Judith Grisel's first drunken experience was no different to that of most middle-class teenagers – having had the odd sip at family gatherings, she and a friend managed to get their hands on a bottle of wine aged 13 and downed the lot. In many ways, she wishes she'd had a bad time; instead, she recalls feeling "physical relief and spiritual antidote" to her adolescent angst and ennui, which just left her hungry for more.
Soon, she was outdrinking most of her friends and veered down a steep fork in the road – via every drug she could get her hands on – to full-scale addiction. By 22, she was homeless and committing petty crimes to feed a cocaine habit, having been kicked out of university and cut off by her horrified parents to protect her younger brothers.
Remarkably, the elegant, thoughtful, mother-of-three, now 56, didn't just manage to get "squeaky clean", but a PhD in behavioural neuroscience. As professor of psychology at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, and an expert in the neurobiology, chemistry and genetics of addictive behaviour, she has now published Never Enough – part drug manual, part seedy memoir, which seeks to "explain the science to people like me," she says, "and explain people like me to scientists."
If the switchbacks of Grisel's trajectory seem unique, the questions she has spent her career trying to answer are universal: why do some people get hooked on drink or drugs, with devastating consequences for themselves and those who love them, when others don't? And what can be done to stop them?
These questions couldn't feel more pressing, given last week's figures showing that drug-related deaths in England and Wales have hit record levels (cocaine deaths, alone, have doubled in the past three years). They were swiftly followed by yesterday's NHS Digital report, suggesting well-off families are encouraging "dangerous" drinking habits in their offspring by allowing them to raid the drinks cabinet, or offering them a glass of wine with meals. Deaths caused by alcohol misuse have been climbing steadily since 2015.
Grisel's parents "certainly didn't encourage [drinking], or necessarily condone it," she says, but the more she has discovered about what addictive substances do to adolescents, the more she is "sure that even a little bit of alcohol can change brain development."
The brain strives for homeostasis, she explains, compensating for whatever pleasurable state a drug induces, with an equal and opposite response: "Neurologically, there is no free lunch." And neurologically, adulthood doesn't hit until the age of 25, so hammering hard on your brain's pleasure pathway while it is still in development affects its sensitivity.
"The problem is that kids who are intoxicated with anything early on, probably have to step harder on the gas pedal later, in order to get the same benefit," she says. Simply put, the more alcohol or drugs you consume as a teenager, the more you'll need to consume later to get the same high, priming you for heavier use.
Interestingly, there is a hereditary, as well as environmental risk of addiction. "Scientists have known for decades that [it] runs in families," says Grisel. So if one or your biological parents was an alcoholic, you are roughly 40 per cent more likely to become one yourself – regardless of whether you actually were raised by them. If one of your grandparents was, as in her own case, your risk is about 20 per cent.
"The bitter truth about biology is that we are not all created equally," she adds. "Some people are biologically protected, and some people are biologically at risk, and that is unequivocal."
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Despite concerted efforts, no single "addictive gene" has been identified, rather any number, which seem come into play in the presence or absence of others, in ways we don't yet understand. What appears certain is that addiction exists on a continuum, like intelligence or autism, and can be catalysed by early years' experiences and, of course, substance exposure.
Still, if addiction was once mistakenly cast as a purely moral failing, Grisel doesn't think the pendulum should swing so far as to make personal agency moot. This week, the MP Jess Phillips revealed on Elizabeth Day's How to Fail podcast that, as a teenager, she felt 'responsible' for her brother's heroin addiction, saying: "I feel like he ended up [an addict] because of me, because I was bossy and I was always right and I was the one who was clever and shiny."
"No one can cause, or cure, or take responsibility for someone else's addiction," explains Grisel. "I made some choices. And those choices were, in retrospect, really dangerous."
Was there anything that her parents could have done differently?
"One thing that may have helped," she speculates, is "an environment that was a little more risk-embracing. My parents were kind of tight and upper middle class, and both anxious in their own way. And I think it was just such a suffocating thing for me; if I could have been doing whitewater kayaking or something, it might have been that I could stretch myself in other ways. I think for kids, having ways to push against the edges of their experience is necessary."
The best thing they did, she believes, was kick her out of the house: "It got very bad, pretty fast and I was worn out by the time I was 23 – I felt like I was 103. If they had let me live in the basement and paid my bills, hooked up the internet, I think it would have gone longer, for sure. So I think consequences were necessary."
So, ultimately, was love. Even when she eventually recognised the high personal cost of her habit, the price of abstinence seemed even greater: "Without drugs," she remembers thinking, "what would there be to live for?"
Her father provided an answer after several years of estrangement: offering to take her out for dinner on her 23rd birthday, where an out-of-character emotional statement – that he just wanted her to be happy – finally collapsed her defences and saw her enter rehab.
Now sober for 33 years, Grisel is married to Jimmy, a technical design engineer, with whom she has a 16 year-old daughter, Maren and two stepsons, aged 27 and 25. It has been scary, given what she knows about the heredity of addiction, for her daughter to reach the age that she first began to go off the rails.
"I remember in the midst of my really bad time, my mother said to me, 'I hope you have a daughter just like you'. And even then I realised that was a pretty serious curse."
Maren does seem to be different by nature, she notes. When she was about three, Grisel was at a friend's party, holding her at the edge of a porch. "She turned to me, and said, 'Mommy, is this safe?' And it was such a great relief, because I thought, 'Well, I have never asked that question in my life."
Her husband drinks, and they have alcohol in the house, but it's not a feature at the dinner table. And whenever temptation rears its head, "I'm able to see that I have a lot to lose. And what's hard, is in the beginning, you don't." She is jealous of people who can moderate ("I don't know what it's like; they speak a language that I don't understand") and caffeine is now her only drug. "I make a huge deal out of it. I have a special grinder that I brought all the way to the beach."
Once people know her experience, both in neuroscience and addiction, they pepper her with questions: "'Why is my nephew doing this?' Or, 'is it dangerous to withdraw?' Or, 'does it skip a generation?'." The mother of a teenage son, who she thinks has a drinking problem, recently asked her, "What would you say to your 17 year-old self?"
Grisel replied, "'I'm really sorry, but at 17, there was nothing you could say to me.' I've been thinking about that for a week and a half," she says, "I want to be helpful."
She could do worse than give him a copy of her book.
Never Enough: The Neuroscience and Experience of Addiction by Judith Grisel is on sale now.