of fear and danger.
Clint Eastwood “Just Say No” PSA:
“See this cute little vial here? That’s crack rock cocaine, the most addictive form. You think it’s the glamor drug of the 80’s? Well that’s the point of this funded little reminder. It can kill you. And if you’ve got to die for something, this sure as hell ain’t it.”
Narrator: From the start, the program drew criticism for ignoring the science of addiction. “Just Say No” painted all drug users as irresponsible or criminal, and falsely claimed that any drug use led to violence or death.
It focused attention on punishing and jailing non-violent drug users rather than treating them. But addiction is a complex problem. Some drugs are more chemically addictive than others. And not every person is susceptible to chronic drug use. Factors such as stress, trauma and neurochemistry can play a part.
Today, organizations such as the nonprofit Drug Policy Alliance are working to change public perception of addiction, and to educate teens by promoting knowledge over abstinence and punishment. As Sasha Simon, DPA’s Safety First Program Manager, said: “We want to give young people accurate information and concrete strategies to keep them safe.”
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Phil Stieg: So when you’re going through your recovery, is it important to stay away from other people that are still addicted or not?
Judith Grisel: Well, when I was in treatment, this guy who came and spoke every Tuesday, I was there for four weeks and I don’t remember much of it. But I do remember this guy because he said it every week. He said it’s not hard to get sober. All you have to do is change your whole life.
Phil Stieg: Trivial.
Judith Grisel: Yeah, trivial. So I think that it is much harder if you’re around the people, places and things that remind you of your using. It’s also, by the way, pretty hard to get away from them for most people. They don’t get to go to a halfway house.
I lived in Minnesota from Florida for a year while I got used to dealing with things like frustration and sadness and happiness without drugs. But it often is the case that people have all good intentions and then they run into some reminder. It could be a person, a place or a thing and suddenly they’re overcome by cravings and succumb. I think this is one of the reasons that recovery is so hard.
For someone who’s a regular, let’s say a heroin user. When they see the cues like the bag or the pills or the needles that predict heroin is coming, their brain doesn’t need to wait for it to hit the bloodstream or the brain. It gets ready by producing the opposite effect. So if they see the needle, just them seeing the needle will bring about the opposite state. And for opiates that’s suffering and misery. And so you were feeling okay, you’ve been sober now for a few months, things are going well and you suddenly are overcome with a miserable state. And of course, the quickest way to fix that is to pick up the needle.
Phil Stieg: Do you think, believe, or want addiction to be a disease?
Judith Grisel: Well, right now, it is considered a disease by the AMA, and by the NIH, and most bodies like that around the world. We used to think it was a moral problem. People just need to “get with it” and straighten out. That doesn’t work so well…
10,000 people every single day around the planet die from excessive use of mind-altering chemicals. I think if they could change, probably they would. I think it is a disease. I think that unfortunately the word disease itself is not at all clear.
Phil Stieg: That’s the reason I was asking you, is because there’s a stigma that goes with the word disease. It has an upside being called a disease and there’s obviously a sociologic downside to it. And I was curious, having been through what you’ve been through, what are your personal thoughts about it?
Judith Grisel: If you saw me when I was addicted, you would say, “something is wrong with her.” You would cross the street. I was not just a little different from normal. I was pretty far gone. And I don’t think it helps to beat around the bush about that. I think I was going to die if I didn’t change pretty dramatically. And if I could have walked this line, I would have.
So I think my behavior was pathological, and I think it helped me to see that. In my case, when I heard I had a disease that was killing me and the only way I could live was to be abstinent, which was the belief of the treatment center I was in, and also, by the way, supported by most of the data, I figured I’d cure my disease. If it was a disease, it maybe should be curable. I’m not too hopeful about that anytime soon.
Phil Stieg: Given your past experience, I’m curious what your take is on the current move for the legalization of marijuana. I can’t go anywhere in New York without smelling it on the streets.
Judith Grisel: It’s really hard right now because there’s a lot of misinformation. Marijuana is called medicinal. I think kids and adults even, really aren’t clear what are the risks. And meanwhile, it’s kind of pushed everywhere. I’m not sure I would have been able to get clean and sober if I had been trying today and I smelled it on the streets, I smelled it in the rental cars. It was kind of everywhere. I think it would have been too much of a cue eliciting again, my brain’s response to get ready, and it would have been really hard.
I think society and our laws in general are giving a lot of mixed messages. And those messages are not based in science. That’s probably not new, but I think it’s pretty devastating right now.
And I’m very sympathetic to loved ones and parents especially. I just raised three teenagers myself. One of them is 20, the youngest. And it was hard. The reason I wrote the book, actually, is so that people would have the information they need. It is important to get the information out. And you can find this information at the National Library of Medicine. It’s freely available, and there’s a lot of good science all echoing the same theme, that it is not good for young children to be exposed. However, we know that young children don’t really listen to admonitions like that. So what can you do?
And I think two things. One is stay with them. All three of my kids just turned into little monsters, in a way, and I think I did, too. The tendency – the natural tendency is, I think, to just go in my room and close the door because they’re hard to be around, but I would make myself sit with them. Because I think just being around while they go through this pretty hard time is beneficial.
Phil Stieg: The words, I think, that echoed for me in your book, and I don’t know if I wrote them down on the margin or what, but it was; connection, sensitivity, empathy, and love. If you can communicate that as regularly as you can with a 15-year-old or a 13-year-old, those are of vital importance,
Judith Grisel: I think they really are. Although I speak with a lot of parents who try that, and I think it’s a fine line because … it’s hard to do. And I’ll give just an example from my own life, which I think is hard for most parents to do. But my kids all knew about the data because I was kind of jamming it down their throats since they were six. But I said to my one of my kids going to college, you know, I know you, I can’t stop you. You’re going to do what you’re going to do, but I’m not going to pay tuition if you test positive for marijuana.
Phil Stieg: So you set limits.
Judith Grisel: I set them and boy, that was eye opening. But what was interesting is that my children knew that I loved them. They knew that I knew the science, and they knew that I wasn’t kidding. And they had a terrible choice to make, but it was theirs. It’s always been painful, I think, to be an adolescent.
Phil Stieg: That’s the joy of being an adolescent, I think.
Judith Grisel: Well, in retrospect but when you’re in it, it’s pretty hard for a lot of us. I had a lot of pain and I think it’s good because what it does is it spurs us on to find our way. But it’s hard to do now especially. So I think that the rest of us and society has to support that as much as possible, recognizing that it’s hard. Kids are in extreme distress right now. They really are. Suicide is the highest it’s ever been in young people.
So they’re in pain. What can we do? We can model how to deal with pain ourselves in functional ways without wine boxes and binge-watching TV maybe. And we can also be there with them and support them. And hopefully we can all realize that we’ll be stronger for it in the end.
Phil Stieg: Connectivity, right? Be with them.
Judith Grisel: Connectivity, Yes.
Phil Stieg: Judith, I can’t tell you how happy I am to have spent this time with you. I think that your insight, both personal and scientific, will be extremely relevant to all of the listeners, and God willing, you will help guide us to some answers in terms of managing the drug addiction problem we have here in America. Thank you so much.
Judith Grisel: Thank you.