Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Dopamine Withdrawal and Litost

Litost is a nearly untranslatable Czech word, a state of feeling miserable and humiliated. "Litost is a state of torment created by the sudden sight of one's own misery," writes Milan Kundera in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.

Anyone who has experienced the end of a love affair and/or unrequited passion is well aware of litost, translatable or not, because there it is, living in your head, all fucking day and night.

There are already plenty of good reasons why the death of passion is so unbearable. I mean, hmm, there's the personal rejection of everything you are, the shame ("Why the fuck did I think it was wise to text him that picture of my butt?"), the anger/incredulousness at the other person's inability/fear/general fucktardedness at not seeing how flippin' incredible you are, and the sadness over that very same thing. I mean, well, it all sucks. Hard.

But in one of the crueler aspects of neurochemistry, just when you're hitting this personal low happens to be the exact second that dopamine decides to flee the scene. Dopamine, as you will recall, from Dopamine, The Cruel Bitch Mistress is a chemical that floods your brain in the first throes of love. (Oh, god, remember how good it was? I'll pause a moment here for anyone who needs to take a sobbing break...)

A dopamine high is great--there might be nothing better--but it's a harsh, difficult-to-manage kind of high. Someone giddy on the dopamine may be very creative, in love with the world, happy and open to the many glorious wonders of the world and their fellow human beings. Dopamine just hammers on your reward system in your brain and you feel good, man. Really good. This, however, is accompanied by less delightful effects like lack of sleep, loss of appetite and a need to keep the good chemicals coming through increasing intensification of the affair. But you kinda don't care because everything else is just so...amazing.

Dopamine acts in the same way as pretty much any drug of abuse, according to Helen Fisher in my now-dog-eared copy of Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love:
If the beloved breaks off the relationship, the lover shows all the common signs of withdrawal, including depression, crying spells, anxiety, insomnia, loss of appetite (or binge eating), irritability, and chronic loneliness. Like all addicts, the lover them goes to unhealthy, humiliating, even physically dangerous lengths to procure their narcotic.
That is, litost. (a side note: As one who has well tried the whole "unhealthy, humiliating" etc... route, I can advise you with some authority that that's not gonna work out so well for you.)

So what the fuck are you supposed to do, faced with the one-two punch of psychological trauma coupled with, basically, a really harsh drug withdrawal?

Unfortunately, your options are not terribly exciting, but rest assured, they do work. After a time at least. A very unpleasant, suckfest of a time. For advice, I would steer you to my two gurus in matters of the heart, one modern, Helen Fisher, and one ancient, Roman poet Ovid (43 BC-17AD).

According to Fisher, the cure is basically--do other shit. (Fisher, a respected author and scientist, uses much more genteel language, of course.) Take a walk, go have a coffee, climb a mountain, get a dog. All non-"them" related activities that give you pleasure are fine. Meditate, don't eat sweets or hit the booze, get plenty of sunlight, and plaster a big ol' fake smile on your face to convince yourself and others that you are just fucking fine. (This actually works, according to Fisher, "The nerves of these facial muscles activate nerve pathways in the brain that can give you feelings of pleasure. Even imagining that you are happy can spur pleasurable brain activity.")

Also, you can't go around thinking of your former lover, that hideous, unappreciative, (too fucking sexy, no! wrong train of thought!) emotionally-stunted wreck of a person, because that just makes it worse. You must physically remove reminders of their wretched existence to eliminate chances of backsliding. Suggests Fisher:
You must remove all evidence of the addictive substance: the beloved. Throw out cards and letters or stuff them in a box and put it out of reach. Don't call or write under any circumstance. And depart immediately if you see your former lover in the office or the street. Why? Because as Charles Dickens said, "Love...will thrive for a considerable time on a very slight or sparing food." Even the briefest contact with "him" or "her" can fire up your brain circuits for romantic ardor. If you wish to recover, you must expunge all traces of the thief who stole your heart.
Meanwhile, back 2000 years ago in Remedia Amoris (Remedy of Love), Ovid was pretty much dishing up the same advice--do other shit.
Love is the child of idleness, as slothfulness begets sensuality. It behooves you, therefore, to be active, and you may succeed in breaking the painful shafts of Cupid and putting out his torch.
And Ovid goes further than having you burn letters and such (which he does recommend as well), he advises leaving town entirely. "I believe in drastic treatments only, for there can be no cure without pain," he writes. But the principle is the same, do anything to avoid re-fanning your ardor.
Remember that you must stay away, for it is possible that embers of the fire that consumes you are still smoldering treacherously beneath the ashes of your surface indifference. To return prematurely will undo all the efforts you have wasted on your cure. It will be fatal to come back and find that your absence has merely given you a keener appetite for what is bad for you.
If these sound too grim, there are three more methods that sound a little more fun:

1. Take on a second lover and "let your affection hover uneasily between the two," counsels Ovid. The idea is more lovers = a certain helpful detachment.
2.  Overdose on the loved one. "Throw yourself at her night and day; have your fill of her in every way and manner; and she shall prove the means of curing your ills," wrote Ovid. For some reason, our brains refuse to continue getting a dopamine fix from the same person. Eventually, your brain just stops responding to the dopamine flood (see also: "The Coolidge Effect" in "Our Genes Can Be Heartless Puppeteers") unless you....
3. Find some other incredibly bangable mate. Writes Fisher: "Of all the cures for a bad romance, by far the most effective is to find a new lover to fill your heart." And start the whole fucking thing again--Wheeee!

