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Read an Excerpt from Woman of Substances

Journalist Jenny Valentish dives into the neuroscience of addiction.

Woman of Substances book cover

1982. The UK. The Falklands War erupted. The lowest temperature on record was captured by a lonely weather station in east Scotland, at −27.2°C. Unemployment exceeded three million, the highest since the 1930s. The IRA bombed Hyde Park and Regent’s Park, killing eight and wounding forty-seven. Thatcher’s Tories were top of the opinion polls. In every kid’s Christmas stocking there was a copy of When the Wind Blows, depicting a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. I was seven.

I don’t want to lose your sense of intrigue straight off the bat, but I was a sickly child, matted with eczema and, later, permanently trailing a hankie. The umbilical cord had noosed around my neck upon my grand entrance, rendering me mute. I brought with me a special delivery of postnatal depression and was soon registered as ‘failure to thrive’.

Around our house they called me the Grizzler. My super-powers included a sixth sense for the acutely unfair, and internal combustions at perceived slights. My parents also bandied around ‘sulking’ or ‘sulking again’, but those words didn’t do it justice. When wronged, their youngest child was a kamikaze pilot in a nosedive, unwilling or unable to pull up. Empires should collapse.

‘It’s not the end of the world!’ Mum would exclaim, in an ascending tone. Dad’s favoured description of Mum was ‘wittering’. Mum’s nickname for Dad was ‘Eeyore’. We all did the Myers–Briggs personality test one time and came out as introverts with tempers rising. Long car journeys were marked by the sucking of teeth, bursts of road rage and the odd hiss of ‘tedious’ or ‘bollocks’; a Mexican wave of low frustration tolerance between the two front seats. It kept me on high alert, every tut triggering a spike of cortisol.

Sometimes I’d study Dad’s eyes in the rear-view mirror as he steered us through European holidays of crumbling ruins. His handsome brows would draw upwards in an expression even a child could recognize as aggrieved. Some silent cinefilm of lost chances seemed to be looping eternally. Trying to smoke us out of the picture with repeated stabs at the cigarette lighter only served to jack a bit of dopamine out of those rusty neurons. He’d take the edge off by shoving Olivia Newton-John in the tape deck.

I liked to creep out my family in this way: sitting bolt upright in the back seat until they noticed me watching, nibbling on a plait. As a journalist I’ve made a career of it. Sometimes I’d lie down and cry undetected into the upholstery of the back seat, lost in some tragic fantasy involving one of their deaths. Outside of the car, we all kept to ourselves.

It’s fair to note that we are English, but there was more to the sense of foreboding than that. My mother worked in social services and my father was descended from a long line of Essex cops – a paradoxical dynamic right there. Our house itself was a police state, which Mum would attribute to his childhood when he was out of earshot. It meant our mealtime manoeuvres were closely scrutinized for plebeian plate scraping, too few chews or using our forks like shovels. Some Sunday lunchtimes a tear might plop into my wholemeal apple crumble; but discreetly, since governance operated under the popular wartime maxim: ‘Children should be seen and not heard.’

My older brother and I got lots of advice like that. ‘Patience is a virtue.’ ‘Do as I say, not as I do.’ All variations of ‘shh’, really. Part of me has grown up similarly conservative. I think a lot more parents could be employing ‘If in doubt, don’t’ these days. Hapless Gen Y and Z #dreamchasers are taught to ‘Shoot for the stars, baby!’ They’re told they can achieve anything in life they set their minds to. It’s heartbreaking for them when they find out they can’t.

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My default setting was: ‘Expect nothing and be pleasantly surprised.’ Addendum: ‘Any pleasant surprise will be a massive fluke and should be dismissed as such.’

This is why you should take my account of childhood and run it through your own sunshiny filter, adding a leafy suburb here, an idyllic seaside holiday there, The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Special on the telly, and being read the adventures of Winnie the Pooh every bath night – because those things were there, too.

In my memory, it’s like Nordic noir: everyone’s withdrawn and secretive, the sky is overcast, and people drift about wearing thick woollen jumpers (Dad never turned on the central heating). At any moment someone’s liable to walk out into a snowdrift and never return. But I am not the most reliable witness.

***

Nobody wants to start their own book looking like a sap, but the point of this chapter is to illustrate that childhood temperament is a strong predictor of problematic substance use in adulthood. Temperament is observable from birth, and it’s the foundation upon which personality is built.

There’s an episode of the 2012 ABC documentary Life at Seven called ‘Tackling Temperament’. The Australian children it follows have been the subjects of a longitudinal study since birth, and now it’s time to test their response to frustration with ‘The Painting Experiment’.

In groups of three, the children in the documentary are given the task of painting a picture of flowers. Midway through they’re distracted by a researcher, who calls them over to inspect the real floral arrangement more closely. While their backs are turned, one girl – who’s in on the experiment – scribbles on their artwork, then slips back to her own easel.

Initially, each child is dismayed to discover their ruined painting – and they’re suspicious, of course.

Child 1 is subdued. She says she knows the other girl did it, but she keeps going with her painting regardless. By the time she skips out of the room, the insult is forgotten.

Child 2 finds another blank page beneath the first and, pleased with his own ingenuity, starts over from scratch.

