Johann Hari’s Talk: A Breakthrough?
Johann Hari’s, TED talk “Everything You Think You Know About Addiction is Wrong” has now been widely circulated on social media among interested parties – mainly, those whose lives are touched are touched by addiction. In his talk, Hari proposes that rather than attacking the addict, as per the War on Drugs, we should in fact extend love; ”The opposite of addiction is not sobriety,” he says, “it is connection.”
This approach is one that is not entirely foreign to those of us who have worked in the drug treatment field. It has been widely accepted by those close to addicts that:
Addiction is not really about the pleasure of getting high.
In fact, addiction is not really a hedonistic pursuit. Rather, it is a grueling and maladaptive way of relating to other people and an inability to be present in one’s life and self.
This concept is at odds with the traditional understanding of addiction, one that is in part based in reality. The neuro chemicals produced in the brain as the result of using drugs make us feel good and keep us coming back for more. Our predecessors chalked this up to a moral failing on the part of the addicted individual that sets him apart from those who can temper their drug/alcohol use. Today, we know better.
Basic Concepts of The Rat Park
So, what sets apart the 10 percent of us that get addicted from the other 90 percent of people who can try an addictive substance and either:
- never use again, or,
- just use recreationally and not suffer the disastrous consequences of addiction?
In the late 70’s, the innovative scientist, Bruce Alexander, conducted experiments on rats,. Quite simply, the caged rats had the opportunity to either drink regular water or drink heroin infused water. The rats in the cage uniformly chose the heroin water over the regular water.
Rather than leaving the experiment at that, Alexander had the interest and insight to wonder if the results would have been different if the rats’ environment was optimized. It made sense that rats isolated and locked in a cage with no outlet or stimulation would get high. He wondered, “Would the results be the same if they were given a different environment?”
This time, Alexander created a Rat Park. The cage was 200 times larger than a typical isolation cage, with wheels and coloured balls to play with, plenty of food to eat, and spaces for mating,and raising litters. Rather than the rats being housed in isolation, he put 20 rats – both male and female- into the cage. Under these revised circumstances, Alexander recreated the old experiment using one bottle of pure water and one with heroin-laced water. In The Rat Park, the rats ignored the heroin and enjoyed a ‘happy’ rat life of eating, playing, fighting and mating.
This study concluded that when provided with the opportunity to connect socially and to experience stimulation…the propensity for addiction vanished, even for those who had previously been addicted in the isolated heroin cages.
Rats are not so different from humans. They are often the animal of choice for behavioral experiments because they are social creatures in the same ways we are. Like us, rats need connection and play to stay happy.
There is much evidence that humans need relationships to be okay. John Bowlby studied the relationship styles of small children and found that young children flourish when given secure attachment figures. He concluded that children are more able to grow into effective and happy adults having been raised by loving and reliable caregivers.
If the ability to connect with others is impaired, people are unable to participate in a human equivalent of The Rat Park and become more at risk for addiction.
If we don’t exercise our capacity to connect with others and share those positive emotions, we may lose some of our ability to do so.
Perhaps some will find the scientific explanation for love too unromantic. However, love has probably grown with us as a species. It could be that we have evolved the feeling of love as an instinct which has allowed to survive and to thrive in community with each other. The need for love doesn’t make it any less beautiful, genuine, and powerful, though.
Love can be found in moments with friends, in moments, even, with strangers.
- A smile at the checkout
- Eye contact held with a friend,
- In talks over the garden fence with our neighbours.
Isolation: Whose Fault is it, Anyway?
Some lay the responsibility for our unhappiness and disconnected state less at the feet of our parents. Others, feel that a chronic state of isolation can be blamed on how our society has developed: the psychological wounds inflicted by fast paced patriarchy, consumerism, and capitalism have been experienced at epidemic levels. In fact, Carl Jung faced this stark reality when he wrote,
‘The gigantic catastrophes that threaten us today are not elemental happenings of a physical or biological order, but psychic events. To a quite terrifying degree, we are threatened by wars and revolutions which are nothing other than psychic epidemics. At any moment, several million human beings may be smitten with a new madness, and then we shall have another world war or devastating revolution. Instead of being at the mercy of wild beasts, earthquakes, landslides, and inundations, modern man is battered by the elemental forces of his own psyche. ‘
Addicts often report that they use drugs because of a sense of loneliness, a sense of being inherently different, and thus, unable to fit in with peers. Drug use initially provides users with a sense of community and connection with other people. However, tragically, the relationships formed within an addictive context can often perpetuate and deepen the destructive behavior. These relationships are often unstable and dangerous, sometimes violent and disastrous for children born into addict families. The drug provides a sense of security and power in a circumstance in which the addict feels deeply powerless. The addiction then just creates further dysfunction, isolation and trauma.
