“My brain is different – but so is everybody’s”: The addict who became a neuroscientist

Three decades ago, Professor Judy Grisel was a homeless college dropout, sharing a crack pipe on the streets. Now she is investigating brains like hers that suffer addiction.

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When the neuroscientist Judy Grisel completed her PhD, her fellow graduates greeted her not with congratulations but awkward smiles. They didn’t know how to celebrate. The traditional champagne toast in plastic cups in the faculty was out of the question. Grisel was a recovering addict.

The professor of psychology and neuroscience at Bucknell University, Pennsylvania – who specialises in the science of addiction – is now 56 and has been sober and clean for 33 years.

Yet there are still moments that take her back to a decade hooked on alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, and whatever else she could find. So intertwined is her background with her current scientific work that she’s written a memoir-cum-study about it called Never Enough: The Neuroscience and Experience of Addiction.

She fell into a “depth of self-pity” from her lack of drink the day she received her doctorate, just as she felt a rush of anticipation for shooting up when injecting a rat during lab work as a research assistant years earlier: “I thought I’d fully extinguished any personal associations with needles,” she writes. “[But] I heard clamorous ringing in my ears and a taste in my mouth that were characteristic of cocaine going into my vein.”

Even today, she doesn’t believe she is cured, and boggles at her husband’s ability to leave beers unfinished. No matter the extent of her research into addiction, she will forever be “confounded by people who can drink or use other drugs but don’t” – those who stop after one drink, or ration recreational drugs are “entirely foreign to my experience and beyond my capacity to comprehend”, she writes.

From her first sip of wine at a friend’s house at 13 during her childhood in suburban south Florida, Grisel set out enthusiastically on the road to oblivion.

She drank before, during and after school. She stole money from friends. She left her family home, and by 22 was homeless. To no avail, her parents desperately researched treatment centres and court orders. Eventually her father, a pilot, stopped telling people he had a daughter, and hung up on her occasional calls home.

Grisel ended up a homeless college dropout, sharing crack pipes and contracting Hepatitis C. As a future neuroscientist, her first encounter with the human brain was unorthodox: cleaning the remains of a man shot in the head off the seat of her boyfriend’s car.

An old family friend, to whom her book is dedicated, triggered the change. He advised her father, who had shut himself off emotionally and was then “better with cars than people”, to take her for dinner.

It was then that her father told her wanted her to be “happy”. She broke down and agreed to treatment. “I guess I sensed his love and vulnerability,” she tells me. “My mother was always crying and saying she loved me and that had no impact at all. But my father doing it somehow did.”

Yet she was “really lucky” to survive a disease that has half the chances of survival of brain cancer, according to her book.

“I’ve been around many people who have died,” she tells me over Skype from a beach holiday in North Carolina, celebrating over three decades of sobriety. Her hair is still damp from an ocean swim. “It’s so frustrating, it’s so heart-breaking and I want to understand: How? How is it like this?”

So she dedicated her life to investigating addicted brains. Her studies helped build the case that the more we anticipate the effects of a drug (in this case, morphine), the more likely our nervous system is to kick in with the opposite effect.

This is why you feel drunker in unexpected locations and scenarios than at after-work Friday drinks at your local, for example – your brain is less accustomed, and doesn’t counter the alcohol as much in preparation.

Key to these findings are the “b process”, whereby your body tries to balance out whatever the effects are of the drug you’re taking. Thus addicts must take more and more in vain search of the original high.

“I’d love it if there was a general appreciation for the b process, like there is for sun screen and seatbelts,” Grisel tells me. “You know, it would be a different world.”

In her book, she illustrates this process in a graph; it’s so central to her experience that she even muses about getting it as a tattoo.

Yet unusually for a neuroscientist, Grisel’s answer to addiction is less about our brains than our lives. “I was taught in treatment and at national meetings and in my graduate programmes that it’s a disease of the brain – this is the official line,” she says.

“I don’t think it is from the brain; I think it’s from the context interacting with the brain and the context is infinite – it includes our gut, microbiome, early experiences, the air we breathe, our social interactions, our grandparents’ experience, culture, and the social milieu.”

So Grisel’s brain, or what is often described in society as an “addictive personality”, is no different from that of a non-addict?

“Everybody’s brain is different,” she replies. “Certainly, the brains of people who have an addiction are different from those who don’t. But so are the brains of knitters, or whatever. I think it’s not helpful… It lets the rest of society off the hook.”

To help, society should stop judging addiction as “a moral weakness or some kind of stupidity that brings people to their knees”, she argues. We should instead view it as she felt in her own lost decade: “It’s really a brain that’s been hijacked.”

Never Enough: The Neuroscience and Experience of Addiction by Judith Grisel is published by Scribe UK and out August 2019.

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.