(photo source: Frantisek Drtikol: Nude With Circles, 1928)

*Thank you to Nicole Daedone for reminding me of the lovely word, litost.

Note: This is running again by request from a heartbroken chick and is 3rd in a series of body/sex/mind/chemical fuckery.  See also Dopamine, the Cruel Bitch Mistress and The Crush, Explained by Science.


Princess Consuela Banana Hammock said...

Thank you so much for this post! I really needed to read it. It was kinda a wake up call for me actually.

Belinda said...

I would actually go against these experts and recommend NOT getting another lover. At least, not until you're over the heartbreaker.
In my experience, I was chasing that dopamine high, in unhealthy and self-destructive ways, by looking for lovers to recreate that dopamine effect. I only got more and more depressed with each one as I realized they weren't ever going to fill the first one's empty spot in my bed. They had no respect or need for me and I eventually had no respect for myself.
As soon as I focused on my work and moving up in the company, I was happier and was clear-minded enough to see my mate for what he was, a good, long-term mate. Not just another lover to give me my dopamine fix.

in bed with married women said...

Princess: Ugh, I am sorry to hear of your litostiness. If you try any of the ideas, please report back on their efficacy.
Belinda: Yes, you are right on, now that you mention it. The last time I got a big ol' dopamine spike, it was kind of just...too much. And I agree with you on the work focus thing, too. Writing is always going to be my *true* love. For me (and my general dislike of litost), it's a richer, deeper, less jolting kind of high.

Can't keep anything to myself said...

And I'm just the hamster running in his wheel. I don't know why I keep putting myself through the same thing over and over again, but I can't stop. I don't know how to get off.

Betty Fokker said...

I once texted a picture of my butt. However, it was mistaken for a close-up picture of cottage cheese for an American Dairy Association ad campaign, so I got away with it.

in bed with married women said...

Betty, if you're trying to turn me on--Mission Accomplished.
Can't Keep, Okay, listen to me and listen well, the thing that is going to get you away from that mind fuckery is you own gloriousness. You "youness" is what is going to be with you through moves, loves, times, deaths, everything. Love your youness and you're golden, sweets. Now run outside and play.

Can't keep anything to myself said...

The thing is, I was the dumper and not the dumped. But here I go, starting some new shit. I'm so happy and sad at the same time.

Honeydew Branchweed said...

I am new to your blog. Love your writing style and topics. This one especially so far. Now, off to read more!

Unknown said...

I'm a bit of a closet science magazine junkie and spend a lot of time marveling at how our brains interpret love and rejection. Most of it is just a chemical stew, but it sure gives a lovely ride at times.

Anonymous said...

Ah my colleen, I hate to read that you suffer.
This will be no help to you but when I have been dumped I resort to diassembling mechanical things, then fixing them and reassembling them. See? I told you it would be no help but on the other hand I have this 18th century wooden ship model.......
Be well, dearest.

Anonymous said...

Like the old saying goes "The best way to get over someone, is to get under someone else"

Spiffy McBang said...

I've had to do this a fair bit recently for the worst of reasons- crushing on someone who's unavailable, but who at least acknowledges you're not too bad yourself. So you get that little spike from the mutual attraction, just enough to create a need for you to distract yourself, but not the full-blown excellence of reciprocated want.

On the plus side, I've never spent such long days in the gym.

Then again, I should really be writing this book rather than throwing weights around all the time. I don't suppose Ovid said anything about how to actually find that second (or, hell, first) lover, eh?

Unknown said...

I have to give this a re-read. I'm four weeks into being "let go" from an almost 5 year relationship. I have yet to make it through a day without crying.

First though, I'm on a purging mission in my house.

Jill Hamilton said...

Vanessa D--Sending you extra love today. My friend, who just went thru a similar deal, decided that there needs to be synthetic dopamine for the newly bereft. which is a little bit genius.

Anonymous said...

I'm so glad I found this blog -- I love it. Especially since you uncovered the cruel bitchiness of dopamine and quoted Ovid.

I wish the dopamine rush didn't crash so hard... You wrote this so eloquently, the horrible pain of being denied and wanting nothing more than that fix again. Yep, what a cruel bitch indeed.

in bed with married women said...

SexonSaturday, thank you! ~~charmed~~