Submitted Fri Feb 6 13:00:05 2009 under tags "psychology,addiction"

I drink too much Diet Coke. I mean, I drink probably 60 to 70 fluid ounces a day. That's the equivalent of almost a six-pack every day. I've managed to make it less expensive by buying the half-liter bottles at Safeway, but those are around 80 cents per 16 fluid ounces, though, coming to somewhere between $3 and $4 a day. So my habit is costing me around $100 a month. By contrast, people who smoke a pack of cigarettes a day pay around $3.80. Water, by contrast, would be free to drink for me since we have a water cooler.

A 12 ounce can of Diet Coke has in it about 45 milligrams of caffeine. A cup of drip coffee has somewhere around 150 mg. I'm drinking the equivalent every day in caffeine of about one and one-third cups of coffee. That's not too bad, but Diet Coke makes me more jittery than coffee, and more aggressive and angry. I'm not sure why. It would probably not bother me so much except I haven't been sleeping well and it's possible the caffeine in Diet Coke is a reason.

Diet Coke also contains the artificial sweetener Aspartame , which is largely phenylalanine . There's a huge controversy surrounding whether Aspartame carries health risks, but the FDA and most scientists agree that it's safe. Since Aspartame is about 1.5 milligrams per ounce in diet sodas, I'm taking in around 105 mg per day. The FDA recommends less than 50 mg per kg of weight. At 245 pounds (111 kg), I'm far short of the 5500 mg of the maximum daily intake of Aspartame the FDA recommends for my size. It still makes me nervous, though. I'm sensitive to other substances and medications, and feel like I probably should avoid Aspartame if I can.

Why do I drink so much of it? The answer that comes to mind is I'm "addicted." That means more than just me getting the shakes if I stop, though. I think my behavior changes in order to ensure I'm getting it.

The brain is an extremely complex machine, the purpose of which is turning positive and negative reinforcement into action. The brain can record that certain actions yield more of the positive and less of the negative and so, in turn, favor those actions. The reward systems in the brain are chemical. They are based on the levels of neurotransmitters and a careful balance of the chemical soup in the brain. As an example, heroin increases the levels of dopamine in the brain, mimicking the natural effects of having food and feeling safe, giving a deep sense of well-being. The brain is designed by evolution to promote the behaviors that keep us safe (and therefore more able to reproduce). But in this case the heroin user artificially stimulates the process of reinforcing behavior, the result being the desire to use more heroin. This is the basis of all chemical dependency. Fiddling with dopamine results in very strong behavior modification. Fiddling with serotonin can also induce behavior changes but less so.

But this dopamine feedback isn't the only thing affecting my actions. I have more results, sort of low-key, that I want to achieve. Having more friends makes me feel generally better because I'm a social animal. Producing more blog output makes me feel better because I value other people who have written a lot. Being in better shape helps me feel better because I am able to get out and do more, as well as it helping my mood chemically. These are all sort of higher-level needs and wants that I know produce long-term, more sustainable happiness.

But the chemical processes in the brain are very, very strong. It's possible for chemical addiction to create whole new pathways through the neurons in the brain. We learn to ignore the damage that addiction causes us, we lie so our dependency isn't threatened, we learn to steal so we can support our dependency. (I feel lucky that my basic chemical dependencies are only caffeine, sugar, and the occasional cigar.) The longer we sustain a dependency, the more it worms its way into the structure of our brains and thus the more it changes the way we think, behave, and feel.

I have learned recently that I have a second level of dependency. It's a little harder to see because it's quiet and more sparse, but it's still dangerous. Like everyone, I yearn to be valued and loved. At some point, as a child, I (1) doubted I was valuable and (2) learned that being "smart" or "gifted" was pretty close to being valued. So I tend these days to get wrapped up in activities that make me seem smart to myself, therefore proving I have value. These include showing off to the boss (his praise proves to me that I am smart), showing someone else how my answer is better than theirs (I'm smarter and therefore more valuable than they are), and running away from situations which highlight any knowledge I lack (I do not see that I am not smart). That doesn't seem like much of a problem, does it?

I think the real value I have in day-to-day society has to do with my skills as a programmer, as a problem solver, and to a lesser extent as a diplomat. (I often work with both a development team and a customer.) Performing actions that prove to me I am smart has (so far) been a pretty good approximation to being valuable because I often have to improve and demonstrate those skills in order to receive praise and feel smart.

But it's dangerous. If I just had the skills and no desire to prove my value, I would get along great with people. But the desire to seem smart sometimes puts me at odds with people who I suspect will appear smarter than I am. In some sense, "smart" is relative, and that means someone else must be dumber, so I am tempted to show that "I am right and you are wrong'" which leads to conflict. It also makes it difficult to be in a situation in which I am obviously inexperienced, because then it is obvious that I am not smart.

This feeling of "being smart" strokes my ego. More technically, I believe (without having researched it) that feeling valued stimulates that chemical machine in my brain, just at a lower level than, say, shooting heroin. I suspect that it is really, at its most fundamental, a chemical addiction. (One could argue that even things like the reward of being social are chemical too, since we're around other primates and their pheromones. At the limit, I believe that chemicals are all I am. Others will disagree, but it's clear that substance addiction is the result of chemical imbalances in the brain, and extrapolating to other influences isn't much of a stretch.)

This desire to feel that I'm smart is much weaker than a substance. But I've been sustaining it all my life, or at least since I was a child. It's part of everything I do, every thought I have. It's discouraging, especially in light of learning that it causes me stress and is the source of some conflicts in my life. The tendrils of "must look smart" touch many things in my day-to-day life. It's probably one of the reasons I'm always fighting low-grade depression and anxiety.

I can probably stop drinking Diet Coke within a couple of weeks. The first few days will suck. I'll have headaches, probably fall off the wagon, and ask myself often if quitting is really necessary. But it's possible. The danger (as many alcoholics experience) is that one drink can return the craving. I've actually quit caffeine a handful of times, but I end up going back. I think the only way to really stop is to quit, then remove all temptations, including being around the substance and people who might encourage me to partake. (Diet Coke won't kill me, so this is probably not so important. Is that the caffeine talking?)

But how do I quit wanting to feel I am smart? It's part of my day-to-day life. I use my skills to earn a paycheck which I use to buy groceries and pay my mortgage. My desire to improve my skills is wrapped up at least partially in a desire to prove to other people that I am smart (and have then acknowledge it to me, which feeds my sense of value). I think I'm fairly good at what I do, and is that because I want to feel smart?

I'm actually pretty scared that quitting this need to look smart may mean changes all over my life, from the job that I do, to the pay I earn, to the people with whom I'm friends... But it seems important. So it's something I'm going to try to address over the coming months.

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