Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The powerful relationship between addictions and the connections in our lives

In the last month, I’ve seen the two best videos I’ve ever seen about addiction. One is about a bird, and the other is about some rats.

Here is the first video called “Nuggets.” I have been using it with people addicted to video games, porn, alcohol, meth, and even their phones. I believe it shows the cycle of addiction almost perfectly. At first, a big payoff, then less so, and finally no payoff at all as we need the drug just to return to our baseline.

I showed it to a teenager recently, who made a fascinating observation. He asked, “What if the bird only takes the nuggets because there are no other birds around?

Which brings us to amazing video number two. An incredibly insightful video titled, "Everything you think you know about addiction is wrong" by Johann Hari.

As you might guess from the title, Hari has some ideas that rock the foundations of a lot of what we accept as common knowledge about addictions. In essence, Hari makes the bold claim that addictions are not as much about chemistry as they are about connections.

He begins his tale with a story about rats, and more specifically rats on heroin and rats on heroin in “rat park” which is essentially a kind of Disneyland for rats.  The findings were powerful and showed that rats that had “connections” and the ability to chill with other rats, have sex, and play, had significantly lower rates of addiction than the rats who were left in lonelier conditions. Those rats essentially did heroin until they died.

The findings challenged some of the traditional ideas that addiction was a chemical process influenced by genetics and other biological factors. Although SOME of addiction is undoubtedly about those things, this connection piece is also pretty interesting.

He also uses the example of the veterans from Vietnam returning home. A huge number of the soldiers experimented with opiates in Vietnam, yet only a small portion of those soldiers remained addicted upon their return. What was the crucial variable here?

Many of the men came home to families and loved ones and their communities, and quickly turned away from the drugs. 95% of them stopped using heroin upon their return.

What might this say about connection? Perhaps human contact, love, friendship, and community are huge mitigating factors in the development and sustainability of addictions.

In the US right now, there is a raging Opioid epidemic that is virtually ruining entire communities. And we’ve thrown a lot of drugs at the problem trying to make it right.  I’ve done a stint as a psychologist at a methadone clinic myself.  And truthfully, a “heroin addict” often didn’t look at all like what I expected. There were lawyers and students and business people along with people struggling to keep a roof over their heads.

And looking back, the one thing I DID notice about these people was that they often had flimsy connections in their lives. Bad marriages, difficult relationships with parents and children, loneliness, isolation.

Of course there are exceptions to this rule. Some people certainly DO become addicted even when they have healthy and positive connections and support in their lives.

But I’m guessing these are more the exceptions than the rules.

Much debate has taken place around the existence of an “addictive personality.” Some believe firmly in this concept, while others believe it is dangerous to remove the personal responsibility piece of sobriety by calling it an addiction or a personality trait.

Although I’m only a case study of one, I would have to agree that there is such a thing as an addictive personality. Firstly, I’ve studied the lives of a number of celebrities who substituted one addiction for another during times of “sobriety” from a problematic substance. It’s a common pattern known as addiction substitution that shows up in the lives of a lot of people struggling with sobriety.

But closer to home, I know my own life. I’ve always been a creature of excess, and if it’s bad for you, I’ve probably done too much of it at one time or another in my life. Looking back, I thought about these moments when I was most vulnerable. What were the common denominators during those phases of my life?

Loneliness, isolation, and lack of connection. Without question, these things are connected. The psychologist Alfred Adler said we have three major “tasks” in our lives, which are love, friendship, and work. He posited that we might drift towards addictions when we had deficits in any of these three major areas.

It makes a lot of sense. When we are lonely, disconnected, or lacking a sense of purpose in our lives, we fill that void with something else.

It’s not hard to see it when you think about it.

In an era where we don’t sit down for dinner as families, we have our noses in our phones all the time, and people don’t know their neighbors very well anymore, it’s even more interesting to think about some our new 21st century addictions. Video games, checking our phones, online pornography, fucking Candy Crush. Whatever the flavor, it seems useful to think about this relationship between connection and addiction.

In thinking about this, I observed a number of students joined in solidarity who walked out of their school to protest gun laws in the US. I admire their willingness to stand up for what they believe.

But I also saw think we need to be thinking about how bullying, a lack of inclusion, and connections affects our lives. Strive to connect with people you see losing their way. It has huge implications for our future mental health.

No comments: