I’ve been feeling better about the Whippersnapper, and one thing that has really helped, is understanding the role of dopamine in my feelings.
Dopamine is a chemical – a neurotransmitter. That means it carries messages across the brain.
This is a brain cell:
Then, chemicals carry the message across the gap between one brain cell and the next (the gap is also called a ‘synapse’).
Dopamine is one of these chemicals, that carries messages across the synapses. Other ones are serotonin and adrenaline, plus there are loads of less glamorous ones.
Dopamine plays a big role in our ‘reward system’. Most animals have a reward system – it’s the thing that drives us to find food, shelter and a mate, and gives us feelings of motivation and wanting. Dopamine plays a role in the feelings we have when we get something we want.
Dopamine does other things as well, like regulating blood vessel dilation and attention. And some of the good feelings we get are not just caused by dopamine – they might come from opioids, endorphins or hormones like oxytocin (a hormone related to bonding), but dopamine plays a role in the release of those chemicals.
Anyway, one of the things that has stopped me from getting over the Whippersnapper, is how intense my feelings were for him. It felt like we had a connection stronger than any I’ve had.
To be honest, I think I had similarly intense feelings for at least two of my exes, but time blunts the sharpness of the highs and lows.
The way I felt when Whippersnapper was sitting on my sofa, and I was lying across him and we were talking and kissing, it felt better than drugs.
You always get those intense, honeymoon period feelings when you’re falling in love, but this felt in a whole different category, because it felt so intense.
After we broke up, as much as I tried to move on, I couldn’t, because of these feelings. I thought am I ever going to feel like that again?
I thought how amazing it felt to be around him was a reflection of how great he was, and how strong our connection was.
Then, the other day, I heard something which really resonated with me, on the self-help app, Mend, which I’ve been using.
I already knew that we release dopamine when we achieve a reward. It feels good, and it makes us want to do it again. This is really important from an evolutionary perspective, because it motivates us to keep doing things which are good for the species, like finding food or shelter or a mate.
On that day’s session of Mend, she said that our brains our wired to release more dopamine, when the reward is something unpredictable. When we get a reward that isn’t always there, we release much more dopamine. A gambler might keep doing the same thing over and over, and sometimes they win, sometimes they don’t. When they do win, part of the high comes from the inconsistency of the reward. If they got the same reward every time, it wouldn’t produce the same reaction.
The evolutionary explanation might be that there’s an advantage to noticing things that aren’t always there. If there were some berries that were really good for a cavemen to eat, but they didn’t grow very often, the caveman whose dopamine levels motivated him to notice and eat them might live to be healthier and pass on his genes more than a caveman whose dopamine reward system didn’t highlight inconsistent rewards.
So, every time the Whippersnapper sat on my sofa, I felt such intense feelings of ecstasy, bliss and contentment, I felt like he must be literally God.
When we broke up, it was devastating when just normal mortals sat on my sofa.
Now I realise, the feelings I got were partly down to dopamine. I thought him sitting on my sofa was the best thing that had ever happened to anyone in the history of England. Now I realise, part of the reason it felt so good, was because every time he sat on my sofa, there were three or four other times, in the preceding weeks, when he was supposed be sitting on my sofa, but he let me down and cancelled.
The reward was so inconsistent, when it occasionally came, my brain was flooded with dopamine. I was off my fucking tits on the neurotransmitters and hormones.
I was worried I wouldn’t ever feel like that again, but I’m seeing it differently, I kind of hope I never do.
I met WS in October 2016. I’m good at remembering exact dates, which is a bit of a curse, so around the exact anniversary of when we first met, I felt particularly sad. That first date was so good.
But now, whenever I look back on what I was doing exactly a year ago, it’s helping me to see our relationship differently. I thought I was going through a miserable time when I met WS, and he was one happy thing in my life.
But now, I can see, although there were odd nights when I was higher than a kite, most of the time, I was miserable because of him.
Last week I went to my work Christmas Party. When I thought back to last year’s Christmas Party, I remembered, that whole week, I was so miserable because of him letting me down. I nearly didn’t go to the party as I felt so down.
The memories of being miserable because of him greatly outnumber the happy ones.
There’s another thing from Mend about dopamine which I’ve found helpful. They strongly recommend not having contact with your ex for 60 days to give you time to heal; this was moot for me as I had already cut off contact with him when I downloaded the app. It had already helped, to stop having the highs and lows when he’d tell me he loves me, then ignore me, then imply he might be in danger of hurting himself etc.
However, part of the rationale for cutting off contact is that it causes you to release loads of dopamine, every time you’re in touch. And then, because that feels good, you want to do it more.
There’s even evidence that looking at photos of the person causes a release of dopamine, so Mend recommends unfollowing your ex on social media.
In the app, she uses this analogy which I really liked. If you’re baking a cake, and you keep opening the oven door to see how it’s cooking, the cake won’t bake properly. Every time you open the door, it lets the heat out, so the oven would be the wrong temperature.
To bake the cake properly, you have to keep the door closed.
It’s like that with getting over someone – every time you speak to them, or even look at their Facebook or Instagram, it’s like opening the oven door.
For me, even though we weren’t in touch any more, my version of opening the oven door was looking at his Whatsapp profile picture.
He was constantly changing his profile picture – I think it was a symptom of his body image problems. If he’d changed it any more often, it would’ve looked like an animation of him moving.
Whenever I looked at his picture and he’d changed it, I’d think thank God he’s still alive. It would also be nice to see a different photo of him. But then I’d think For whose benefit has he changed it? Is he seeing someone new?
When he hadn’t changed it for a while, I’d worry something had happened to him, or that he’d blocked me (even though I’d blocked him, so it’s hypocritical).
I knew I needed to stop this, to keep the oven door closed and level out my WS dopamine. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it.
Then, the other day, he changed his picture to new one I hadn’t seen before. He was wearing new glasses and looked absolutely devastating handsome.
Fuck sake. I don’t need this.
I screenshotted his number and texted it to my friend, in case I ever needed it, and then deleted every trace of him from my phone. I haven’t looked back.
When I first learnt about brain chemistry, I didn’t like it. I was a teenager and it gave me an existential crisis, thinking that the whole of human experience – all my pain and joy and love and boredom – was just down to the firing of neurons and chemicals.
But then I realised, it doesn’t reduce anything, understanding the biopsychology, it’s just one of many levels of understanding.
It feels good when I hug my mum, because I love my mum, and we’re happy to see each other.
And also, when I hug my mum, my brain produces oxytocin. It’s not that my love for my mum is “just oxytocin” – it’s just part of what’s happening in that moment. It’s part of how my brain codes the love.
It becomes really helpful to understand brain chemistry when our brains are doing something that was really good when we were apes and cavemen, but isn’t good now.
When your feelings don’t quite match the situation, or they motivate you to do something self-destructive, it’s helpful to put it into the biological context.
Whippersnapper was fun, handsome and loved me, and he was excellent at kissing and oral sex, so of course I wanted to be around him. But he was also fucked up, selfish and immature and made me miserable more than he made me happy.
Instead of thinking this isn’t very good, actually and cracking on with my life, I’ve spent nearly a year staring into the middle distance, pining for him. It doesn’t make sense, until I understand my brain has been stuck on a dopamine loop.
My brain is trying to be helpful but unfortunately, it can’t tell the difference between a caveman with really strong, evolutionary sperm who I should procreate with, and a millennial data analyst from Essex with body image problems.
Or maybe he was just a caveman with really strong sperm and that’s exactly why it didn’t work out.
Now, the oven door is closed and the cake is nearly ready.