Unchain Your Brain: 10 Steps to Breaking the Addictions
that Steal Your Life
Daniel G. Amen, MD and David E. Smith, MD
David E. Smith, MD, and I are passionate about the work we do helping people
break free from their addictions.
The paths we took
to arrive at this shared passion, however, couldn’t be more different. David,
who came from a long line of alcoholics, began his journey when he was sixteen
years old. That’s when his mother died and he had his first taste of alcohol. It
was love at first drink. David had always been shy around women, but thanks to
that drink, he felt a surge of confidence and vitality that buoyed his
self-assurance around the opposite sex. Later that night, he threw up and
blacked out. The next day, all he could think about was how alive he had felt
while he was drinking and how he wanted to feel that way again—soon. The
vomiting and blacking out part of the evening quickly faded from his thoughts.
drinking and found that when he drank, he did some really stupid things he
wasn’t proud of. The next day, he would be filled with guilt about the things he
had done, wondering “Why did I do that?” and promising himself he would never do
it again. But then he would go out and have a drink, and it would trigger
something in his brain that made him forget his good intentions, and he would
get into trouble again. Eventually, he realized that alcohol was the problem,
and he entered a 12-Step program. He had his last drink on January 1, 1966.
David was finally sober, but he wasn’t “clean and sober.”
switched from drinking alcohol to smoking marijuana and occasionally taking LSD.
David loved the way the drugs made him feel spacey and even more important, he
loved that he didn’t do crazy things when he smoked pot. Psychedelic drugs were
easy to find in the mid-1960s, especially in the Haight Ashbury district of San
Francisco where David was living while going to the nearby UCSF School of
Medicine. Haight Ashbury was the epicenter of the 1960s “turn on, tune in, drop
out” counterculture and the place where rock legends like the Grateful Dead,
Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, Jefferson Airplane, and concert promoter
Bill Graham hung out.
While David was
experimenting with mind-altering drugs, he was also using these same
hallucinogens in research experiments on mice in the UCSF lab. He got his start
in the addiction treatment field in 1965 when he began directing alcohol and
drug screening at San Francisco General Hospital as part of his medical
training. The following year, he started the renowned Haight Ashbury Free
Medical Clinic, which catered to the music scene subculture by taking care of
concertgoers who were having a bad LSD trip or who had overdosed. Eventually,
they began helping the musicians as well. For example, when Janis Joplin OD’d on
heroin, she was treated by the Clinics with Narcan. The idea of “treating” drug
problems was a revolutionary new concept at the time, and it would be years
before anyone would consider treating the addiction rather than just the
For David, who had
kicked his alcohol habit but had switched to smoking pot, it wasn’t until the
1980s that he realized he needed to address his own addiction problem. He had
finally come to the realization that even though smoking pot didn’t make him do
crazy things, it came with its own set of consequences. It compromised his
ability to fully embrace a spiritual recovery program and it was creating a
problem in his relationship with his significant other. He smoked his last joint
in 1987, went into recovery, and has been clean and sober ever since. He has
dedicated his professional career to helping others break the drug and alcohol
addictions he faced.
on the other hand, didn’t have any alcoholics in my family
and was also sixteen years old the first time I got drunk. My introduction to
alcohol involved guzzling half a bottle of champagne and a six-pack of Michelob.
I spent the rest of the night acting like an idiot and throwing up in the
bathroom of my brother’s apartment. The next day, I could barely drag myself out
of bed, and had to go to work at my father’s grocery store.
On this particular
day, my dad found out I was hung over. When you come from a family of seven
children there are few secrets, so my dad thought it would be a good idea for me
to work in the liquor department that day. Having to handle all those bottles of
alcohol when I was already reeling from a hangover made me feel even worse. I
felt so sick, it took me about three days to get back to normal.
In my memory,
there wasn’t anything fun about drinking. All I remembered about it was how sick
it made me and how embarrassed I felt. Since then, I rarely touch alcohol, and I
have never tried an illicit drug. But that doesn’t mean I have never had any bad
habits or that I am not vulnerable to addiction.
In my professional
life as a psychiatrist, neuroscientist, and brain imaging specialist, I have
realized that everybody is potentially at risk for addiction and that drugs and
alcohol aren’t the only kinds of addictions that can damage the brain and ruin
your life. I have also discovered that our daily behaviors and habits can either
hurt our brains and make us more vulnerable to addiction, or they can help our
brains and protect us from addiction. For more than twenty years, I have been
treating people with all sorts of addictions to help them change their
behaviors, enhance their brain function, beat their addictions, and improve the
quality of their lives.
Although David and
I have both arrived at similar places in our careers, our connection goes beyond
a purely professional collaboration. We first crossed paths more than fifteen
years ago. One of David’s family members was in crisis, and the family came to
me when they were desperate for help. They had heard about my work with brain
imaging, which was very controversial at the time, and hoped it might be
beneficial in their case. The brain imaging did help, but it was the quality of
our relationship that impressed David and his family. As David’s family member
improved, David and I—and our families—forged a deep and lasting friendship that
straddles our professional and personal lives.
Our two stories
show very clearly that all people and all brains are not the same. Most people
can drink or experiment with drugs without becoming addicted. For some people,
however, a single gulp of alcohol or hit from a crack pipe can lead to a
lifetime battle with addiction. For others, drugs and alcohol aren’t a problem,
but they can’t break their addiction to gambling, video games, Internet
pornography, shopping, sex, food, smoking, social networking, texting, or
working. What is it about our brains that make some of us more vulnerable to
addiction than others? And what can we do to break free from these addictions?
These are some of the questions we have heard from thousands of patients who
inspired us to write this book together.
book is divided into two parts.
The first part helps you understand addiction and why some of us get sucked into
its grasp. We will use the latest brain imaging research to show you what goes
on inside the brain that makes some people more likely to fall into and stay in
the grips of addiction. You’ll learn to identify some of the signs of addiction
in yourself or in those you care about, whether it’s your spouse, your child,
your grandchild, your parent, your friend, your roommate, your student, your
coworker, or your boss. This part will also shed light on common daily behaviors
that might be setting you (or a loved one) up for addictions.
The second part of
this book focuses on breaking the chains of addiction so you can take control of
your life instead of letting your addiction control you. The steps to unchain
your brain are simple but not necessarily easy. After working with thousands of
people with addictions, we know just how tough it can be to overcome addiction.
But we have seen it work over and over again and know that it is one of the most
rewarding things you can ever do in life. Breaking an addiction will improve
every aspect of your life, including your family life, your relationships, your
career, and your school life. In this part, you will find prescriptions for
daily life that will help you remain free from your addictions so you can be
happier, healthier, and more successful in everything you do.
help you break the addictions that steal your life, this part will include a
wealth of tips and strategies, including the following:
decision that will change your life—making the decision to unchain your brain.
areas of your life you need to address to prevent relapse.
natural supplements that can soothe your brain and reduce your cravings.
steps parents can take now to prevent addictions in children.
daily behaviors that will enhance brain function and help you beat your
Fifteen strategies for dealing with the people who try to sabotage your
often says that addiction is like getting on an elevator that only goes in one
direction: down. You get on at the first floor, and as your addiction
progresses, you keep going down, down, down to the second floor, third floor,
fourth floor and so on until you hit the bottom at about the twelfth floor. You
can get off the elevator at any time, and the earlier you get off, the easier it
is to reclaim control of your life. It is our goal that this book will inspire
you to get off that elevator before you end up at the bottom.
– part 2: How Addictions Steal Your Life
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