Might as well face it, you're addicted to sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll
WHEN I moved to Hawaii in 1985, the hit song "Addicted to Love" by Robert Palmer was playing on the airwaves. Before that, Roxy Music came out with the catchy dance club tune "Love is the Drug." It turns out they were right. Scientific research shows that the brain chemistry of "early" love (the first eight to 17 months) and addiction are quite similar.
Rutgers University anthropologist Helen Fisher conducted studies during a six-year span to answer questions related to the nature of love. She recruited people who were "madly in love," and recently spurned lovers as well. After showing them pictures of their objects of affection, the researchers used MRI machines to do brain scans of the subjects.
What they saw was that the parts of the brain linked to reward and pleasure were "lit up" in the smitten group. These same areas are dense with receptors for neurotransmitters called dopamine. But the lights were off, so to speak, in the brains of the jilted lovers, who displayed symptoms comparable to withdrawal.
Dopamine in the right proportions, Fisher says, creates "intense energy, exhilaration, focused attention and motivation." Lovebirds know that feeling -- and so do addicts. The problem, though, is we build up a tolerance to the dopamine surges, so it takes more to achieve the same effect. Which is why "romantic" love fades over time in most cases. It's not just you.
Other similarities include personality changes and dependence. Love can also make you do crazy, dangerous things. That's because the rush of dopamine pushes us to take risks for one overriding purpose: to mate and breed. Or, if you're an addict, to score drugs. In either pursuit, the goal is to expand the sense of self, in one way or another. "Ecstasy" is both a feeling and a feel-good drug.
IN ITALY, the land of amore, psychiatric professor Donatella Marazziti conducted her own research into the biochemistry of "lovesickness." She measured seratonin levels in subjects and found striking similarities between love and obsessive-compulsive disorder. According to the National Geographic article ("Love, The Chemical Reaction," Feb. 2006), seratonin levels in lovers' blood and people with OCD were 40 percent lower than normal subjects. Her conclusion: love and mental illness are "difficult to tell apart."
Seratonin imbalances, which also are associated with depression and anxiety, can be treated with drugs like Paxil and Zoloft. But Fisher worries that using these mood-control drugs can jeopardize a person's ability to love because they dull emotions.
And what is love without the rollercoaster ride of emotions? Think of all the songs that compare love to the sensation of being dizzy or disoriented. On iTunes, there are dozens of songs that include the word "rollercoaster" in the title.
Addicts experience those kind of lows and highs in their relationships with illicit substances. Rock and roll classics about drugs, like Eric Clapton's "Cocaine" and "Witchy Woman" by the Eagles, are really love songs, too. It's all about seduction. And choices.
Love and addictive desires compete for the same "real estate" in the brain, the researchers say. How often do we hear loved ones pleading with addicts to choose between them and the addiction? The fact is, in many instances, the addict's brain has already chosen. Drugs supply the same feelings they used to get from being loved -- or if they never felt love, it provides the same sort of biochemical rush.
Perhaps that's why in rehab and at 12-step meetings you see a lot of hugging going on. The act of physically embracing someone releases brain chemicals that make you feel better. It's part of the reconditioning process that allows love to reclaim that territory in the brain.
ACCORDING to Fisher, the neural systems for love and sex are quite distinct. She asserts that early romantic love is not an emotion, but a "basic mating drive." Other research has shown humans subconsciously respond to things like smell and appearance in prospective mates. We call it "love at first sight." But scientists say attraction is triggered by biological urges to select the best genes.
Yet at the same time, Fisher contends "sex is only a tiny part of love." Figures a woman would say that. Just kidding -- well, not entirely. As it turns out, there are physiological reasons sex means more to guys.
Men have much lower levels of oxytocin than women. This is significant because that hormone promotes a feeling of connection and bonding. When the dopamine isn't spiking anymore from the flush of first love, it's the oxytocin that kicks in to produce a sense of trust and deeper, long-term love. Women get it from holding hands or sharing looks of affection. Men get it from having orgasms. Daniel Amen, a neuroscientist, said in an MSNBC article that a man's oxytocin level jumps a whopping 500 percent after orgasm.
Romantic, passionate love usually diminishes after awhile, and that might be a good thing. Otherwise, we'd never get anything done. Like an addict chasing his next fix, you'd be exhausted if you had to keep your dopamine and seratonin levels that high continually.
The upside, though, is that as our bodies become less physically attractive, we can use the wisdom of age and experience to make love more meaningful.
In the articles I read, both Fisher and Amen suggest couples can boost oxytocin and seratonin by doing "novel" things together. They say one key is maintaining "unpredictability" so that when you do something special for your significant other, it really does seem special and not just a perfunctory gesture.
One thing addicts crave, I think, is unpredictability. We don't like anything that is "boring" or routine. So we sabotage our relationships and careers. We self-destruct, then complain nobody loves us for who we are. But the ice pipe or bottle will always be there for you when you need it. Right up to prison or the grave, whichever comes first. Unless you're willing to end that love affair.
Fortunately for me, when I went into rehab, I had my wife's complete support. But I was afraid. We had been married only three years. She was my favorite drinking partner. What would our marriage be like once I got sober? I thought life without booze and parties would be dreadfully dull.
I was wrong. We found more "novel" things to do together. Bowling, tennis, long walks, traveling and University of Hawaii sports. Our love grew stronger. Like any couple, we still have our ups and downs. But after 21 years, I'm happy to say my wife, Isabel, is still my valentine. I guess you could say I'm addicted to her now.