Addiction: A Community Response

This is a heartbreaking topic and it has touched our community too closely and too often. The Friday night before Christmas, my son found his roommate lying lifeless on the bathroom floor. His friend and our music leader, Rich, had died of a heroine overdose.

At our first Inspire! event, Doug played a critical role in helping us set up, stuff brochures, and tear everything back down. Before our next Inspire! event, he indulged in his own drug of choice – alcohol – and in that state fell from a ladder in an accident that ended his life.

These losses have caused so much pain and so much soul searching among those of us that knew and loved these men. There is nothing we can do to change these outcomes and there are questions that will never be answered.

Addiction is a condition that results when a person takes in a substance (e.g., alcohol, cocaine, nicotine) or engages in an activity (e.g., gambling, sex, shopping) that can be pleasurable, but instead becomes compulsive, interfering with ordinary responsibilities and concerns, such as work, relationships, or health. People who have developed an addiction may not be aware that their behavior is out of control and causing problems for themselves and others.

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Addiction is a coping mechanism. When something is going that is stressful, we react. We do something to try to relieve that stress. All of us. Everyone of us is addicted to something that takes the pain away. Sometimes we become workaholics, we escape into Facebook, we eat chocolate. Or maybe we seek out therapy, we take up a hobby, we change a job, we smoke a cigarette, have a drink, take a pill. And sometimes the choices we make become addictions.

Our response to addiction in general has been both shame based and punitive. Consequently, it has been ineffective. It’s important to realize that addiction isn’t just a search for pleasure. Nor is it a reflection of one’s moral character.

Recent studies are challenging our understanding of addiction and presenting new pathways for recovery.

We used to look at addiction as something that happens entirely in the brain – that when we use substances, chemical reactions happen that end up rerouting the circuits. Some people are more prone to addiction and get hooked faster than others.

We believed this because studies with rats showed that if you give a rat two bottles of water – one plain and one laced with drugs – the rat will ignore the regular water and drink the drug water until they are dead – which happens pretty quickly.

But Canadian psychologist Bruce Alexander had another theory. He thought addiction was about living conditions rather than the properties of the drug itself.  So to see if he was right, he created Rat Park.  Rat Park was 200 times the size of a standard laboratory cage. There were 16–20 rats of both sexes in residence, food, balls and wheels for play, and enough space for mating.

When rats had something to do, they almost never used the drug water – and they never overdosed. Not once.

This would imply that at least part of addiction is about environment. In Johann Hari’s 2015 TED Talk he suggests that we call addiction “bonding.” He points out that we all have an innate need to bond. Usually we bond with people. But if we can’t do that because of our own trauma or circumstances that have overwhelmed us, we will bond with something else – pornography, alcohol, etc. He believes that the biggest problem is not being able to be present in your own life.

So when people most need to make connections with other human beings, our society is most likely to punish, shame, and put more barriers between people and the possibilities of reconnecting. We make it worse.

In 2000, Portugal’s drug problem was out of control. So they did something completely new. They decriminalized everything AND they also took all the money they had been spending on disconnecting addicts and spent it on reconnecting them with society. And addiction significantly decreased.

Today, a lack of connection may well explain why people are getting addicted to smart phones and social media. Our homes are getting bigger and our circle of friends is getting smaller. The connections we think we have are a parody of real connections. Ours is one of the loneliest cultures ever. If you have a problem, it won’t be your Twitter followers that help you out. It will be the people you look in the eye.

Now there is also a physical component to chemical addiction. Withdrawal can be excruciating and the rewiring of neural pathways can make the craving for an addictive substance feel like a matter of life or death.

But research is telling us that addiction is not just about individual recovery – it’s also about community recovery.  Which means our role in the life of an addict is not to tell them we’ll love them when they stop using, but to tell them we love them now and we don’t want them to be alone.

That doesn’t mean we sanction abuse and bad behavior. Addicts can be abusive. They can be destructive. They can damage those who try to help them. So we need to set boundaries and define the behavior we will and will not tolerate. Loving other people does not mean enabling them and we should never compromise our own safety.

But once safety is ensured, we can best end addiction not with wars against drugs or threats about behaviors, but with love. As Hari so beautifully concludes,

“The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is human connection.”