A Fly In the Ointment: A New Perspective on Addiction

By Nic Sheff October 26,2011

After years of speaking about addiction, a fascinating new study has radically altered my perception of this disease. It’s all about drunk flies.

It’s been four years since my memoir, Tweak—and my dad’s memoir, Beautiful Boy—were published in the same month. Shortly afterwards, the two of us went on a national book tour. Since then, we’ve traveled to hundreds of conventions and fundraisers and schools—sharing the hard lessons we’ve learned about addiction and recovery and…well…life in general.

That means we’ve had to listen to eachother’s experiences close to 50,000 times. And while our stories always evolve and shift slightly each time we recount them, for the most part they remain unchanged. Recently I’ve found myself daydreaming as I sat in the audience listening to my dad share his half of our tortured tale. To be honest, I’ve even started daydreaming while I’m sharing my own story. I mean, it’s the same thing, over and over and over again—the same stories, the same ideas, the same jokes, the same tears.

Once an addict is an addict, whether it’s a human being or a fly, getting high is the only thing that matters.

But last week, when we showed up for a speaking engagement up at California’s Sonoma State, I found myself hanging on to my dad’s every word. When it was my turn to share, I was at a loss, because my understanding of my addiction—and of my brain chemistry and even of my past—had been dramatically altered by what he had to say.

He spoke about a female scientist in San Francisco who had managed to create an entire race of house-flies who were addicted to drug and alcohol.

I’m no scientist—and neither is my dad—so it’s safe to say neither one of us understands this whole fly thing all too well. And while my dad was able to capably explain the scientist’s research to those Sonoma State freshmen—well, I’m definitely gonna screw up a few details.

But I’ll try my best.

So it seems this scientist was able to create an alcohol/cocaine vapor that flies could inhale if they chose to walk down a certain corridor in their cage. After a few weeks, she noticed that while almost all the flies sauntered down the corridor to get high from time to time, a much smaller percentage of them went down the corridor over and over again—to their own detriment. These same flies would eventually turn their backs on food and water and anything but alcohol. Eventually they would end up engaged in a cycle that seems all-too-eerily human. They got drunk and stoned, wobbled around for a while, had trouble flying, passed out for 20 or 30 minutes, and then woke up and did it all over again. Just like I used to do.

And so, by examining the flies that are more prone to addictive tendencies, this scientist has actually been able to isolate some of the genes linked to alcoholism so that she can create an entire brood of addict/alcoholic flies.

In fact, these flies are such hard-core addicts that even when the corridor leading to their drug supply is replaced with an electrified metal panel, the flies will still walk down it to get their drug of choice. They’ll be getting shocked all to hell, but it won’t stop them. Whereas the non-addict flies will put one little fly foot on that electrified surface and then back off immediately, never to return.

The addict flies, just like addict humans, will go to absolutely any lengths to get their next fix—even when that is in direct opposition to what is every living creature’s natural instinct for survival and self-preservation. In other words, once an addict is an addict—that is, an active addict—whether it’s a human being or a gross-ass fly, getting high is the only thing that matters. We will do anything it takes to get more. It becomes what we live for. And that is not a moral or rational decision. It is encoded in our DNA. And it can remain dormant for your whole life. Or it can awaken, like it did for me—you know, back when I was 12 years old and I started smoking pot every day.

So that means the drugs actually weren’t the problem—it was the drugs and my goddamn genetic code.

It’s ridiculous, really, to think about how long I’ve fought to deny that simple fact. And, honestly, I’m not even sure why that is exactly. Maybe it just seemed embarrassing to admit it was the drugs themselves that totally fucked up my life. Like, it seemed cooler or whatever to be able to blame my addiction on my messed up childhood, or my creepy step-dad, or my mom leaving, or something like that. And, well, I’m sure all that stuff did play a role in terms of why I started using drugs in the first place. But my addiction had nothing to do with that. ‘Cause obviously a ton of people have a hard time growing up, and obviously they don’t all turn out to be drug addicts—even the ones who do end up doing drugs.

The only thing that made me any different was that I had this messed up genetic whatever, just like my dad’s new fruit-fly friends. And then the drugs did the rest. They changed me. They changed my brain chemistry, and changed the way I thought about myself and my past.

Back when I was 18 and I first tried crystal meth, right when the drug hit me I remember having this feeling like, “Wow, this is the first and only time I’ve ever been happy in my whole life.” And I believed that. Hell, I believed that for most of my life. I believed that, before crystal meth, I was never happy—and that without crystal, I would never be happy again.

But that was a lie.

That was a lie that the drug told me.

That lie was the drug manipulating me and changing my brain chemistry. And, yeah, like the flies, I learned to walk across an electrified panel just to get another fix.

It’s pathetic, I know.

I take a drink or a drug and instantly I start to turn.

I become a man by becoming a fly.

Me and the flies, operating from the same place of blind, insatiable hunger.

There’s a scene in that David Cronenberg movie—you know, The Fly—where Jeff Goldblum (in mid-fly transformation) tells his co-star Geena Davis, “I’m an insect who dreamt he was a man and loved it. But now the dream is over…and the insect is awake.”

And, yeah, the more drugs I used—and the longer I was out there—the more goddamn fly-like I became, and the harder it was to get back to my humanity.

Because I know that not everybody is able to make it back.

I realize how incredibly blessed I am to have this second (or like seventh) chance. I only wish that when I was younger I could’ve understood what alcoholism really is—a genetic mutation and mental illness that is brought to life by the drugs themselves. Maybe then I would’ve been able to recognize the signs of my own budding alcoholism before my whole life was taken over.

So then maybe I wouldn’t have had to waste all those years living like a goddamn insect.

Nic Sheff is a columnist for The Fix and the author of two memoirs about his struggles with addiction, the New York Times-bestselling Tweak, and We All Fall Down. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, two hound dogs, and a cat. He is currently working on a novel about sisters growing up in a Northern California cult.