Take Note: Prof. Judy Grisel On Becoming An Addiction Researcher To Understand Her Own Dependence

Jun 11, 2021

Judy Grisel
Credit Judy Grisel

On this episode of Take Note, we talk with Judy Grisel, a professor of psychology at Bucknell University. Grisel does research in addiction at the university after experiencing addiction as a teenager. It motivated her to write her 2019 book "Never Enough."

Here is the interview:

Welcome to Take Note on WPSU from my home studio, I'm Jade Campos. Judy Grisel spent her teenage years addicted to drugs and alcohol before entering rehab in her 20s. Now, Grisel has a PhD in behavioral neuroscience, teaches psychology at Bucknell University where she researches addiction, and is the author of the 2019 book "Never Enough." We talked to Grisel about her experiences with addiction and how drugs can affect a person's life.

JADE: Judy Grisel, thanks for talking with us. 

JUDY: I'm glad to be here, Jade, thanks for inviting me.  JADE: So you've been pretty open about your experiences with drugs and alcohol, your journey with addiction began when you were 13. Can you share your story? JUDY: Sure, I was probably a fairly typical kid. I guess there's no normal family and normal growing up but mine was pretty much probably right in the middle. And I kind of on a whim, just for the sake of experimentation, which is, I think, a common reason for budding adolescence, I decided to drink some alcohol. I was visiting a friend and her parents had a basement full of booze, and we picked up a gallon of wine and split it. And it really was eye opening for me. It was such a profound experience. This is also fairly common. I loved it. I loved it fully and wholeheartedly. I couldn't believe I'd been missing it. I felt like I didn't even know I had a problem with living until I had that. And I thought I had the solution so obviously it wasn't right beforehand, that was my reasoning. And so I spent about 10 years, taking as much alcohol and many other drugs as I could get my hands on. As a result of that, I was kicked out of three schools, I was in trouble all the time, I contracted hepatitis C from sharing dirty needles, you know, I was homeless at times. It's just — everything kind of fell apart. And so I ended up in a treatment center shortly after my 23 birthday. This was in the 1980s. It was a pretty fast trajectory down I think, facilitated especially by cocaine. JADE: So what pushed you to seek treatment for your addiction after all that time? JUDY: Yeah, unfortunately, I can't say that I sought it, I ended up there. I had no idea what treatment was, this was a long time ago so it was much less talked about. And I somehow was under the diluted impression that treatment was going to be kind of like a spa. And I thought that I deserved a break because my life was hell. And somehow I guess I thought that at treatment, I was going to get some tips on how to use drugs more successfully, and also maybe, you know, freshen up my diet and get some sleep and things like that. So I had no idea. I was transported by my parents, who were like saints by this point, from Florida to Minnesota in the middle of nowhere. And as soon as I saw that treatment providers who looked like nurses, I realized 'Uh oh, this is not going to be that fun,' and it wasn't fun at all I have to say. JADE: Were you committed to getting treatment?  JUDY: No, I was committed to surviving this particular thing. So I was really good at surviving, I think. I had been in lots of situations where things went bad and I relied on my ingenuity and talent for lying and talent for escaping out the back door, that kind of stuff. So I looked around, I realized 'Holy cow I'm in trouble here.' I figured I would just get through it as best I could. You know, they say that it helps if you hit bottom and you really want to change. I had really no intention of changing but I was far away I had, you know, no car, I suppose I could have thrown a fit right at the beginning but I was so, so out of it that it kind of dawned on me gradually. And it was only 28 days I told myself and so I thought, and I still think this, you know I can do anything for 28 days. So I was gonna put a little smile on my face and snow these people and get back to my life. And somewhere in there, probably about three weeks in, you know, the drugs are coming out of my system pretty quick and I was scared. I was scared because I was, for the first time in years looking at my life soberly and seeing the consequences of my using, and also, you know, getting a fair amount of input from these people who were trained and smarter than I was about what was going on who were saying that I had a disease that was going to kill me. And the really hard part, Jade, was that I didn't so much care about living at that point. I was pretty destitute. I was young, but I felt like I was old and tired. So it wasn't so much that I wanted to live as it was that I was kind of shocked by how different my actual reality was from the one I was believing up to that point, which, you know, had nothing to do with drugs as a problem. In fact, drugs are the solution until, you know, as I said, a few weeks into treatment. So that gave me just this little smidgen of willingness to listen, and, but still, I wasn't willing to really change and what I thought was 'Gee, I have a disease, it's killing me, they say, I'm not so sure about that. But you know, what diseases can be cured. So I am going to fix this. Just me, and then I'll be able to use.' I really was not willing at all to consider the possibility that I would have, you know, 10 20, 30 years of life in front of me with the no mind altering substances. So I told myself, Well, it'll probably take me seven years to fix this. When I'm done, you know, then I'll be able to not self destruct. So it was kind of dumb luck, I guess you could say.JADE: And you were pretty determined and strong headed to kind of get