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The Haight Ashbury Free Clinics - The 1999 HAFC Logo
Free Clinic Founder, 1967


Dr David Smith
Forty Years Later, 2008


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.

David continued 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.”

David simply 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 overdose. 

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.

 I, 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.

 This 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.

 To help you break the addictions that steal your life, this part will include a wealth of tips and strategies, including the following:

        One decision that will change your life—making the decision to unchain your brain.

        Four areas of your life you need to address to prevent relapse.

        Five natural supplements that can soothe your brain and reduce your cravings.

        Seven steps parents can take now to prevent addictions in children.

        Ten daily behaviors that will enhance brain function and help you beat your addictions.

        Fifteen strategies for dealing with the people who try to sabotage your recovery.

     David 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.

 Introduction – part 2: How Addictions Steal Your Life

 Click here to order Unchain Your Brain


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