Is It Time to Change the Way We Look at Addiction?

When you think about addiction, there are probably certain words that come to mind, and I’ll guess there isn’t one that has a positive connotation to it. Maybe you think of words like weak, sick, unstable, and so on. But based on the current reality of drug addiction, I think something has to give. Something has shifted to make this a much more prevalent problem in our society. So, my question to you today is…

Is it time to change the way we look at addiction?

Author Johann Hari, in his TED Talk “Everything You Think You Know About Addiction Is Wrong,” discusses what he discovered in researching drug addiction, and it will flip your thinking about addiction upside down and sideways.

Until now, we’ve assumed that people become addicted to a drug simply by using it to the point that their bodies become dependent on it or until they fall victim to the “chemical hooks.” Yet, as Hari points out, there are lots of people who are given addictive drugs, like powerful painkillers, in a time of necessity who do not become addicts. Hmmm.

Hari, in an effort to understand what was happening within his own family circle, traveled extensively to talk with drug users, sellers, and researchers. One of the people he spoke with was Bruce K. Alexander, a professor and researcher at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, BC, Canada.

Alexander has long been a leading force in gaining a better understanding of addiction and its causes. During the War on Drugs of the 1980s, he and some of his colleagues decided to change up some previous experiments proving that in rats drugs are highly addictive when readily available.

The main aspect Alexander questioned about these experiments, which showed that the rats prefer morphine-laced water over plain old water when given both as options, was the isolation the animals were forced to deal with. He and his colleagues, knowing that rats are extremely social creatures, decided that experiments more closely simulating a rat’s natural environment made more sense.

Enter Rat Park, a much larger experimental space than had been previously used, with cans for hiding and resting, wheels for running, other rats for interaction, etc. You know, stuff that keeps rats healthy and happy.

Can you guess which was the beverage of choice for the rats living in Rat Park? Was it the drug-laced water or the life-giving plain variety? If you guessed the latter, you are correct. Rats tested in an environment that provides them with the social interaction they crave are more likely to stay away from addictive drugs.

So, is addiction a physical dependency issue or a social inadequacy issue?

Obviously, humans who become drug addicts aren’t being locked in cages and forced to live in isolation. But, Alexander wanted to know, is there some aspect related to isolation that could explain the cause of human addiction? He found answers by looking at the history of colonization of western Canada in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

When the native peoples there were forced out of their natural, expansive environment, relocated to smaller areas, separated from their children (who were sent off to attend school), and forbidden to speak their native language, it caused problems. Nearly every teenager and adult turned to alcohol as a coping mechanism.

Interestingly, Alexander points out, whether for rats or humans, “The drug only becomes irresistible when the opportunity for normal social existence is destroyed.” No matter where you’re reading this, I bet you can think of a native population that has dealt with similar vulnerabilities after being removed from their indigenous surroundings. Yes?

As Hari moves through his talk, he discusses the fact that we humans have a need for bonding—ideally with other humans. When you are happy and healthy, this is what you naturally do. However, if life has brought you nothing but anguish and has beaten you down, “You will bond with something [else] that will give you some sense of relief.”

That was the first quote from Hari’s talk that really struck a chord with me. The past anguish that life has brought your way can easily make you unable to see what you have around you, not allowing you to believe you are worthy of the love and support being offered in the here and now. It’s what I’ve seen with my loved ones, anyway.

This leads me to a quote from Hari’s talk that literally brought me to tears. In considering the mindset of a person who turns to drugs as a bond, he suggests these individuals are “not…able to bear to be present in their life.” Wow, talk about a punch in the heart if you’ve had or have a loved one dealing with addiction issues.

In wrapping up his discussion, Hari asserts that all of his research has brought him to believe that the opposite of “addiction” is not “sobriety.” Rather, it’s “connection.” By this he means the true, face-to-face, deeply rooted emotional connections we feel with friends and family, not the social-media version of “friends” or followers, who are rarely the people who will pick you up no matter how many times you need it.

Since you’ve landed here at Selene River Press, you are probably aware enough to realize that our current way of looking at and dealing with addicts hasn’t been very effective. When you think of how they are shamed and criminalized, you realize it only makes bonding and connecting that much more difficult for them.

In a future post, I will examine the decisions Portugal made in dealing with drug addiction back in 2010 (which Hari mentions in his talk). They were radical and required the Portuguese to have a very open mind in taking the leap they did. But so far they’ve seen great success for their society as a whole because of them.

Addiction of any kind is complex, and I personally don’t feel I have the authority or desire to trivialize it. Considering it from every possible angle is certainly worthy of our time. It could mean life or death for someone you hold dear.

So what do you think? Is it time to change the way we look at addiction?

Image from iStock/nixki

Paula Widish

Paula Widish, author of Trophia: Simple Steps to Everyday Self-Health, is a freelance writer and self-healther. She loves nothing more than sharing tidbits of information she discovers with others. (Actually, she loves her family more than that—and probably bacon too.) Paula has a bachelor’s degree in Psychology and Public Relations and is a Certified Professional Life Coach through International Coach Academy.

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