yourself through it all, too. Were there any moments where you felt like you were falling back into it? Or weren't so sure about yourself anymore?JUDY: Oh, most of the moments, I felt like that. I remember the very first come to Jesus time, I think, I was looking at my life, I realized, 'Okay, not going so great.' I wanted to change it, I thought, but like most people, I didn't really want to change it. I wasn't really the kind of willing. And I was sort of stuck in this beginning to recognize that I was my worst enemy. And I've never relapsed, which is not the norm. Partly, I think it is that I didn't want to get to the back of the line again. And partly it was that, I guess I see my recovery as like a never ending series of forks in the road. And I could choose, you know, sort of life or death or drugs or sobriety, I guess, and I just had enough willingness to most of the time, not all the time. You know, I definitely got closer, I think, to relapsing a few times. It's kind of a persistent thing in me that I wouldn't say I'm over it. Although I will hopefully celebrate 35 years clean and sober in about a month. That seems weird to people like, 'What do you mean, you're not?' Because most people in my life don't even know how I was. I do think it's just a kind of a continuous journey of growing, choosing healthy options and kind of expanding in that direction. JADE: That's incredible. 35 years.JUDY: I know — way older than you are.  JADE: Sometimes you still feel that urge to smoke marijuana or take something. How do you fight that feeling? And how do you push past it? JUDY: Yeah, well, one thing that I do is I pause and I think, 'What would I really like?' And honestly, as I stand here now, the opportunity to get a little wasted or a little drunk or something isn't actually that appealing. The first time that happened, I tell the story that I just finished my PhD. It was, you know, an exhausting seven years of studying and then a really rigorous defense with a bunch of, you know, old men talking to me, and I walked out and my lab mates were all standing there kind of looking weird. And they said, you know, 'Gee, we usually celebrate with champagne, but obviously, you know, we know that you don't drink champagne.' So they're all kind of looking awkward and my first thought was, 'That's right, I have worked so hard, I should really have some champagne.' And I paused, as I do now, and I thought, 'What would I really like to do to celebrate this hard work?' And so I bought myself a ticket to New Zealand and I went backpacking alone for six and a half weeks all through New Zealand, some of Australia and Fiji. And it was a lot better than, you know, cheap champagne in a plastic cup. So, I don't deprive myself and I treat myself really well. I love live music, when I can get them I get good seats. I just make more conscious choices about what is it that really would contribute to my flourishing? Is it you know, escaping? Or is it jumping in? JADE: Yeah, I mean, that trip to New Zealand — much better alternative to a glass of champagne in my opinion, personally. And you've said that, you know, for you, many things in your life stopped being interesting for a bit when you stopped smoking marijuana. So how were you able to find that interest and fun in life again? JUDY: Well, that one answer is that my brain readapted. So this is a consequence of chronic marijuana smoking. In the beginning, it's so fun, and funny, and rich, and that adapts. And so, for me, it really adapted so that I smoked all the time. And it was the only thing that would make life at all bearable. But it really wasn't that fun anymore. It was just sort of a compulsive habit to avoid feeling bleak. So, the way I got through that is I felt bleak for a good few months, I just put one foot in front of the other without picking up and, eventually, my brain adapted. But I recognize today, even all this time later, that I have a very low tolerance for boredom, and a kind of appetite for excitement. It sort of drives my family crazy, you know, but it's just the way I'm built. I like to be a little bit out on the edge. And you know, that's what marijuana gave me in the beginning. By the end, it was no edge at all. So I find things to do that enabled me, you know, to have those experiences including writing a book and, you know, talking to strangers like you and traveling and trying new experiences. You know, there's a million ways, actually. I grow these fabulous dahlias, you know, and they are, you know, you don't need to be high to see how glorious they are. So I don't know if that sounds good to anybody else. But to me, it's more than a substitute. JADE: If you're just joining us this is Take Note on WPSU. I'm Jade Campos. We're talking with Judy Grisel. Grisel spent her teenage years addicted to drugs and alcohol before entering rehab in her 20s. Now she has a PhD in behavioral neuroscience and teaches psychology at Bucknell University where she researches addiction.  JADE: For people that do experience addiction, is there like a scientific reason why people undergo it? Is it genetic? Is it something that's caused by outside experiences? Are some people more prone to experiencing addiction than others? JUDY: Yes, they certainly are. So about half of the risk is heritable. So it's stuff we get from our parents, it could be genes directly or maybe even epigenetic influences, which are sort of an interesting combination of genes and our history. But also early trauma or stress is a big factor. The biggest proximal factor, I think, is picking up when you're an adolescent. So if you wait until you're 25 to try a mind altering drug, if anybody does that, I don't know, your risk of developing addiction is almost nothing. You know, it's not zero, but it's close to zero. But if you start like I did it 13 or 14, you have, you know, a tremendous risk. So I'd say age of first using, stress and early trauma, genetics, and