Choose Change Over Unhappiness
Those who have an insecure attachment style – for whatever reason- are not doomed though to a life of perpetual unhappiness and addiction; we can choose to change. Though it may be challenging, we can learn and practice effective connecting with others as adults.We can be mindful of our connections with others, even if we feel lonely much of the time. We can learn to savour moments of connection and really dwell in and savour the shared moments of positivity we find through the day.Perhaps one of the most tangible feelings of love occurs between babies and their caregivers, as they gaze into each other’s eyes and mirror sounds and expressions – even mirroring the very emotions that we feel.
Love is broader than that, the half of the population that are single or widowed are not in a world empty of love. Connection and love can be formed in myriad ways.
We can exercise our ability to feel positively in relations to others and develop a more open and loving style of relating to ourselves and others. How can we start to trust others?
- through conscious effort
- education, and
- community (often provided by support groups)
…we can create a learned sense of security.
It Gets Easier With Practice
Rats seem to understand innately what to do in order to connect with each other. Even when addicted, once in The Rat Park, rats get on with life without the need for reeducation or any kind of rat therapy. Almost always, some psychological/spiritual work is needed to heal our wounds of disconnection.
Neural plasticity is increasingly recognized as a legitimate thing. The science shows that our experience, particularly repeated experience, impacts brain functioning. Further, our experience impacts both our emotional and physiological systems, meaning that change is possible and becomes easier as those neural pathways become more and more familiar.
So, whilst something might seem alien and difficult at first, it will become easier and easier with practice.
Get Connected The treatment industry and grass roots movements that seek to overcome addiction have long known the need for fellowship, hence the existence of ‘interpersonal group therapy’ and 12 Step meetings. “The therapeutic value”, says the basic text of Narcotics Anonymous, “of one addict helping another is without parallel.”
Much emphasis is put on creating an atmosphere of acceptance and extending nonjudgmental and positive regard for each other. A s a universal principle, acceptance extends to everyone, regardless of the personality difficulties of the other individuals in the group. Thus, when you attend 12 Step meetings, you are exercising your ability to love and become more able to meet both yours and others need for connection.
These social bonds give us meaning and a sense of purpose. We can make a difference in other people’s lives, whilst at the same time changing ourselves and our sense of community. When we acknowledge the kindness of others and create healthy, reciprocal, and loving relationships,we experience gratitude. In fact, one type of positive experience grows our ability to find more. Over time,we broaden and build our capacity to feel a spectrum of positive emotions.
It is not just the substance addiction that has recognised the healing power of community and connection.Those diagnosed with behavioural addictions, people who identify as process addicts (gambling, food, sex, etc.) have adopted the anonymous fellowship approach, too. There is now an Anonymous Fellowship for almost any addictive behaviour you could think of. This broader definition of addiction has enabled us to further understand addiction to be neurological illness rather than a moral failing on the part of the individual and to consider the social, political, economic and cultural influences that all make up the patchwork of responsibility in forming ‘an addict.’
The Good News to Our Societies
The positive consequences of an addicts healing will ripple out from the individual, to their families, to society at large and to the purse of the government, that is, if they have the foresight to adapt their approach to addicts.
In his TED Talk, Johann Hari posits that this connection need not solely come from the treatment/addiction world but that it should come from society at large. He cites how Portugal has focused its efforts on helping addicts connect with society. In Portugal, social services ensure that addicts have work through government assisted programs, which funds half of that person’s salary for a year. In effect, the system provides work as a reason for getting up in the morning, a sense of being part of society, and the opportunity to reintegrate back into human society, where a former addict might have a chance of living with connection.
All this is great progress in reducing the stigma attached to addiction treatment. As treatment becomes more available (depending on the political climate and how funding is being distributed by the government of the time), more people can get well. The good news is that despite concerns that decriminalization would lead to an increase in drug use and associated anarchy, in fact, the opposite has proved to be true: Drug use is down.
Drug use among adolescents is down.
Drug related deaths and other drug related harms are down.
Prison overcrowding is down.
Connecting addicts rather than isolating and punishing them has worked to create a better society.
Recovery is Possible
It is becoming ever more evident that the nature of addiction is an inability to choose to stop using, and that inability is born of pain and maladaptive coping strategies. It is, therefore, morally unacceptable to punish addicts for using substances. Rather, we should offer help and the opportunity for connection and love.
As Hari put it so succinctly, ‘Sobriety is not the opposite of addiction, connection is.’. If one can learn to grow their capacity for experiencing connection and find a community, recovery is eminently possible.