The Overpowering Dopamine of Ashby
Ashby leans back on the dark grey Ikea sofa that looks nice against the exposed brick wall. He’s snuggled in fashionable sweat pants and a beanie. He adjusts an open sleeping bag over his shoulders. “Sometimes I like to pretend I’m still camping.,” he says. His full lips and his thin eyebrows move gracefully as he speaks. My body is vibrating as it usually does after I sleep next to someone I don’t really know. An antique trunk acts as a coffee table separating us just far enough to see each other’s bodies fully. I lounge in the chair with both my knees up, the coffee he made me from his ceramic pour-over is warming my hands and I feel my mind grappling to stay in control as biology takes over. Dopamine is coursing through me rapidly and each pump has my brain foggy with lust. We’ve been talking most of the morning and I feel comfortable, not nervous or insecure. My causal and candid speech is contagions but with this surge of chemicals my questions and answers are motivated to increase my appeal to him.
“I want a girl with substance. I can’t stand small talk. I hate pretending to be interested in people’s stupid stories of the mundane crap they do to fill awkward air space,” he says.
“I hate small talk too. I like talking on a deeper level.”
Ashby reclines on the small sofa and invites me to come closer with a beckoning of his hand. I move from the chair, fully aware of my body’s motions, and I sit on the floor. I lay my head on his chest and he begins to stroke my hair. His white cotton t-shirt smells like fresh laundry. He pets my neck and shoulder until the tension rises and he shifts to get up, otherwise we won’t get on with our day.
We gather our clothes, our coats and scarves. I borrow a book from his shelf and place it in my bag. We walk like familiar beings side by side until we reach my street. He kisses me on the corner and continues to walk straight ahead to the train so he can go to his art studio.
Once he is gone, the echo of his presence makes my mind toss. How long will it take him to call? Will he call? I have his book so he surely will call. Does he like me? He seemed like he liked me. The whole evening plays over and over in my mind as I review the things I said and the way his faced changed, reading his reactions to my stories and biography. I mull on his comments that he is both a lone wolf, but is also happy in partnerships. I wonder which is more true.
I enter my apartment, feeling eager to shower. I remove my clothes and examine my body in the mirror that hangs above the sink, looking at the hips Ashby complimented, trying to see what he saw, and then step into the warm water. Hot liquid hits my skin and the spray reflects in the florescent light like an amber glowing potion of rejuvenation, but the water, the white tile, the visual void of the bathroom sends me swirling, and my thoughts move as quickly as the water spinning down the drain. I enter obsession, a state of mindless, consuming obsession. All I can think about is Ashby.
I exit the shower and dry off. The critical thinking and decision making side of my brain is now completely shut off from the dopamine bursts caused by thinking, remembering. My serotonin is now at a very low level. I put on a soft sweater that is dirty and has been lying on the bed instead of scanning the clean stuff that hangs in the closet and I forget to put on my fleece-lined under-layer that go with my leggings to help cut the severity of the wind. I don't put on a coat. It is late February. I step outside and begin walking to the café where I like to write. I am freezing. My brain isn’t working like normal. I am dumbed down and I feel unmotivated. As much as I would like to work on my latest freelance piece that is reaching its deadline, I only want to write about Ashby. I sit down at my usual table near the window, open the laptop and I stare at the blank page and blinking cursor. Ashby’s hair was so soft. I liked the way he looked in his beanie and the way his body moved when he got up from the bed to get me a glass of water. These thoughts cause more dopamine to course through me, completely inhibiting my other motivations. The chemical rewards are just too strong to compete with the intellectual side of my brain. The parts that would really like to create a sense of accomplishment are shutting down.
I check my phone in between painful, forced progress that I am achieving through sips of latte and each time I look at the phone, each time there is no message, the reward center of my brain begins its shift backwards. Each glance is not producing a pleasant experience. He’s not writing. I want him to. I want to know that he is as obsessed as I am, and I want to know this by the only form of attention I can get at this point, a text message. But I am being zapped like the rats in the maze designed to measure learning curves and eventually I decide to stop looking at my phone.
I put my head down and focus, but it’s a struggle. It takes a lot of fight and concentration and mental mantras, work work work, to get through the paragraphs of the article as the thoughts of Ashby fight to stay at the top of my mind. But being involved with a task, the longer I am in motion, the more head-space I gain. Plus the laws of diminishing returns associate with the silence of my phone have helped me to refocus my efforts.
A few hours go by, I only check my phone two more times. Still nothing. I finish the article, click save and close the laptop. I need to eat something even though I’m not hungry, another biological effect of Ashby, the dopamine triggered by him. The drive to mate is now stronger than the need to feed myself. I send a message to my friend, she says they are having Indian food, I should join.
Without a task to occupy my concentration, Ashby thoughts flood me again. I want another fix. And by now he is no longer a person in my mind, he is a drug I wish to crush up and snort in long heavy lines that make me pull my head back in relief. Touching his soft chest, hearing him breath at night, smelling the mix of alcohol and cologne seep from his pores sound like a much more appealing way to spend my evening than Indian food with my girlfriends, even though I love my friends, trust them and always leave them feeling filled with peace and tranquility and as much as I would like to consider myself an intelligent gal, I am powerless to these brain systems that are doing everything they can to subdue my emotional independence, self-sufficient values and strength centered on a foundation of feminism.
While I walk to the Indian restaurant to meet my friends, aimlessly gazing over the cracks and segments of the pavement, the train of thoughts goes deeper into the little stories I am cultivating in my imaginary future conversations about feelings. The pull is strong. But there is no need to beat myself up about it. Forty thousand years of evolution are no match for modern ideals. These chemical reactions are a function of evolution. I am an animal meant to reproduce. The norepinephrine my body makes fixate me on a single person. This chemical is produced to ensure that I will mate again and again until I get pregnant. And if other things like food and creative ambition are too high up in my mental priorities, I won’t have the motivation to allow the time and energy devoted to courting and copulation. What I often used to think of as passion, love, and sexual chemistry is really just a process that we are all programed to experience. I settle into a monotonous stride, steps and thoughts, focus and fantasy. My whole day has been spent preoccupied with the memory of Ashby’s hands on my thigh while we sat in the booth under the dim light of the bar sipping cocktails through straws, our tongues flirting with the plastic. Every spare moment my thoughts are being dragged through the ideas of what we will do next time we are together, how we will stand in his kitchen making-out in between anecdotes about things we’ve done recently that sound impressive.
All through dinner, I think about Ashby and science, and feel jolts of unrest hit me like waves. I struggle to listen to my girlfriends stories and try even harder not to let everything I have to say turn into Ashby, what he said, what we talked about or how I feel. I eat even though I’m not hungry. I smile even though I am a hurricane inside. I laugh even though I didn’t hear the joke.
The whole walk home and until it’s time to go to bed I let every mental image of him shoot me up, but it’s less intense now that the day has worn off and my body is exhausted. Knowing this is just biology and not really connection based on fate or the wonders of the universe, I use the little bit of left brain that is activated to consider my options. I could date him for such a long period of time that next phase of chemicals that function to form attachment will kick in, which would mean suffering the next two months, completely distracted, disoriented and mentally retarded, until we’ve had enough orgasms together to heighten oxytocin and serotonin, which cultivate peace, bonding and innate trust. Or I can I cut it off now and let my serotonin return to normal levels. I fall asleep hoping that by tomorrow Ashby’s hold will have dwindled enough that I can use my brain again.