Toronto Life – Memoir

Opium Dreams

My family and I moved to the Netherlands from Toronto in the summer of 2010. I’d been a psychology professor at the University of Toronto for over 20 years, my wife, Isabel, had a research job at SickKids, and we were both offered faculty positions in Nijmegen, a nice little city near the country’s eastern border. We were feeling a bit stagnant, our twins were still young, and it seemed like a good time for an adventure. But hauling suitcases and children from Canada to Europe took its toll on my 59-year-old body.

According to the MRI, I was developing what’s loosely called sciatica. The nerves in my lower spine were getting squished, causing pain in the back of my legs. In September, the pain was bothersome; by early October, it spurted intermittently like a sulphurous geyser; and by late October it was excruciating—an ugly, dirty pain that lived like a demon in my body. I sometimes let out a screech when rolling over in bed at night, which freaked the hell out of Isabel and embarrassed me to no end. “Go back to sleep, it’s not that bad,” I’d say. But really it was.

My doctor arranged surgery for early December. I couldn’t wait that long without painkillers, I told her, and she agreed. With kind eyes and rough English, she said I could have as much oxycodone as I needed. Did I know what that was? I looked down for a moment and nodded. I already felt some anticipatory guilt, because I knew oxycodone—and its narcotic cousins—all too well. And there was danger there. Though I’d been clean for 30 years, my appetite for opiates had not disappeared, and it rose now, almost imperceptibly, with my pulse.

It started in Berkeley, California, where I attended university, just when the drug culture began to explode. Far from my home in Toronto, I often felt depressed and alienated, and I didn’t hesitate to fill the empty spaces with drugs. First psychedelics like LSD and mescaline, then more dangerous substances, like heroin. I spent two years in Asia and became a frequent patron of the opium dens of Calcutta. When I finally returned to Toronto, I had a BA in music, a sitar and a serious drug problem. It was opiates in particular that provided some measure of comfort and safety when I couldn’t find friends, when I couldn’t find myself.

A few years later, I was accepted into graduate school in psychology, but I couldn’t break the habit, and the habit eventually broke me. I got busted for stealing drugs and kicked out of school. Then began the long climb back to grad school, a modicum of self-respect, and finally a job, as a professor.

I began my career as a developmental psychologist, fascinated by the mysteries of personality formation. I studied children’s emotions and wrote articles and chapters explaining how negative emotions shape our thought patterns, moulding the raw material of temperament into a set of intransigent habits. Then I shifted from psychology to neuroscience. My research subjects were children referred for behavioural problems, many of them heading toward the serious kind of trouble I’d gotten into. I used EEG technology to see how their brain circuitry is shaped by emotional experiences, fashioning networks that become more streamlined and rigid the more they’re used. That’s how personality gets locked into place, for good or ill. Finally, drawn by a need to understand my own dark years, I came around—full circle—to study the neuroscience of addiction.

Now, here I was in the Netherlands, wondering if I was becoming an addict again. The oxycodone had become part of my daily routine. I’d gotten used to starting my day with two or three pills, then taking three or four more in the afternoon. Addictive drugs act like chemicals already present in the brain, chemicals responsible for pleasure and relief, or engagement and focus, but in far greater quantities than nature intended. The neurons affected by those chemicals become increasingly interconnected. They form self-reinforcing circuits of synapses that activate each other, like a jumble of city streets that keep leading back to themselves. And these circuits release dopamine, the chemical embodiment of desire, binding them all the more tightly. The old circuits had gone dormant for me 30 years ago, but they were beginning to hum once again.

Four months after my surgery, the pain was getting better by the day. But I wasn’t ready to stop the oxycodone. How much pain did I have to feel to justify taking those little brown and white capsules? The pills calmed me down and soothed me. They gave me an inner warmth—a sense of satisfaction that went well beyond pain relief. They helped with my adjustment to life in a foreign country. But I saw worry lines when I examined my face in the mirror. It was getting out of hand, and I knew it. I was starting to exaggerate the pain, to Isabel and to myself, to avoid the obvious. I just liked the feeling of the drug. And I always would.

The neural pathways never go away, which is why addicts remain vulnerable for the rest of their lives. Yet things were different for me this time. In my 20s, I couldn’t find the ammunition to resist my cravings. Now I have a profession and a family to fill me up; there’s so much more to live for. The brain doesn’t reshape itself, but it has enough flexibility to keep on learning; and many one-time addicts learn that the mirage of attraction is just that—a mirage. My brain is still the brain of an addict. But I’ve grown a few other networks, and I’m many other things as well.

On a warm day toward the end of spring term, I biked to the doctor’s office. Spring in the Netherlands is beautiful—flowers everywhere, boats of all shapes on the river, pretty blond heads bobbing above the traffic jam of bikes. When my doctor asked me how much oxycodone I needed, I told her I didn’t need any at all.