then the culture, it's all around us. There's so much pressure to escape in lots of ways, but especially with drugs. And the more you take a drug at any age for any reason, the more the brain will adapt to that drug by producing an addictive state. JADE: So the process of recovery and addiction, it looks different in children than it does in adults. JUDY: Yes, because children are so great at learning. They're just able to pick things up so quickly — that's for both good and ill. You know, this is the reason that most people who have a substance use disorder begin using before they're 18. And it doesn't really matter what they use, it could be just vaping, nicotine, and most people who try that for the first time are kids, and they're trying it because they just want to experiment. If it's nicotine or THC or alcohol or something else, it's usually picked up for the first time in kids. And some of those are going to find the drugs especially pleasurable like I did. And that might be due to genetic influences, or it might be due to the fact that the drugs kind of take away the pain of living, you know, that could be exacerbated by early trauma. And so then they develop a habit, and the more they use, the more the brain adapts. Because they learn everything so quickly, addiction is a form of learning. So they really adapt in a way that makes permanent patterns that characterize addiction. So they're sort of perpetually tolerant to drugs so they need to take more to get the same effect or they have set up a kind of a craving, you know, a stimulus response thing where they have a tough day, and they know an easy way out. And so it becomes a habit. They haven't developed, and certainly for me, you know, I was so young that I didn't really have much of a self to defend, I was trying to figure out who I was, and drugs sort of figured that out for me. But once you're grown and have a strong sense of who you are, and what you're about, you're much less vulnerable, I think. JADE: Is there a point when somebody is using drugs, their brain has adapted enough to using drugs that they might be too far into it to be able to recover from their addictions? JUDY: That is a great question. Because there's a lot of possible answers. One of them is that if they stop, before their brain is mature, which would be you know, sometime between 21 and 25, they're much more able to recover. And I think I really benefited from that early stopping. On the other hand, there are people at every age and every characteristic who do get well. And one really kind of enigma about addiction is that unlike every other disease I know of it's often the case that the worse off you are, when you realize you have a problem, the more able you are to recover. So it's like, you know, if you have a little tumor are a stage one cancer, that's much better than stage four, you know, it means, in fact, that you're much more likely to survive it. But for addiction, I think there has to be a willingness to change and that often comes with big consequences for me. You know, I was even though it hadn't been very long, I lost almost everything. So I think I was just willing enough. And I think that's a key factor. I talk to people all the time who would like to be able to give their own kids or spouses or parents a little bit of their own willingness. You know, 'Can't they see what they're doing?" But it really has to come from inside. And I think one thing that helped me to that might help others is that addicts tend to be really curious people. And I was curious about what it would be like to live a different way and I think that can also help, but it took a lot of support in my case. And I think we can't underestimate the amount of time and support that's necessary. You know, I was in treatment for 28 days, then a halfway house for three months, and I lived kind of in a sober community for another year. And all of that time, my brain and my behavior had a chance to come back into balance. JADE: That's incredible, though, to know that, you know, there is still possibilities for people who might feel like they're too far into it and there's just no going back at some point. JUDY: Yeah, no, it's really a good thing to talk about because the brain is so adaptable. It's just amazing, much more so than any other organ, you know. Even though it's hard to grow new brain cells, and we don't think of it that way. But it is constantly changing. And it's those changes that lead to addiction but it's also those changes that lead to recovery, and it needs support to do it. So I think, you know, being kind to your brain will mean that your brain can get well and that's true at any age. Yeah, not easy, but simple, I guess.JADE: And so what made you decide to get into higher education, the higher education field? Was it to better understand your own addiction? JUDY: Certainly it was, yes, I became a neuroscientist because I thought I was going to fix my brain problem, and had no idea how complicated it was and how challenging of a goal that would be. I just kind of kept going, I'm good at chasing rewards. And so I, you know, I got my PhD, I got a job, and then I got tenure. And you know, I'm going on and on. And I guess I found the work satisfying for a few reasons, but one was that it was different every day. And so I like education, because I'm perpetually a student, too. So it's a good place for someone who's wanting to learn and curious. And I also felt like I was contributing, in general to people's well being just by helping them to learn how to learn as I was learning how to learn. And then I love the laboratory research, because it's, you know, completely surprising. It's like playing the lottery, but probably less successful in a way. It's just always the data are unexpected and lead to new questions. So I was going along like that pretty well. And then I had a kind of a tough moment, because it did dawn on me, you