Countdown in the rat lab

There were a lot of comments on my last post. Any of us who have been there know about the pivot point, and some readers felt that this was a critical moment, a key to the whole cycle of addiction and readdiction. I gave it a name, ego fatigue, from the psychological literature. And I promised another few posts to explore this topic more deeply. So while I’m working on those posts, trying to incorporate all the articles Alese keeps sending me, I thought I’d fill the gap with a couple of pages from my book.

This excerpt is from the chapter in which I deal with ego fatigue, called Night Life in Rat Park. But the part I’m including below doesn’t get into the neuroscience — not yet. It’s just a read-out of the fantasies, the self-talk, the loosening sense of self-control that all start to slip and slide as you approach the pivot point. Or maybe it’s more like an accelerating ride over the crest of the toboggan run. Either way, from then on you’re lost. And the lesson, as several readers (and I) commented, is to not let yourself get into that state of “simmering” — the protracted, agonizing wrestling with the temptation to do it, pitched against the need to stop yourself.

This excerpt is from my life as a late-blooming undergraduate, working late at night in the rat lab:

I went in. I hung up my coat. I unlocked the door to the inner sanctum and made my way to the cages. My rats were all there, busy doing nothing, as usual. Scratching and whispering, scurrying, hiding, perhaps talking to each other in little rat voices. They paid me little attention. I was a familiar sight, or more likely a familiar odour, and we’d have time enough to visit as the night wore on. “Hi, little guys. Who wants to go first tonight?”

I pulled a cage out from the middle of the grid, just to make life interesting, and carried it to the procedure room, whispering all the way in my rat voice… I filled the pellet tray. I filled the water bottle. I made sure everything was perfect. On a fresh data sheet I recorded the date, February 12, 1977, the subject number, and his weight—before supper. Then I picked up the rat and placed him in the left wing of the experimental chamber… Finally, I lifted the slide between the two sections of the box and watched, horrified and amazed, that this little rat obeyed so perfectly the commands issued by his brain and his stomach. He did what he was programmed to do. Flawlessly.

I went through a dozen more animals, and I was still only half done. I wouldn’t arrive home until nearly midnight. Another long, lonely, boring night. And it was particularly lonely because Sharon and I had been fighting again. Always fighting… When things got difficult, as they had again now, I pleaded for her understanding, for her strength, or if those weren’t forthcoming, I pleaded for her to lay off. I didn’t want to feel that I was recalcitrant, naughty, unkind, unfair. I wanted her to put her arms around me when I got back, even if I got back at 2 a.m. No more fighting.

But now, as I shuttled about the lab, the angry, wounded wrinkle of her brow floated above me, behind me, and the resonance of her nasal voice rose from the hum of the fridge. The old lab fridge. Sitting in the corner of the procedure room. Would I? Should I? No! Once was enough. Somebody would find out. No they wouldn’t… Nobody is saving it up for the rats, that’s for sure. It’s going bad. It’s probably five years old. Yeah, but it works. It still works. Oh, does it ever. Yeah, and it’s probably toxic. You’re probably going to die. If you do what you’re thinking of doing. Don’t even think about it.

But I am thinking about it. I can’t stop thinking about it. And there were no ill effects last time . . . The bell went off and brought me back to reality. If this was reality. My first reaction was a rush of shame: it was vile. Shooting some undefined liquid into my veins. Okay, it was morphine. Morphine, the wonder drug. Morphine, the perfect narcotic. The pure essence of which everything else—even heroin—is a derivative. But it was disgusting to shoot that stale stuff in the fridge. A familiar glare from somewhere inside.

