Are We Wrong About Addiction?
According to bestselling author Johann Hari, we’re very wrong about addiction. In fact, the title of this article is a quote taken directly from Hari’s recent TED Talk about addiction, recovery, and how we treat both.
Hari’s been in and out of the media for several years now, sometimes for good reasons – like this article that’s similar to his talk and challenges how we view substance use – and sometimes for bad. Regardless, he presents an intriguing and nuanced view on a subject that often lacks both.
Hari’s TED Talk was inspiring, raised some thought provoking questions, and challenged almost everything we associate with substance abuse and chemical dependency. It also examined popular intervention strategies and suggested a new approach for helping those struggling with drugs or alcohol.
Find an overview of his talk below, as well as our thoughts on the practicality of Hari’s suggestions. Enjoy!
The Experiment That Changed Everything
The generally accepted view of addiction is that if a chemical is addictive enough – heroin, cocaine, meth, etc. – and someone who’s predisposed to addiction through genetics uses that substance – then they will likely become hooked and use until they die or are intervened upon.
That story’s played itself out millions of times throughout history. Go into any treatment center today and you’ll find lots of people who back it up.
But what if it’s wrong?
To highlight this point, Hari talked about a classic experiment that was performed in the early 1900s. It’s one we’ve all heard of. A lab rat was given one water bottle laced with heroin and one water bottle of good, old water. The rat drank from the heroin bottle until it overdosed and died.
Well, a professor named Bruce Alexander challenged that experiment in the 1970s. He created an alternative experiment where it wasn’t a single lab rat being tested, but many. These rats were housed together in a cage full of toys and food. More importantly, they had social connections with each other.
Almost none of them choose the heroin-laced water.
At the same time Professor Alexander was carrying out his rat experiment, the Vietnam War was occurring. According to Hari, almost 20% of US troops in Vietnam were using heroin while deployed.
Stands to reason that when they returned to American soil, we’d have a large drug problem on our hands. Well, that wasn’t what happened. According to Hari, 95% of Vietnam veterans stopped using heroin when they returned home.
Of course, that doesn’t touch on the PTSD and other forms of mental illness many experienced, or the alcoholism that many suffered, but it does serve to back up Professor Alexander’s rat experiment.
In other words – what if everything we know about addiction really is wrong?
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A New Name for Addiction
Another professor mentioned in Hari’s TED Talk goes by the name of Peter Cohen. Cohen suggests that addiction should be called “bonding” due to the social nature of human beings.
Hari believes that if we don’t bond with people, we’ll end up bonding with something else. He lays this point out explicitly in his talk:
“Human beings have a natural and innate need to bond. And when we’re happy and healthy we’ll bond and connect with each other…But if you can’t do that — because you’re traumatized or isolated or beaten down by life — you will bond with something that will give you some sense of relief. Now that might be gambling, that might be pornography, that might be cocaine, that might be cannabis, but you will bond and connect with something because that’s our nature, that’s what we want as human beings” (Huffington Post).
Interesting stuff. When you look at it along with Professor Alexander’s lab rat experiments, it begs the question – is addiction really just a lack of connection?
While we can’t discount the underlying reasons for addiction – things like genetic predisposition, trauma, and mental illness – there is something to be said for this idea.
Hari goes on to talk about the War on Drugs and how it actually serves to perpetuate this cycle of isolation and a lack of connection. I’m not going to go into detail on this point – we have no political affiliation or opinions on the matter – but it is interesting to think about.
We’re Increasingly Connected & Increasingly Alone
Towards the end of his talk, Hari touches on how technology has made us increasingly connected but also increasingly lonely.
He makes a good point. Almost the entire human race uses the internet and a large portion are on social media. Facebook alone boasts around 1.5 billion active monthly users.
As we’ve become dependent upon social media for our connections – we’ve lost an element of depth and weight to our relationships. Sure, we may have 1,000 Facebook friends, but how many are real friends?
Hari uses this logic to suggest that we need to look at fighting and ending addiction – or bonding, if you’d like – as a social task that requires real people, real friends, real relationships, and real connections to be successful.
He brings up an interesting point about how interventions function. At their most basic, interventions are a way for an addict’s loved ones to say “we’ve had enough, either you change or we will no longer do X, Y, or Z.”
While that sort of brinkmanship is effective at getting people into treatment centers, it also creates a large disconnect between offering meaningful emotional connection. Think about it – you’re basically saying “do this or I walk.”
Instead of taking this hardline approach, Hari suggests that we surround someone struggling with connection and love. He suggests we say “you’re not alone, we love you” (Huffington Post).
Fair Enough…But is This Approach Practical?
That sounds great, right? I’m not sure how practical it is though. After all, addicts are master manipulators. I say that as a man in long-term recovery myself.
When I was using, there was nothing I wouldn’t do for more drugs. It took an intervention – it took several actually – to get me into treatment and on the road to recovery.
Which serves to highlight some of the problems I have with Hari’s TED Talk. It all sounds great. It even makes a lot of intellectual sense…but when you’re living in addiction, well, things are a bit different.
I agree with him that we should change how addiction is viewed by society and, in many cases, punished by our judicial systems. I don’t think that love is the answer though.
Now don’t get me wrong – love is vital. Human connection is vital. Friendship and relationships are vital to recovery. Those things don’t exist in active addiction though. I was selfish and self-centered to the core when I was actively drugging and drinking. I couldn’t feel the love and support of my family and friends because I couldn’t feel anything.
I guess what I’m driving at here is that I think a bit of Hari’s approach and a bit of our current, intervention driven approach would work best.
Combining tough love and every other form of love? Combining old relationships with loved ones with new relationship in recovery? Combining real human connections with counseling? Now that sounds like something that could end addiction to me.