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?”
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.
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’?”
Turns out, Alexander was right. At the same time as Rat Park, another human experiment was taking place across the world: the Vietnam War.
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.
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.
… 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.
In our current world of smartphones and social media, it is easier than ever to feel susceptible to addicting stimuli.
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