What is addiction?
The American Psychological Association defines addiction as “a state of psychological or physical dependence (or both) on the use of alcohol or other drugs.” Also commonly referred to as substance dependence.
For hundreds of years, society has taken slivers of definitions like this one and developed methods in an attempt to help addicts, or those with this labeled disorder. We have slapped nametags on addicts; marking them with scarlet letters that stick with them for the rest of their lives. But what if the definition of addiction extends beyond the word “disorder?”
What if it stems from a lack of connection?
As humans, we have a natural and innate need to bond with one another. When we’re happy and healthy, this connection comes easily. However, when we feel anxious, depressed, traumatized, or beaten down by life, we tend to isolate ourselves and cut off interaction with others.
Now, what happens when we can’t connect with others? We attach to something else. Something that mimics a false sense of community: a substance or activity that provides immediate relief. What starts as a feeling of instant gratification often develops into a gambling problem or cocaine addiction.
We will bond with something because it’s in our nature. “The opposite of addiction is not sobriety,” says Johann Hari in a TED Talk on addiction, “the opposite of addiction is connection.” Hari, a bestselling author and journalist on topics of mental health and the war on drugs, discusses addiction relating to a famous 1970’s psychological experiment.
In the experiment, a single rat is put in a cage and given the option of two water bottles – one laced with morphine and one pure. The rat almost always prefers the drug water and is quickly killed.
Bruce Alexander, a professor of psychology in Vancouver, noticed a crucial gap in this research. Of course the rat will select the drug water, he suggested, there is nothing else for the rat to do. Nothing else for it to connect with.
Enter Rat Park.
Alexander added to the experiment by designing an ideal world for rats to live in – a rat heaven filled with colorful tunnels and exercise wheels. He filled this cage with lots of rats who instinctively bonded with one another and soon grew the population. The inhabitants of Rat Park were also given the choice between the normal water and drug water.
These rats didn’t want the drug water. In fact, almost all of them chose the normal water, and the ones who dabbled in the morphine didn’t become dependent on it. A shocking drop was reported from a 100% overdose rate when alone, to a 0% overdose rate when with other rats.
Alexander questioned, “people do not have to be put into cages to become addicted – but is there a sense in which people who become addicted actually feel ‘caged’?”
What if the root of addiction isn’t about chemical hooks, but about the cages that addicts create for themselves?
Turns out, Alexander was right. At the same time as Rat Park, another human experiment was taking place across the world: the Vietnam War.
In Vietnam, almost 50% of a sample of American soldiers had tried narcotics, and 20% reported opiate addiction. However, after returning to the United States, 95% of users simply stopped using. The “disorder” hadn’t been lifted – they simply changed their cage.
So how can we put these findings to action?
Take a moment and picture someone you know who has faced addiction (or bring the face of a loved one to mind). Imagine telling this person they can no longer have what they are addicted to, and then labeling them, shaming them and segregating them from society.
This person will most likely do everything in their power to reacquaint themself with the substance. They’ve disconnected with the drug to be forced into further isolation.
Now, imagine telling this person they can no longer have what they are addicted to, but then deepening your connection with them and providing them with tools to strengthen their attachment with the world. What does the outcome look like now? Your person is re-engaged with society. They have fulfillment, closer relationships, and healthy alternatives to provide them with the bonds they were seeking all along.
They’ve disconnected with the drug to reconnect with life.
Let’s take a quick mental trip to Portugal…
… a country who once faced one of the worst heroin epidemics in Europe. When repeated methods of stigmatizing and sheltering addicts proved ineffective, a panel of scientists and doctors was set up to examine new evidence. The results?
Portugal took the money that was spent on cutting off addicts and spent it on reconnecting them with society by setting them up with jobs and issuing small business loans.
This new method didn’t merely remove the drug, but replaced it with something far more fulfilling: purpose. The responsible team of experts had a main goal in mind – to ensure that every recovering addict had something meaningful to wake up for in the morning.
Since this shift 20 years ago, injecting drug use is down nearly 50% in Portugal.
The takeaway? Let’s simplify. If someone you love is suffering from addiction:
- Remove the label. Rip off their nametag of “addict.” Let them know they are not their addiction. Their identity is not defined by the chosen substance. They are a human who deserves human connection.
- Take a closer look at their cage. Start at the beginning. What caused them to cut off their relationship with the world. Was it a specific event? State of mind? Instead of isolating, how can you help design their cage to look a bit more like Rat Park?
- Don’t remove, replace! Don’t focus all energy on cutting them off – fill this new void with meaning and purpose. Replace it with valuable human connections.
In our current world of smartphones and social media, it is easier than ever to feel susceptible to addicting stimuli.
We are simultaneously more connected and more disconnected than ever before.
While digital connections add a sense of value to our lives, they often don’t add to our physical cages. Never underestimate the power of real human connections – bonds that make us feel seen, heard, and loved. Reach out to your loved ones. Tell them why you love them. Tell them they are not alone. There’s a reason artists have depicted “love as a drug” in many different works. For love fills our cages like nothing else.