I picked up my now well-fed and well-exercised little beast, and it seemed as though he was smiling at me: I know what you’re thinking. No you don’t! I weighed him again, a bit more roughly this time, then put him back in his cage. You don’t know what I’m thinking, you dumb rat. It’s not your morphine anyway. To get my mind off the fridge, off Sharon, I put the next rat into the box and picked up my novel, plunked myself down on the musty sofa and started to read. Nobody was around. Not only the lab but the whole subbasement was deserted. No sound. Except for the scurrying of those rats still awaiting their moment of glory. And the others, the sated ones, licking their fur contentedly. A sound that grew louder in my imagination: soft tongues scratching and scraping as they cleaned their soft white fur. They were at peace. Like I would be if I . . . No no. Don’t go there. Not again.

I’m a big boy. I’m studying to be a psychologist. But I still like to read horror novels sometimes. Especially lately. And Anne Rice evokes the most compelling images. A newcomer has entered the parlour. One of the older vampires crosses the room so swiftly his movements are invisible. He grasps the visitor fondly by the lapels. He whispers to him, part seduction, part warning: “So you want to become one of us? But are you strong enough to bear the curse of isolation that will be yours forever? With a taste of my blood?” And I’m thinking about the morphine in the fridge again, because it is like the vampire’s blood: dirty, poisonous, yet offering me its singular powers. It will plunge me into the land that is inhabited by the few, the outcasts, those who prowl by night and sleep by day, whose business is the sating of a shameful hunger. And now other images are awakened. My memories of [old Berkeley friends, part-time junkies], both fond and repugnant. Ralph putting Jim to sleep with a shot of Seconal, a drug that would one day kill him. And my childish wish to be one of them, despite the foreshadowing of destruction that hovered there.

Only fifteen or so rats to go. I’ll never make it. Too long. Too tempting. Don’t think about it. Don’t think about the little bottles in the fridge. You might never have noticed them if you hadn’t been searching for a can of pop. And don’t think about the syringes lying so neatly in their paper wrappers in the cupboard. Don’t think about them! But I look at the vein in my arm, so rapidly I can’t stop myself. Up until a week ago, I hadn’t shot drugs for over two years. That’s all over. A youthful folly. With its share of horrors, to be sure. Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. Nobody knows . . . but Jesus. I’m actually humming this as I get up to replace one rat with the next. I’m humming this and I’m smiling a little to myself, smiling with a sneaky little smile, a sneaky little rat smile. A smile for no one. A smile no one can see. But there is a quickening in my pulse. A part of me has given up.


28 thoughts on “Countdown in the rat lab

  1. Linda January 27, 2012 at 1:05 am #

    Hi Marc,
    Do you remember the comic strip BC?
    There was the fat broad who had an aversion to snakes and every time the snake showed up she jumped on it and clubbed it into the ground, – no agonizing, no “simmering”, Same for me with an addiction, – the moment the thought (craving) arises,
    take a stick to it. It gets easier after the first couple of times.

    • The Bus Driver January 27, 2012 at 10:41 am #

      I love this! Thanks, Linda, that’s a great image and EXACTLY what I’m going to do!

    • Marc January 28, 2012 at 4:02 am #

      Hi Linda. I sure do remember BC, the fat woman, and the snake. This is a brilliant formula. Thanks.

      I think the first step is to see the craving as an enemy, something outside yourself. For me, the feedback loop connecting the dopamine pump of intense pursuit with the neural circuits of focus and meaning…..that’s the enemy. And though it’s not literally outside ourselves (it take place in our own brains), it has a life of it’s own and it’s NOT our friend. Feedback loops are processes that continue to reinforce themselves — they keep themselves going, or they actually amplify themselves. Like Jimmy Hendrix’s guitar distortions. But more to the point, like cancer, which is another vicious feedback loop in one’s own body. Indeed, hit it with a stick!

  2. John Campbell January 27, 2012 at 3:06 am #

    Yes, exactly! – the quickening of the pulse, finding oneself smiling, and humming… I feel it is the inner ‘monkey man’ in us doing this, rather than the rational developed human.

    But I wonder is it possible to pull out even at this stage?
    It is perhaps unrealistic to think that with iron will we could physically move away from the temptation location.
    However more viable and real perhaps is to procrastinate; to say ‘yes we may well take some drugs later’, and to keep putting it off.

