Dopamine No More! (I miss it)
I miss dopamine.
I miss the sweet emotion (queue up the song).
Dopamine makes us want to do things. Dopamine inspires and motivates, conveys purpose and meaning, makes us believe that dreams can come true.
Our hairy ancestors apparently needed it. Otherwise life was just too hard, so why bother to survive? Evolution said that won’t do — here, take a shot of this, that’ll get you going.
I was a dopamine junkie. I overdid it. Dopamine fuels belief, belief gets the internal resolve going, which fuels more dopamine which fuels more belief… The more you use, the more you want. The more you use, the more you need. You’re invincible when you’re on it, an anxious slug when you’re not.
The addictive cycle.
Pretty soon you’re out of touch. Your risk-reward regulator goes out of whack. The further out you get, the closer you get to the edge, the more thrilling it is. You’ve gone beyond surviving, now you’re thriving. No normal drudgery life for you. You’re the exception.
So you think.
It’s a lie. And the crazy thing is, people who have their dopamine under control buy the lie with you. They cheer for you, say you’re inspiring. You’re on a Hero’s Journey. You’re living the Redemption story — the Hollywood standard: get a crazy idea, sacrifice everything, lose everything, everybody turns against you, you crash and burn, all is lost, everything is hopeless…and then… you did it! Happy ending! Hero worship! Glorious sunset! Stirring overture!
I miss all that.
I read an article about “dopamine fasting.” It’s an anti-self-help self-help technique that’s been making the rounds for a few years. I could see that. I’ve been working on it myself for about that long. Once I saw how dopamine had ruined my life, how fraudulent and full of lies and false promises it is, how it would keep ruining my life if I didn’t get it under control, I swore it off. No more periodic crash and burns for the sake of a survival need that started with getting our butts out of the cave to join a Mastodon-clubbing party.
I meant well, but I lapsed now and then. I couldn’t seem to go cold turkey — dopamine was too sneaky. One little hit — one idea that seemed so cool in the moment — and I was back in the cycle. So I needed safeguards, needed to learn not to trust my ideas, how to squelch my hopes, not follow my dreams. Life was still on the edge, but not the fun kind of edge. The new edge was overlooking The Void — an imminent drop into meaningless, purposelessness, despair.
It helped that I was overtaken by a dopamine-impairing neuro-muscular disease. It advanced slowly at first, didn’t get diagnosed for a few years. By the time I got diagnosed, it was like somebody else said — “I got diagnosed, and 6 months later I had aged 15 years.” It also helped that I became poor. Old, impaired, and poor — three things I thought I’d never be, and now I was. All three hammered my dopamine supply. Crazy ideas need lots of energy and money. If you’re old and impaired, you don’t have the energy. If you’re poor you don’t have the money. It helps.
No, I don’t sit around whining. I’ve learned to do things without feeling like it, learned to live without motivation and inspiration, without hope and joy. Don’t be disgusted at my crappy attitude. I’m not wallowing. I’m living an experiment. How do you live without all that good stuff? How do you rise above slug level when your brain doesn’t have the chemical it needs to keep you squirming along?
I can’t tell you, but I do it every day.
Truth is, there’s still some dopamine flowing up there, or I’d be done. Enough to keep me surviving, although sometimes I wonder. Enough that I still lapse now and then. My routine now is treat it like an annoying child — stop what you’re doing, give it attention, hear it out. And then, once it’s feeling better, go away and wait. That might be enough.
If it comes up again, try to find out why. What’s the hook? Soothe the idea, make it feel better at the source. You can’t do anything about it anyway — you’re too old, infirm, and poor, remember? No, it doesn’t want to hear that. It’s a child — it doesn’t process adult limitations like affordability or mobility challenges. It just wants to play. So go ahead — after awhile you’ll want to sit down and rest. Maybe it will pester you again, maybe not. It might go away right away, maybe overnight, maybe a couple days. Usually no more.
Dopamine episode solved.
You’re safe until your dopamine idea-maker fires off another one.
I’ve learned to deal, but I miss it. I miss believing, hoping, trusting. I miss having dreams and visions, feeling like I can do cool stuff. Life was more fun when it was full of magical thinking and delusion.
I sometimes think how easy it would be to get on meds — instant chemical relief for crappiness and despair. But then I think I’ve had quite enough magical thinking and delusion for one lifetime. When Nietzsche recognized that God had died, he worried that people wouldn’t be able to live without the sense of meaning and purpose that God had given them. His solution was to invent Superman.
It takes a lot of dopamine to be Superman. Lots of testosterone, too — another survival drug.
Superman was a disaster. Thanks anyway Friedrich, but we’ll sit this one out. No Superman for me.
And for now at least, no meds either. I’m more interested in finding out if you can actually live on the edge of The Void. I know, I know… it’s just another version of my old living of the edge — kind of a pathetic version at that. But despair is what I’ve got right now, so I’m working with it. I work out, do my learning and reflecting and reading, create my artwork. I do it because I do it. I do what I do because that’s what I do. No Hero’s Journey, no Hollywood, no motivational speaker self-help guru fame and fortune. Just getting stuff done whether I feel like it or not.
It’s probably a phase — another fit my inner child is throwing. I’d like to be a child again. I miss that, too. I never wanted to grow up. All the magic, delusion, dopamine highs.
But no. Here’s to survival! To the Void! To despair! To the nothingness Nietzsche was worried about!
And all that other adult shit.
Kevin Rhodes draws insight and perspective from his prior career in law, business, and consulting, from his studies in economics, psychology, neuroscience, entrepreneurship, and technology, and from personal life experience. View all posts by Kevin Rhodes
Originally published at http://iconoclast.blog on September 11, 2021.