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Pushing the Lever

Yes, You Can Stop

The New York Times published an interesting piece in September about a researcher curious about cocaine use who paid addicts to come into his lab and smoke coke all day long. The first time he performed this experiment, he offered pharmaceutical-quality coke and a salary of $950 for staying at a lab over a period of several weeks and getting high. Later, he repeated the experiment offering the same deal to people sidelined by methamphetamine addiction. The research was done by Dr. Carl Hart and described in his book, High Price.

In both experiments, Hart discovered that much depended on the size of the initial daily dose of dope. His subjects were blindfolded when the dope was given out so they couldn’t see how much they got. If he gave people a large amount of dope, they were happy to stay in the lab all day long and get high. If they received a smaller chunk in their pipes, they were more likely to take the researcher up on his various offers—five bucks to skip the next dose or a cash voucher good at the local store.

Then Dr. Hart increased the amount of the reward to $20, and everybody, whether they were smoking meth or crack, opted out of the dope and took the money. So what did he conclude from these experiments? He believed that people were addicted to the drug life, and not necessarily to the drug.

Sure, he said, rats in a lab will keep pressing the lever for heroin or cocaine or whatever if that’s all they have to do all day. People who live in crime-infested neighborhoods, with memories of parents beating them when they grew up or knowing friends and family members who died from drugs will go for the drugs because they think there is no other life.  Dr. Hart believed that if you gave people options, they would quit pressing the lever and move on to better things than drugs.

Many researchers disputed this scientist’s work, because it flew in the face of everything we know about the way drugs impact the brain’s reward center. Nobody can deny that people get deeper and deeper into addiction when their body develops a scientifically undeniable tolerance to a medication and it takes more of it just to maintain a high.

There’s something to be said for both sides of this theory. Some people turn to drugs because they are stymied by how to make their lives work. Some people can’t make their lives work because they can’t get past the drugs. It’s kind of like the chicken and the egg.

The reality is that if you’ve been stuck in the rut of cocaine use or other drug addiction, no matter how you got there, you need to find out what you’re missing in life. What did you used to be good at? What were the things you enjoyed before you spent so much time finding the next fix? No matter what your drug of choice, once you remember what your original dreams were, you can find out how to start living life again. A rehab center that offers counseling in combination with other therapies—movement therapy, psychodrama, acupuncture, and so forth—can help a person get not just his body but also his mind moving again.

If you can’t stop using despite the time and energy it takes to get high, no matter how many times you’ve tried to quit, then you need some help. Call your local substance abuse treatment center to find out how you can stop pressing the lever. 

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