    Above all your piece is a great reminder about avoiding temptation. If you had been in a location with no drugs that night, you probably would not have taken any.

    • Marc January 28, 2012 at 4:10 am #

      I completely agree. Once you’re humming to yourself, it’s almost impossible to pull out. The humming means (1) it’s available and (2) you certainly have ditched your rational self. You call it a monkey man, I call it an inner child, needy and greedy. Not much different. And (3) your INTENTION has now switched streams: you’ve now allowed yourself to intend to do it.

      I also used the “procrastination” technique, and yes, it sometimes works. If you can get through a couple of hours or a day, especially if there’s something (else) good waiting for you later — e.g., a loved one.Then, by the next day, you can say Fuck That. Phew. I’m so glad I didn’t.

      But once the humming sets in, I doubt even procrastination can work. So go with the 11th commandment: Avoid Temptation!

      • John Campbell January 28, 2012 at 4:53 am #

        interesting on monkey man vs inner child – maybe could be fruitful to explore.

        I’m interested in evolutionary psychology, the idea that we have ‘monkey man’ programming inside us from 100,000’s of years of monkey man living.

        If it were an inner child then we’d be able to distract it? buy it off with cheap baubles? satisfy it with other foods? and it would be influenced by what important people thought about the behaviour? it would feel shame? amd it would eventually grow up?

        If it were monkey man it would be cunning, persistent, calculating, inhuman, programmed to go after that nourishment regardless of other considerations – as it is?

        • Marc January 29, 2012 at 6:20 am #

          I’m not so sure that our inner ape is much different from our inner child. Although chimps are known to be persistent and aggressive (sometimes), bonobos, who are just as close genetically, are childish, sweet, and loving. Human ancestors have been evolving for a few million years, and we are now truly ourselves. But our brains carry around upgrades of hardware that has been around for HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS of years. And each upgrade includes improvements.

          You can buy off apes or humans (young or old) if you can convince them that you’re offering them an alternative they truly want. Something rewarding. But our highly evolved brains are good at detecting counterfeits…

  3. China Krys Darrington January 27, 2012 at 9:21 am #

    I get how you were feeling and talking to yourself sitting in the rat lab looking at the fridge. I know that feeling. I know about having a routine visit to a doctor and while I don’t even think about browsing through their drawers anymore, once they open a cabinet and it’s filled with boxes of syringes…well, now I can’t stop thinking about them.

    The addict mind is something, isn’t it.

    • Marc January 28, 2012 at 4:15 am #

      Yes it sure is. I’ve had the experience you describe as well — many times! And I have swiped needles while the doctor was in the next room. Now that it’s been so many years for me, needles don’t hold the faintest attraction. But I remember vividly the thrill, the swirl of emotions, telling myself “go for it” and then my heart in my mouth while my hand was in the cookie jar.

      Indeed, the addict mind is a nasty creature. Full of snakes.

  4. The Bus Driver January 27, 2012 at 11:22 am #

    You’ve captured perfectly the complex array of elements that are involved. If you hadn’t been in a place with drugs available, if you hadn’t been working with all those happy rats, if you hadn’t been fighting with Sharon, reading the Ann Rice novel, thinking about Berkeley, if you weren’t hungry-lonely-angry-tired, … well, things might have been different if even one of these things had been absent. It’s never simple (for me, anyway).

    • Marc January 28, 2012 at 4:20 am #

      Many pieces came together in that moment, as you say. It’s complex in a way, and then it’s simple. All those elements whoosh together into the intention to do it. Ego fatigue has tipped the scales, and you’re now solidly, even triumphantly, determined…to do something dreadful.

      Your progress with mindfulness, exercise, and a strengthened voice of self-love or self-soothing…..these seem to be key ingredients for not letting circumstances conspire against you.

