We often look at the root causes of addiction being attributed to nature and nurture. After all, it’s true that children of alcoholics are more vulnerable to alcoholism and people who suffer from trauma or mental illness are more susceptible to substance abuse. We also consider the opposite of addiction to be sobriety.
The truth is, people can be addicted to anything. It can be exercise, food, gambling, shopping, smartphones, video games, or anything else that brings a perceived peace of mind to an individual. If a person is addicted to overeating, the solution isn’t to abstain from food. If a person is addicted to shopping, it doesn’t mean that he or she can’t go to the grocery store and purchase necessities. If a person can be addicted to anything, is sobriety really the opposite of addiction? What if there was something else that could not only fill the void that people who suffer from addiction attempt to fill but would also change the way we look at addiction in the first place?
It’s an interesting concept that was recently explored by Johann Hari in a TED Talk entitled “Everything you know about addiction is wrong.” He questions the way our society looks at addiction and wonders if there is a better way. His adventures unearthed the concept that connection is the opposite of addiction.
The War on Drugs
In the early 1970s, when the War on Drugs was declared, noble intentions were set to crack down on drug-related crimes to reduce related diseases and overdoses. Despite overwhelming proof that alcohol prohibition didn’t work in the decades prior, the War on Drugs attempted to control the sale, manufacturing, and consumption of illicit substances.
In Johann Hari’s TED talk, he explains that the War on Drugs “made fateful decisions to punish addicts and make them suffer to give them an incentive to stop.” Unfortunately, most people who have experienced addiction themselves or within their families know that many consequences are ineffective at making someone want sobriety.
He continues to explain that punishing, shaming, and isolating addicts create barriers that block them from reconnecting with the community. As a result, these individuals have a difficult time adjusting to a sober life. The War on Drugs focused on targeting drugs as the source of addiction. In reality, the problem is far deeper than drugs themselves.
Instead of punishing addicts, Hari looks at Portugal as a positive example. In 2001, Portugal took a dramatic step to decriminalize all drugs. They began implementing harm reduction services that were available to those who were already addicted. As a result, they have seen a staggering drop in drug overdoses, HIV infections, and drug-related crime. Portugal reallocated money spent on incarcerating and punishing people who suffer from addiction and started putting finances towards microloans and job systems. Their goal in doing so was to ensure that everyone who was suffering had a reason to get out of bed, a purpose to live, and an opportunity to connect with society. 18 years later, this policy is still working. Portugal put an end to isolating and shaming addicts, which led to a sense of purpose and reconnection to society.
In the 1970s, an experiment was conducted by Dr. Bruce K Alexander, a professor of psychology in Vancouver. The study, known as The Rat Park Experiment, provides strong evidence as to why the War on Drugs has been such a devastating failure.
First, rats were placed alone in cages with two liquid dispensers. One contained a morphine solution while the other contained tap water. Virtually all of the isolated rats chose the morphine over the water. Then, he developed Rat Park, a heavenly place for rats containing cheese, toys, and rat friends to socialize with. Like the caged rats, the rats in Rat Park had the same options – a dispenser with morphine and a dispenser with water. Unlike the isolated rats, almost 0% of the socialized rats took to themorphine solution. Almost none of the rats enjoyed the drugged solution, none of them used it compulsively, and none of them overdosed. These rats had a need to bond, to socialize, and to connect with other rats – just as humans do with other humans. Connection solved the addiction problem among the rats.
From the moment we are born, humans have an innate need to bond with others. Multiple studies have proven that infants who bonded with their parents and had their basic needs met had optimal brain development, while neglected infants suffered mentally, physically, and emotionally.
If people are unable to bond due to isolation, mental health, or trauma, they will often seek out something that will provide relief from that lack of connection. Hari believes that a core part of addiction is “not being able to bear being present in your own life.”
Anywhere you go, you can see human connection diminishing. Although we often pride ourselves on how connected our society has become through smartphones and technology, we sometimes lack face to face interaction that allows us to develop deep emotional bonds with others. After all, every time you walk into a restaurant you are bound to see entire tables sitting together staring at their phones. We have a generation of children who are glued to their tablets, game consoles, and televisions. Unfortunately, when we need help, the hundreds of facebook friends we have are unlikely to come to our rescue. That game we are hooked on won’t help us cope with life around us. Technology certainly can block us from developing the bonds and emotional connections we need.
Connection in Recovery: From A Recovered Addict
Before I even heard this TED talk, I knew that I didn’t connect well with others when I was younger. I was taught early that being strong and successful was more important than being vulnerable and showing my emotions. However, by stuffing and avoiding my emotions, I struggled to form honest, transparent relationships with other people. While I did suffer from depression, which made me more susceptible to addiction, I have come to believe that my mental health wasn’t the sole factor in my drug use.
What we think we know about addiction is that there are chemical hooks that cause people to become addicted. However, I drank the same drinks that everyone else drinks. I took the same prescriptions that are prescribed thousands of times each day. Not everyone becomes addicted.
Of course, if an addictive substance is abused over an extended period of time, the body adapts to it and becomes dependent on it, leading to withdrawal symptoms. However, addiction is more than a physical craving for a substance – it is a mental obsession for more. For me, it was a mental obsession to numb my emotions and feel comfortable living in my own skin.
When I got sober, I quickly immersed myself in a twelve-step fellowship. For the first time in my life, I allowed myself to be vulnerable with other people and to develop personal connections. The obsession to use left – and it has yet to come back.
A Lonely Society
Studies have suggested that the rate of social isolation among Americans tripled between 1985 and 2004. Participants in the study were asked to report the names of close friends they had. 48% listed one name, 18% listed two, and approximately 4% didn’t list any names. At the same time, we are persistently seeing rates of overdose skyrocket, increasing demand for treatment, and spiraling rates of drug and alcohol abuse.
While many factors can play into addiction, connection may play a critical role. Rather than pushing strict punishments and immeasurable shame upon addicts, the nation should show them love, support, and companionship so they don’t feel alone. Hari suggests that “we need to talk about social recovery…that this message has to be at every level of how we respond to addiction socially, economically, and politically.”
Many people in twelve-step groups value the fellowship they find in the rooms. They value connections with like-minded people. The War on Drugs hasn’t worked, Rat Park proves that addiction has much to do with the environment of living beings, and socialization is a key aspect of recovery. Hari’s claim that the opposite of addiction is connection doesn’t seem that far off – after all, don’t we all just want to feel a part of?