The Importance of Connection in Combating Addiction
Many people believe the opposite of addiction is sobriety and while that is technically true, modern ideology is beginning to suggest that the true antithesis of addiction is connection. This theory debunks previous sentiments that addiction was a direct result of the demonic drugs themselves and had less to do with the user. While addiction is commonly viewed as a substance disorder, recent findings could liken it to a social disorder as well. Namely, those who struggle to find connection or meaning are predisposed to substance abuse.
This is in direct contradiction to more rudimentary research that simply suggests that people become addicts because they enjoy the sensation of the drug or drink. This, however, would mean that anyone who tries a substance automatically becomes an addict and we know that to not be the case. Many people who have an initial experience with a substance go on to either never use that drug again or to have a casual, recreational relationship with it. Based on the fact that most people do not become addicts, it can be assumed that over time a person’s initial experience of pleasure is not what causes them to recklessly pursue the drug, even when sacrificing career, academics, family life, friendships, romantic relationships, freedom or even physical health.
But this theory didn’t start being debunked until the late 1970s and early 1980s, when scientists began to explore the phenomenon. In one groundbreaking study, the psychologist Bruce Alexander looked at the results of studies in which rats were placed in empty cages, alone. In the cages there were two water bottles: one with pure water and the other water was infused with heroin. The experiment resulted in the rats getting addicted to the heroin and ultimately meeting their death by overdose. It was derived that extreme pleasure itself can be very dangerous. But that is not at all where the conclusions end.
Alexander was bothered by the fact that the cages in which the rats were isolated were small, with no potential for stimulation beyond the heroin. It didn’t surprise him that they all got high- what else were they supposed to do? In a superfluous study, Alexander created a rat park- which consisted of a cage 200 times larger than the original- with lots of fun attractions. These included food to eat, space for mating and raising litters, hamster wheels, balls to play with and more. And he put not one rat, but 20 rats into the cage. Then, he offered them one bottle of pure water and one bottle of heroin water. This resulted in astounding results- the rats were not interested in the heroin but rather all the fun activities the park offered like: fighting, playing, eating, mating. It was concluded that with connection and activity, addiction disappeared.
The most basic finding from this experiment is that people use addictions of all sorts, not just addictions to drugs, to adapt to the alienation or dislocation that has always been a part of the human experience, but is incredibly prevalent in this modern age.
Interestingly, both AA and the addiction treatment community as a whole realized this fact long before Alexander’s rat park experiment. In truth, the work of 12-step recovery programs and formalized addiction treatment programs, involve connecting the addict to other people. And not just any people, either- safe, supportive, reliable, empathetic people. And while developing healthy interpersonal connections is not easy for any humans, most of all addicts, success stories of those who achieve recovery suggest it is possible.