  5. Christine January 27, 2012 at 1:25 pm #

    Not to make light, but I have the same feeling late at night when I know there is a pint of chocolate mocha ice cream in the freezer and eating it will sabotage the self disipline I held onto all day eating very healthy in the hopes of shedding some unwanted weight. But the ice cream would make me happy in that moment after a long day at work that has lead into a lonely evening of being a prisoner to my own thoughts..The same with that bottle of wine…Self disipline is hard to maintain when life is even a little bit crappy…Is it a craving or just wanting to feel better?

  6. Marc January 28, 2012 at 4:27 am #

    I don’t think that’s making light. Food addictions (yes, that’s what they’re called in the business) are really harmful for some people, bringing on gouts of guilt, self-loathing, all the usual rewards of being an addict.

    You ask: is it craving or just wanting to feel better? I could never separate those. You do indeed crave a specific thing, a specific goal, but your synapses have tied that goal together with the assumption that you WILL feel better, with a million tiny threads — nerve fibers in your brain.

    Of course, that doesn’t make it true.

    • John Campbell January 28, 2012 at 4:42 am #

      the problem is you feel better for 5-15 minutes, and then you feel worse. But before falling you just can’t see the overall better/worse net, or else you’re in such short-term agony that you opt for the short-term palliative fully aware it will bring negatives later.
      If there was some way of better remembering the later negatives, playing ourselves a video of them…

  7. Marc January 28, 2012 at 4:48 am #

    You bet. By the way, that’s called “delay discounting” in psychologese. People tend to value immediate rewards much more than delayed rewards. Or in this case, they overestimate the immediate reward compared to the later “punishment”. So guess what: addicts are consistently found to be real suckers when it comes to delay discounting tasks.

    But you’re right about the short-term agony. You just want relief, now! And later doesn’t even show up on the radar. I don’t think psychology has tackled that one yet. But we know how incredibly potent it is.

  8. John Campbell January 28, 2012 at 5:12 am #

    Caffeine is my problem. I’m currently trying very small amounts (35mg/day, c.f. a single Starbucks espressomat c.90mg). This gives me the palliative effect but also gives me the negative effects (tension, garbled thinking, more aggressive and angry, anxiety) – I seem to be very sensitive to the stuff after heavy past use.

    Do you have any wisdom on using small/trace amounts of drugs, either indefintely or as part of withdrawal?

    • Marc January 29, 2012 at 5:40 am #

      I guess I know a bit about it. There have been times when I took small amounts of codeine each day…and it was stable and did not lead to excess. I suppose it was part ritual, but also there was the sense that I could give myself a little bit of something nice, and that made the world feel more comforting to me. Once a day seemed to do it: and I could look forward to it beforehand. That amount of codeine was, I’m sure, more than “trace”, but it wasn’t a lot, and perhaps the dynamics are the same. There were no ill effects that I was aware of.

      Whatever works…and that seems to vary tremendously from person to person. See the next comment….

  9. Deborah January 28, 2012 at 12:30 pm #

    This is such a fascinating thread/conversation …and somehow at the same time profoundly sad – that we all, in our own ways, carry the weight of endless craving with us every day. It is so exhausting..but I know (hope) it gets easier with time.

    For me, having only recent returned to sobriety following an 8 year love affair with wine that was preceded by many years of abstinence, I still wonder why it is that I now go through each day without thinking about the stuff until I reach the end of the work day. This is when I find I still desperately wish I could have a few glasses of wine (or more) but know that I can’t. So why don’t I think about it at 10 am? At 5:00 pm it is burning a hole in my brain. Now I try and think the drink through to the end and know that I can no longer handle the feelings of self-loathing and physical illness that using again would bring, but the immediate gratification of the release and (perhaps false) joy that I associate.with having a drink is, at the same time, incredibly appealing.

    As for availability of one’s drug of choice and the impact that has on one’s cravings, I am engaged in an experiment with myself to try and return to the place I was in for many years as a non-drinker with ample supplies of the stuff that never gave me a thought..and I don’t know why.

    I have several bottles of wine sitting in my cupboard now. Last night I even used some in a dish I was making for dinner. Later alone in my kitchen, I know I could have had some and no one would have been any the wiser. I thought, even briefly planned, how I could drink it out of a glass that would not lead to suspicion if my husband came in. I entertained the idea briefly but then dismissed it..thankfully not getting to the “humming” stage. I knew that if I started I would drink the whole bottle.

    But I am keenly aware that the wine is there…not sure if that knowledge somehow makes me stronger or if I am playing with fire…every day is a victory of sorts and that seems to be the thing that keeps me from giving in. The fact that its existence never really leaves my mind speaks to the very point of this blog, and the “pivot point” that we wrestle with. So far I seem to be teetering to the right side.

    • The Bus Driver February 1, 2012 at 1:22 am #

      Oh my gawd, Deborah, you could be me … or the other way around, not sure which — recent sobriety, wine in the house, 5pm heebie-jeebies, self-loathing, self-talk, trying to understand why drinking is sometimes a problem, sometimes not — all of it is so much like my own experience it’s uncanny. Like Marc, I feel Iike I know you. Take care.

  10. Marc January 29, 2012 at 5:57 am #

    Your comment makes me feel like I know you. In fact a lot of this thread has brought on that feeling toward people I’ve never met. Endless craving….that sure sounds exhausting. But it’s not quite that bad, is it? We often experience that craving diminishes with time, often in a matter of days or weeks.

    And yet it comes back, and it’s such a drag when it does. Yes, there’s the time of day thing. Certainly. I’m most vulnerable between roughly 5 and 7 PM, like you. Also to drink, these days, which doesn’t cause me huge hardship, but I’d still much rather do without it. Ego fatigue probably has a lot to do with the end-of-the day vulnerability. It’s also when I’m most likely to snap at my kids. A long day of using up cognitive resources (which include inhibitory control at almost every step)…and you’re depleted. And vulnerable. And it’s starting to get dark, and hey it’s cocktail hour so what can anyone expect….etc, etc.

    Despite the sadness that you note here — and I agree there’s quite a bit — I also find something extremely heartening in people’s courage, their honesty, their creativity, their determination, and just the sheer variety that we, as troubled humans, have found to beat back one of life’s greatest challenges.

    Your particular technique — keeping snakes in the house rather than beating them with a stick — strikes me as courageous and perhaps original. I’m very glad it’s working for you. If it were me, though, I think I’d cook with cooking wine rather than the good stuff. Juggling three balls in the air can make you a better juggler but it can also lead to a spill.

    • The Bus Driver February 1, 2012 at 1:16 am #

      Amen to that. Since my slip-up a couple of weeks ago, I’ve taken a step back from being okay with having wine in the house to not. It’s just so much easier. It’s never ever out of sight, out of mind — I’m wondering when I get to stop thinking about it — but as long as it’s not around, I’m more or less okay.

      I know what you mean about feeling you know people you’ve never met!

  11. Linda January 29, 2012 at 12:48 pm #

    Hi Marc,
    In case this may be of help, – Buddhism teaches an effective method of dealing with unwholesome thoughts …

    1. Replace with a wholesome and wanted thought.

    2. Develop a moral dread of the consequences of entertaining that thought.

    3. Penetrate with insight, seeing the process of craving and acting wisely.

    4. Move away. Get up and do something else. Don’t keep doing that which supports it.

    5. Grit your teeth. Do not move or speak until the thought is gone. Do not react to it.

    Always start with the first (it may be all you need) and follow through as required.

    • Marc February 5, 2012 at 8:04 am #

      Thanks for the recipe, Linda. Cognitive science and Buddhism both see the mind as a self-creating entity, one that has to be examined carefully for us to live our lives fully. But cognitive science gets to some of the details that Buddhism may not. Like why it’s so hard to do the “replacing” in step 1. On the other hand, I really like Buddhism and I find recipes very helpful.