Child 3 wants to get to the bottom of it, but eventually her desire to continue wins out. ‘I know,’ she decides, ‘I could colour the background in.’

Child 4 is angry. She stamps her foot. ‘That just can’t happen,’ she says. The researcher leans in: so what should Child 4 do? ‘I don’t know,’ she whimpers. Does she have an idea? ‘No.’ She rejects the suggestion of turning over the paper to the clean side, claiming that won’t work.

‘How did it happen?’ Child 4 repeats, aghast. Eventually she’s persuaded to start over, but the sense of injustice lingers.

Perhaps Child 4 adopted a permanent explanation for this ruined-painting scenario. This is a mindset described by psychologist Martin Seligman in his book The Optimistic Child. A positive thinker will regard a setback as being temporary: ‘This picture has been ruined but at least I had only just started.’ A child as pessimistic as I was will tell themselves a story with finality to it: ‘This is hopeless. Just my luck. This happens every time. People always have it in for me.’ This type will also have what’s called an external locus of control: the belief that they are a passive victim of their circumstances, rather than the architect of their own destiny. Every time a reasonable solution is offered, they’ll play the ‘yes, but’ game, preferring to nurse that sense of unfairness like Gollum and his ring. Something might go really well, yet by the end of the day it’s catastrophized, remembered as an unmitigated disaster. They might similarly revise their entire childhood, levelling out all experiences to the baseline of the worst. If there’s one word I’ve tended to overuse in my life, it’s ‘sinister’.

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That’s the past. As for the future – which in Child 4’s case is the option of turning over a sheet of paper and starting anew – they’re harbingers of doom.

In defence of Child 4, certainly not all pessimistic or reactive children will grow up wanting to funnel the world up one nostril. There are plenty of coping techniques that, with a bit of encouragement, an individual can employ to regulate their moods. As my mum pointed out, upon reading this chapter, she was a pessimistic child and never sought solace in vodka. She does distract herself with lists, and lists of lists, and lists of lists of lists, though, which flutter like butterflies around the kitchen whenever someone opens the back door. And if one more person tells her, seemingly apropos of nothing, that she should try mindfulness, she’s going to throttle them – and have another coffee.

The ruined paintings of the Life at Seven kids were a minor setback. In the case of experiencing childhood trauma, having low resilience – like Child 4 – can be a huge risk factor for adult anxiety, depression and problematic substance use.

One of the most thorough studies of childhood personality began in Melbourne in 1983 and is ongoing. The psychologists and paediatricians behind the Australian Temperament Project have been following the children of 2443 families from the state of Victoria. They’ve found that the features of temperament most likely to have long-term influence are persistence, flexibility and reactivity/emotionality, with the biggest predictor of adult behaviour being self-regulation.

Someone with poor self-regulation has little capacity to control their reactions, which include physiological responses, such as a churning stomach when something is upsetting, but also their interpersonal attitudes. I was one of those kids who, if a friend came over to play and a row started, would rather endure an hour of anvil-heavy, atom-buzzing silence until their mother arrived to take them away, than try to rectify the situation. Not much has changed. Fast-forward thirty years and there I am necking two beta-blockers before resigning from a job, in order to firmly get my points across without hurling a stapler or letting loose a spittled string of expletives.

The rage. The fucking rage! It’s always there, inflating inside me, like the Hindenburg awaiting a match. I’ve no doubt that it was the fiery fuel of my benders for all those years, though I hid it well. Usually. Once, on a work trip to California, I thrashed a hotel room so soundly with my belt that the people in the room below – who’d probably already had it up to the hilt after a day at Disneyland with their actual kids – called front desk. The concierge wouldn’t accept my explanation that I’d just had some annoying news and a few martinis, and pushed me aside to check the wardrobes and bathroom for my assailant.

So why do some people fail at self-regulation? In part it’s hereditary, but it’s also down to the home environment. When a child’s stress-response systems are activated – which means an increased heart rate, rise in blood pressure and release of stress hormones – some calm intervention by a caregiver can bring these responses back down to baseline. If these skills are not observed and learned, the habit of self-regulation will not be routed into the neural pathways. Failure to learn might be through parental neglect or through watching parents catastrophize minor issues. Conversely, pandering to a child’s every whim can mean they’ll never experience disappointment and how to adapt to it. Increasingly, drug and alcohol counsellors are seeing clients in their thirties and forties who are living back at home with enabling parents who never learned to tell them ‘no’.

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In summary, what we know to be high-risk factors for problematic substance use include low resilience, poor self-regulation, low self-efficacy and reactivity. These are all issues that can be tackled with cognitive behavioural therapy, or even with the assistance of the self-help section at any airport bookstore, with techniques put in place before you’re back on the ground at your destination. The danger is that defeat can become comforting. There’s a familiar cycle of disappointment and then – if you grow up to coddle yourself with drugs and alcohol – self-soothing. In time, defeat becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Things are not for the likes of you. Something simply cannot be done. There is no point.

From Woman of Substances: A Journey into Drugs, Alcohol and Treatment by Jenny Valentish. Copyright © 2017 by the author and reprinted by permission of Head of Zeus/Anima. You can follow Jenny on Twitter at @JennyValentish.