The real truth about addictions.
We have been told that drugs are addictive, and that addicts are both weak or wired to be addictive, and thus beyond help. Almost everything you think you know about addiction and addicts is not correct.
Why do some people get addicted to drugs or actions – things like gambling, until they can’t stop?
We believe that there is a strong chemical hook in these drugs, so that once we start them we can’t stop and we need more. Addiction is defined as anything that moves you away from a bad feeling towards a good feeling. We can even be addicted to sex, to exercise, or to the adrenaline we get from shoplifting.
Experiments have shown that when you put a rat in a cage, alone with two water bottles, where one is just water, and the other is water laced with heroin or cocaine, almost every time the scientists run this experiment, the rat will become obsessed with the drugged water, and keep coming back for more and more, until it kills itself.
But in the 1970s, a professor of Psychology in Vancouver called Bruce Alexander, noticed something odd about this experiment. The rat is put in a cage all alone. It has nothing to do but take the drugs. What would happen, he wondered, if we tried this differently? So Professor Alexander built Rat Park. It is a fabulous cage where the rats would have coloured balls, the best rat food, tunnels to scamper down, and plenty of friends. Everything a rat would ever want. What, Alexander wanted to know, would happen next?
In Rat Park, all the rats obviously tried both water bottles, because they didn’t know what was in them. But what actually happened next was startling.
The rats with good lives didn’t like the drugged water. They mostly shunned it, consuming less than a quarter of the drugs the isolated rats used. None of them died. While all the rats who were alone and unhappy became heavy users, none of the rats who had a happy environment did.
Something similar took place in the Vietnam war. Time magazine reported heroin use was “as common as chewing gum” among U.S soldiers, and there is solid evidence to back this up; some 20% of U.S soldiers had become addicted to heroin there, according to a study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry. Many American citizens were understandably terrified; they believed a huge number of addicts were about to head home when the war ended.
But in fact some 95% of the addicted soldiers – according to the same study – simply stopped. Very few had rehab. They shifted from a terrifying cage back to a pleasant one, so didn’t crave the drug any longer.
Professor Alexander argues this discovery is a profound challenge both to the belief that addiction is a moral failing, and the belief that addiction is a disease taking place in a chemically hijacked brain. In fact, he argues, addiction is an adaptation. It’s not you. It’s your cage.
After the first phase of Rat Park, Professor Alexander then took this test further. He re-ran the early experiment, where the rats were left alone, and became compulsive users of taking the drug. He let them use it for 57 days – if anything can hook you – it’s that. Then he took them out of isolation, and placed them in Rat Park. He wanted to know, if you fall into that state of addiction, is your brain hijacked, so you can’t recover? Do the drugs take over you? What happened is – once again – striking! The rats appeared to have a few twitches of withdrawal, but they soon stopped their heavy use, and went back to having a normal life. The good cage saved them.
Here’s one example of an experiment that is happening all around you. If you get run over and break your hip, you will probably be given diamorphine, the medical name for heroin. Whilst in hospital, there will be plenty of people also given heroin for long periods, for pain relief. The heroin you will receive from the doctor will have a much higher purity and potency than the heroin being used by street-addicts, who have to buy from criminals who adulterate it. So if the old theory of addiction is right – it’s the drugs that cause it, they make your body need them – then it’s evident what should happen. The majority of people should leave the hospital and then try to score heroin on the streets, to meet their habit.
But here’s the strange thing; it virtually never happens. As the Canadian doctor Gabor Mate explained, medical users just stop, despite months of use. The same drug, used for the same length of time, turns street-users into desperate addicts and leaves medical patients unaffected.
If you believe that addiction is caused by chemical hooks, this makes no sense. But if you believe Bruce Alexander’s theory, the picture falls into place. The street- addict is like the rats in the first cage, isolated, alone, with only one source of solace to turn to. The medical patient is like the rats in the second cage. He is going home to a life where he is surrounded by the people he loves. The drug is the same, but the environment is different.
This gives us more of an insight into understanding addicts. Professor Peter Cohen argues that human beings have a deep need to bond and form connections. It’s how we get our satisfaction. If we can’t connect with each other, we will connect with anything we can find – the whirl of the roulette wheel or the prick of a syringe. He stated that we should stop talking about ‘addictions’ altogether, and instead call it ‘bonding’. A heroin addict has bonded with heroin, because he couldn’t bond as fully with anything or anyone else.
So the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It is human connection.
You can become addicted to gambling, and nobody thinks you inject a pack of cards into your veins. You can have all the addiction, and none of the chemical hooks. Gamblers are as plainly addicted as cocaine and heroin addicts, yet there are no chemical hooks on a card table.
Everyone agrees that cigarette smoking is one of the most addictive processes around. The chemical hooks in tobacco come from a drug inside it called nicotine. So when nicotine patches were developed in the early 1990s, there was a huge surge of optimism – cigarette smokers could get all of their chemical hooks – without the other effects of cigarette smoking.
But just 17.7% of cigarette smokers are able to quit smoking after using nicotine patches. If the chemical drives 17.7% of addiction, that is still millions of lives ruined globally. But what it reveals again, is that the story we have been taught about the cause of addiction lying with chemical hooks is, in fact, real, but only a minor part of a much bigger picture.
But drugs aren’t the driver of addiction, it is the disconnection that drives addiction.
For example, there is a prison in Arizona – ‘Tent City’ – where inmates are detained in tiny stone isolation cages (‘The Hole’) for weeks and weeks on end, to punish them for drug use. It is uncannily similar to the experiment carried out in the isolated rat park. When those prisoners get out, they will be unemployable because of their criminal record – guaranteeing they will be cut off even more.
There is an alternative. You can build a system that is designed to help drug addicts to reconnect with the world – and so leave behind their addictions.
Nearly fifteen years ago, Portugal had one of the worst drug problems in Europe, with 1% of the population addicted to heroin. They had tried a drug war, and the problem just kept getting worse. So they decided to do something radically different. They resolved to decriminalise all drugs, and transfer all the money they used to spend on arresting and jailing drug addicts, spending it instead on reconnecting them, to their own feelings, and to the wider society. The most crucial step was to obtain secure housing for them, along with subsidised jobs, so that they have a purpose in life, and something to get out of bed for. They were helped, in warm and welcoming clinics, to learn how to reconnect with their feelings, after years of trauma and stunning themselves into silence with drugs.
A group of addicts were given a loan to set up a removals firm. Suddenly, they were a group, all bonded to each other, and to the society, and responsible for each other’s care. A street gang trained to be firemen, and formed better bonds with the same thrills, but with real value and purpose added in.
An independent study by the British Journal of Criminology found that since total decriminalisation, addiction has fallen, and injecting drugs decreased by 50%. Decriminalisation has been such a manifest success that very few people in Portugal want to go back to the old system. The main campaigner against the decriminalisation back in 2000, was Joe Figueira, the country’s top drug police officer. He offered all the warnings – but everything he predicted failed to happen – and now he hoped the whole world would follow Portugal’s example.
This isn’t only relevant to the addicts. It is relevant to all of us, because it forces us to think differently about ourselves. Humans are bonding animals. We need to connect and love. But we have created an environment and a culture that cuts us off from connection, in the form of social media e.g. facebook, twitter etc. The rise of addiction is a symptom of a deeper sickness in the way we live – constantly directing our gaze towards the next shiny object we should buy, rather than the human beings around us.
We live lonely lives, where it is easier to become cut off from all human connections. We talk about individual recovery from addiction. We need to talk about social recovery – how we all recover, together, from the isolation that is making us ill.
Loving an addict is really hard. The message is that an addict who won’t stop should be shunned. But that will only deepen their addiction – and you may lose them altogether.
Since its founding in the 1930s, Alcoholics Anonymous (or “AA” as it as commonly known) has become part of the fabric of American society. AA and the many 12-step groups it has inspired, have become the country’s go-to solution for addiction in all of its forms. These recovery programmes are mandated by drug courts, prescribed by doctors and widely praised by reformed addicts.
“We hear from people who do well; we don’t hear from people who don’t do well”.
There is a large body of evidence now looking at AA’s success rate which is between 5 and 10%. Most people don’t seem to know that, as it is not widely publicised. There are some studies that have claimed to show scientifically that AA is useful. These studies are riddled with scientific errors, and say no more than what we knew to begin with, which is that AA has probably the worst success rate in all of medicine.
It is not only that AA has a 5 to 10% success rate; if it was successful and was neutral the rest of the time, we’d say OK. But it’s harmful to the 90% who don’t do well. And it’s harmful for several important reasons. One of them is that everyone believes that AA is the right treatment. According to AA they are never wrong. If you fail in AA, it’s you that’s failed.
The reason that the 5 to 10% do well in AA, actually doesn’t have to do with the 12 steps themselves; it is to do with the camaraderie. It’s a support organisation with people who are on the whole, kind to you, and it gives you a structure. Some people can make a lot of use of that. And to its credit, AA describes itself as a brotherhood rather than a treatment.
When people are confronted with a feeling of being trapped, of being overwhelmingly helpless, they have to do something. It isn’t necessarily the “something” that actually deals with the problem. Why addictions, though – why drink? Well, that’s the “something” that they do. In psychology we call it a displacement; you could call it a substitute.
When people can understand their addiction and what drives it, finding the root cause, then this is when transformation for the individual takes place.
Every habit is run by a habit of thought which creates the feeling, and then that feeling creates the repetition of action which turns into the individuals’ addiction problem. And the neuroscience shows that every addiction is moving you away from a bad feeling to a good feeling; also again the fundamental issue to connection.
When we come onto this planet we are wired to have two main needs; to find connection and avoid rejection – this is how we are genetically programmed to survive. Therefore if we cannot connect and have our ‘human needs’ met – then people find another way to connect.
If you are not born with it, you shouldn’t have to live with it and suffer.
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