  12. Carolyn January 31, 2012 at 10:24 pm #

    Hi Marc

    I have been debating whether or not to respond to your last few blogs as I am not a recovering drug addict or an alcoholic and I don’t want to appear disrespectful to the painful processes that many of you go through. The reason that I am writing is that it makes me terribly sad to read your blog and the comments of your readers about the gut wrenching agony you feel inside when you are feigning for your drug of choice. None of you speak about confiding in those closest to you and letting us help you. By telling someone else you are taking a giant step toward dealing with your problem. I realize that many of us react improperly but at least it changes the dynamics and leads you in a different direction. Once you tell someone it is no longer only about you and I think that is a very positive thing in this situation.

    Take care,

    • The Bus Driver February 1, 2012 at 12:57 am #

      @ Carolyn: I can only speak for myself but off the top of my head I’m not writing about confiding in other people at this point because a) I’ve written about that elsewhere and b) at the end of the day the buck stops with me. My wonderful husband is providing all the support in the world, and I have an amazing counsellor, not to mention this online conversation that is feeling like a support group. But as Smokey the Bear used to say, only you can prevent forest fires: nobody but me can stop me from drinking, and I’ve been working hard at watching and understanding the internal mechanisms that lead me to drink and those that don’t.

      Your point is well taken that once you tell someone it’s no longer only about you — and let me tell you that step is HUGE. I know I put off talking about my drinking for a very, very long time because if I talked about it I was admitting there was a problem (well, duh) and because of overwhelming shame. It was indeed a tremendous relief to have it out in the open and be able to talk about what’s going on with me.

      • Carolyn February 3, 2012 at 8:21 pm #

        Hi TBD

        I completely understand that this is your problem and that you are the only one who can truly control it. At the same time anyone who has your best interests at heart wants to know when you are feeling vulnerable. I understand that you have a wonderful husband and that you probably feel that you have put enough on his plate already. This made me think of my dad who had a severe form of arthritis and was in constant pain. He learned very quickly that no one really wants to hear about it. The reason I’m telling you of this is that rather than complain when he was in excruciating pain he would say he was feeling “crunchy”. We didn’t have to do anything or react to it, we just had to be aware that he wasn’t feeling up to his regular routines. I was wondering if you could develop some sort of code word to allow your husband or those closest to you to be aware that you are feeling fragile. The idea being they don’t have to react they just have to be aware.

        Nice talking to you,

        • The Bus Driver February 5, 2012 at 12:05 am #

          I don’t mean to hijack this thread, but just to clarify: I talk with my husband openly about addictions — mine and his — and I’m ALWAYS vulnerable, and he knows that. He is too. All I was saying is that I’m not writing about that dynamic here. In this particular thread I’m more interested in the internal processes.

          • Marc February 5, 2012 at 8:00 am #

            I wouldn’t worry about any hijacking. I just think that the two of you have very different foci right now. Many addicts do indeed live in extreme isolation, even when they are surrounded by family.

            I found it extremely difficult to talk about my drug-taking, especially when it got seriously out of hand. Carolyn, as you say, people may “react improperly”. Well, I wasn’t so sure that other people’s disgust, anger, and rejection was improper at all. At times it seemed like what I deserved, and so I hid what I was doing. Many of us do. I wonder if you are talking about a teenager in trouble or an adult in trouble. I think the recipe can be very different for each.

            Meanwhile, TBD doesn’t have this problem, and that’s fabulous. Moreover, that may help her to just feel more connected and satisfied through much of the day and night, whether in trouble or not, which in itself may be one factor in her success. But just one factor.

            There doesn’t have to be any conflict between self-reliance and honest communication….both can go on at the same time. But they don’t have to. For me, isolation and lying was necessary, so it seemed, and it made things worse, admittedly. But somehow I needed to go through all that before I could find my own resolve.

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