Photographer:Fotograaf: Archive Marc Lewis
Addiction professor gives a lecture on his junkie past
Marihuana, LSD, heroin. Ex-junkie Marc Lewis devoured it all, preferably in high doses. He stole medicine from medical practices, was arrested on several occasions, and received a suspended prison sentence. Later on, Lewis - by now a professor of Neurosciences - wrote a book about his former life as an addict. He will give a lecture, organised by Studium Generale and the students of the Public Health Organisation, on 8 November.
“I started off in the house of a friend of a friend, hanging out with the couple of other guys, smoking a combinations of hash and opium ….. Then came the psychedelics: mescaline or psilocin, a synthetic form of psilocybin. Two hits for me, please. I always take two of everything. There must have been some form of speed involved, probably Benzedrine, because I was wired all night and well into the next day.” (From: Memoirs of an Addicted Brain)
It is the end of the nineteen-sixties, in California. Marc Lewis is studying at Berkeley and passionately dives into the hippie scene. It was party time, he says. All forbidden drugs, including heroin are available. One evening at a good friend's house, he goes out. Hours later, he awakens and finds himself practically naked in a cold bath. His friends who put him there, were furious. Lewis had taken an overdose. “Do you care so little about yourself? Is your life worth that little?”
Things go from bad to worse: he is expelled from university, breaks into medical practices to steal drugs and ends up in jail several times. How could he become so derailed?
The seed was sown in his teenage years, he says on the telephone, when his parents decided to send him to a boarding school in New England (US), thousands of kilometres away. There was a “muscleman hierarchy,” with Lewis belonging to the lower end. He became the butt of badgering and was always on his guard for the “unpredictable traps that were set all around him”.
When one of the few friends he has, offers him a bottle of whisky, there was no stopping him. Shortly afterwards, he discovers the soothing effect of cough mixture. The active ingredient, dextromethorphan, which is also in the party drug ketamine, ensures that reality hits the brain less harshly.
It can all be read in the book Memoirs of an Addicted Brain (2011), in which he supports his personal experiences with neuroscientific knowledge. He keeps himself out of the following book, The biology of Desire (2016), in which he bundles stories from other addicts. The subtitle is: Why addiction is not a disease.
“Advocates of the so-called medical model continually refer to the changes in the brain of someone who is addicted. This is their most important argument. But the brain changes all the time, for instance when you are in love, or you are training to be a jihadist, whatever.”
Lewis prefers to look at it from a developmental perspective and sees addiction more as learned behaviour, where things can gain momentum because of such characteristics as impulsiveness. “Note that addiction is never the result of a single event, but of a complicated chain of events, often triggered by a psychological trauma. Whether it is neglect, abuse, or your parents' messy divorce. In my case, it was depression. I had a terrible time at that boarding school.”
Memoirs of an Addicted Brain made him a better human being and a better scientist, he says. “I can accept my life more honestly, and that is a skill that is completely lacking in psychiatric and psychological studies, the very places where you would expect it. Students today are not challenged in any way to discover their weaknesses, but this is always a good thing to do.”
What Lewis also realised more and more after writing the book, was how much he was imprisoned within his addiction. “I can recommend to everyone, certainly when kicking a habit, to focus your energy on something else, look for distraction. In my case, it was the study of Psychology. And another important piece of advice: learn to forgive yourself. Don’t see yourself as an asshole the whole time. Shame and self-reproach only make matters worse. You can come a long way with mindfulness or (dialectical) behaviour therapy.”
He doesn't really regret his drug abuse past. “I often felt miserable, but I can also remember wonderful moments. Drug addicts who only tell dreadful stories, are bullshitting, you shouldn't believe them. I have good memories, certainly from psychedelics such as LSD. Besides, life was adventurous; it was a daily challenge to score. During the day, I led the life of a good student, trying to get high grades, and in the evening those horrible impulses reared their ugly heads. The adventure was also in the hallucinations, which could be both terrifying and refreshing, because they provided a new outlook on reality.”
To what extent is addiction part of his present-day life? “It isn't really. I don't break the law and I don't take any illegal drugs anymore. I don't have access to drugs and I wouldn't take them if I did. The only drugs I take these days, are painkillers.”
Who is Marc Lewis?
1951 born in Toronto, Canada.
1965 boarding school in New England
1968 studied at Berkeley (music, among others)
1981 kicked his drug habit
1983 studied Psychology at the University of Toronto
1989 lecturer of Developmental Psychology in Toronto
2011 professor of Neurosciences Radboud University
The lecture is on Wednesday, 8 November (20:00hrs) in the Dominicanen bookstore, entrance is free