know, after 20 years or so of chasing academic carrots, that I was not solving addiction, I wasn't getting very far, people were dying, you know, in droves. So that was the reason for writing the book. I think, though, that it's been really rewarding, because there's so much science done, and known, but it's all in these little particularities that are very inscrutable in a way for public consumption. I think it's just there's a pretty big gap in a lot of cases. And so it was a real challenge, and I like a challenge, to try to explain what we know about the brain's relationship to addiction in a way that would have an impact. JADE: And right now, 17 states have legalized marijuana for recreational use, do you feel like that's a good step for people who do want to use that as a social activity? Or could it, you know, perpetuate more harm for some people? JUDY: Well, we are seeing that it's perpetuating more harm for some people, but I don't think that's a good enough reason, this sounds kind of contradictory, for making it illegal. It wouldn't really make logical sense, since alcohol and nicotine are hugely dangerous. They've killed so many people, destroyed families, lives, you know, car accidents. Alcohol, at least is very neurotoxic, unlike THC. And also laws against us don't really work. We know that. It doesn't make sense. But I definitely am for regulating the markets and knowing what's available and spending some of the profits on public social services like treatment and education. There's a lot of people going to treatment with cannabis use disorder now. And you know, we don't really talk about that we talk about how it's a medicine for everything. But there's more evidence of people suffering from too much smoking than benefiting from it. So, you know, buyer beware, I guess and think about what you're doing. I guess, because deterrence don't seem to work. I think it would be more helpful to explain what you have to lose and what, in a nutshell, what you have to lose is whatever you like about marijuana, it's going to be less and less effective over time. JADE: Are there any kind of medical benefits to using marijuana? JUDY: Well, marijuana has hundreds of cannabinoids. And we really don't know much about many of them. Delta-9-THC or delta nine tetrahydrocannabinol is the mind altering thing and that is what is associated with psychosis and depression, and also cognitive impairment and there's no evidence of benefit from THC. There may be we just don't have the evidence yet. So if it reduces anxiety or pain initially, in the good long term studies, we're not seeing that hold up. So it's just not yet there in the literature, it should be studied. But one of the other cannabinoids is cannabidiol, CBD, and that is beneficial for people who have a certain kind of childhood onset epilepsy. And it may be beneficial for other things as well interestingly, cannabidiol reverses or attenuates or diminishes the effect of THC. So my thought is, you know, that should be widely available, because it's not going to hurt. But I think that THC should be regulated. JADE: How do you see the future of marijuana use and, you know, just general discussion about addiction? Do you feel like in the future moving forward, there should be more open conversations about addiction? JUDY: Oh, yeah, I think open conversations are always great. I like them to be filled with data and my students, you know, kind of don't love that. But I think the data is scientifically derived evidence in support of one interpretation over another. And it's really important to let the data drive our thinking and inform our conversations. So certainly, that's important. I also think, as far as the future goes, we have seen an increase in the number of people suffering with substance use disorders since I've been in the field, which is 30 years now or so. So, more and more people are suffering. And this is something I think, for society as a whole to consider. If one in five people or more have a substance use disorder, and what that means is that their using drugs is hurting them, and their relationships and their livelihoods and their health, basically diminishing their lives, if that's so common, and it's at least one in five, really some data suggests higher, then what is the obligation for the rest of us? Now I kind of think of it in a way like handicap ramps. We put those ramps in place, because we want everybody to have access to the same opportunities. It's so funny, we're just talking about this, because one of my favorite bands is having a three day music festival, which I go to as often as I can. But one of these happens to be at one of these all inclusive resorts, which I don't like, because I don't really want to pay for someone else's booze. And also more than that, even people tend to get out of control. And so I said, you know, this is not really very inclusive, because for people like me, it's off putting. So I just think that we should first recognize that many people are suffering. More people are suffering than are benefiting from their drug use, and that's true with all addictive drugs. And if you're one of those people who can benefit, I think it's incumbent upon you to consider how your children or your neighbors or your relatives might experience that, you know, in a way that is hard. So I'm certainly not against drug use but I do think it's important for us all to recognize that it's a problem for many people. JADE: Judy Grisel, thanks so much for talking with us. JUDY: It was great to be here. Thank you for inviting me, Jade.  Judy Grisel spent her teenage years addicted to drugs and alcohol before entering rehab in her 20s. Now Grisel has a PhD in behavioral neuroscience, teaches psychology at Bucknell University where she researches addiction, and is the author of the 2019 book "Never Enough." You can hear more Take Note interviews at wpsu.org/TakeNote. I'm WPSU intern Jade Campos