0161 – Overstimulated

There’s a scene in one of the earlier episodes of The West Wing where the White House Chief Of Staff, Leo McGarry, describes his alcoholism to a junior staffer. (Season 1, Episode 13). It’s a pretty powerful scene. He describes he can’t ever just have one drink; he has to have 10 drinks. It doesn’t make sense to her, but that’s because she’s not an alcoholic. They’re just wired differently. It’s well worth a watch:


For most of my life I pshaw-ed at the idea that people are wired differently. I mean, there are extreme cases where people clearly need medical attention- but a lot of people who cheerfully claim to have OCD or ADHD or “I’m so depressed!” are probably just making it up, surely? If you look at my report cards, they say that I was a bright kid that couldn’t be held in line- too noisy, too many inappropriate remarks, no discipline, no work ethic, so on and so forth.

I thought I was just lazy, and it never occurred to me (or anybody in my immediate circle, family and teachers included) that I might be different from others in a deeper sense. My boss was the first person to suggest to me that I might have ADHD. Several others on Hacker News did the same, simply from reading something I had written. I met up with an expert who deals with adult ADHD, and she told me that it was clear to her: I had/have a full-blown case of the zesty.

On hindsight… the diagnosis makes perfect sense. I’m not sure if it’s something I was born with, something I sort of grew into, or both. My parents allowed me a lot of freedom when I was a kid. I read a lot of books. I played video games, which I found very stimulating. I’d read entire school textbooks before the school year started, which made me quite the know-it-all (I’m sorry. I never actually had much of a ‘social education’).

So many tell-tale signs, on hindsight.

“Hyperfocus”: Once I really get into something I can spend hours on it and lose all sense of time. By this I mean to say I outlast everyone else I know, when playing video games late into the night. I bet you that I could easily stay online and find things to do for a full 24 hours. But this predated the Internet for me. I used to read books until I fell asleep, and continue when I woke up. During these moments, I would not notice if anybody was calling my name. When I’m out with friends, I’d lose track of time and inevitably break the soft curfew my parents set for me.

Food: I used to eat really unhealthily. I’d eat my food with tonnes of ketchup, which I imagine is full of salt. I’d drink a 500ml bottle of Pepsi or Coke a day in school, then have a McDonald’s meal afterwards. This went on for years, and I got skinny-fat with a big belly. It stopped once I was in secondary school- I’d start eating spaghetti or mee goreng. And sandwiches. And lots of cup noodles.

Candy: I was also a candy monster. I used to eat nerds, mentos, gobstoppers, hichew, fruit tips, fruitella, lakerol, all that sugary shit. And I’d finish it all in one sitting. (Never experienced any of the laxative effects that they warned about.)

Cigarettes: And then I picked up smoking. Cigarettes are the best thing for anybody who craves stimulation, if you don’t mind the stench, cancer and death. I don’t mean that sarcastically. If you’re feeling chronically understimulated, a little stench and death can seem like a worthy tradeoff to light your brain up a little. It gives you a lot of control.

A cigarette is really a work of art, gamification wise. You can carry a pack of them in your pocket. Lighting one always feels good, now you have a little fire in your hands. You can control your puffs- how much you inhale, how you exhale. Make no mistake about it, smoking is a skill, and over a few years you get good at it. It’s a nice skill to master, being able to manipulate your state like that. It can relax you or pump you up. It becomes a little game that keeps you alive as it kills you. What do you do? I smoke, that’s what I do. It’s like feeding fish or some other responsibility- there’s a little circuit of neurons in my head that demand to be lit up by the nicotine, and I obey. It’s a simpler master than most of life, and it’s predictably rewarding. Only bitch thing is the ruining your health bit.

Social Media: Then came social media, which is more of the same. I was a heavy MySpace user because I was promoting my band (ah, the good old days). I very naturally became a Facebook power user. I got off on the Likes. Each Like was like a puff of a cigarette, a hit. It was an addiction, just like nicotine. Social validation is a hell of a drug. But you gotta remind yourself it’s all an illusion. It’s just cookie clicker. A number goes up and it tricks a part of your brain into feeling good, and you chase that.
Actually all of life is like that, just that the pursuit of some things are sustainable and others are not, some are socially acceptable (and these aren’t necessarily what optimizes your utility/pleasure) and others are not.

I got pretty good at the Facebook thing. I would spend a lot more time on it than most people I know. I would be late for appointments with people because I was caught up in a Facebook argument at the computer (this was before I had a smartphone, so I wasn’t able to write-on-the-go).

I stopped writing this post right around here, because I ran out of time or steam or something. But what I was trying to say is: I have an atypical brain, with regards to addiction and addictive substances. I don’t think I’m necessarily in the 99th percentile of did quit smoking- but I’m definitely not-average. And that’s an interesting thing for me to think about, and have to deal with.

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