Is Connection The Opposite Of Addiction?
Over the years, there have been many shifts in both the scientific understanding of addiction and in the cultural and moral assessment of the condition. However, one of the more interesting assertions was put forth in a popular 2015 Ted talk by the writer Johan Hari and echoed in much of the rhetoric around addiction since, including in a recent New York Times op-ed by writer and former addict Maia Szalavitz (both linked to under “Sources” below.)
This is the principle that the true opposite of addiction may not be sobriety but connection. Along with being rhetorically powerful, this assertion seems to be backed up by many facts about the way addiction works, including the kind of people it affects—the kind of people who are most vulnerable to addiction also seem to be the people who are at highest risk of loneliness, including people who have suffered trauma, people with mental illness, people with developmental disorders, and people with low or falling socioeconomic status.
There’s also been a documented link between low social capital (feeling less connected and less like a part of one’s community) and a higher risk of overdose. Across communities, those with the strongest social networks (as represented by more civic organizations and community involvement) had the least overdose deaths, while impoverished communities with weaker social networks had the most.
Szalavitz also notes that the rising overdose death rates in the United States seems to correlate with the decreasing size of Americans’ social networks and increasing number of us who felt we often had nobody to confide in. And the pandemic, which forced us to physically distance from each other, seems to have increased rates of loneliness just as it has increased the rates of death from overdose.
In thinking about who addiction strikes and Bruce Alexander’s rat park study, which showed that isolated rats were far more driven to use drugs than rats who had access to a socially rewarding and enriched environment, Hari moves on to conceptualize addiction as a form of “bonding.” Since connection is an innate human need, he supposes that people who are too damaged to or who are denied the opportunity to bond with other people will instead “bond” with substances.
Szalavitz is able to find a more scientific way of accounting for Hari’s observed phenomenon by noting that the same neurotransmitters involved in creating the sense of warmth we feel when we are with our loved ones are also released when we abuse opioid drugs.
In another TED talk (linked to below), Rachel Wurzman uses a neuroscientific approach to further explore how deeply drug abuse has been linked with loneliness, comparing the affection-starved state that makes one most vulnerable to opioid addiction to the kind of desperation for something to eat you feel when you’re at your hungriest, a kind of sensitization of the brain’s reward system that is as physical as it is emotional.
So, what does this mean for how we should conceptualize and strive to treat addiction? Actually, quite a lot. First of all, it means that punishing, shaming, and exiling those struggling with addiction is just about the worst thing that we could do for them.
Though Hari acknowledges that addicts can be difficult to reach out to, as their self-destructive behavior can be hard to take, he nevertheless encourages others to make the effort to connect to them, and to sing them “love songs” rather than the “war songs” we have been singing to them for years, both on an individual level and on societal level, which he links to the harsh criminal penalties imposed for drug abuse.
“If you wanted to design a system that would make addiction worse, you would design that system,” Hari quotes Dr. Gabor Mate as saying about the barriers the justice system puts between addicts and reconnection. As Szalavitz puts it, no addicts “need jail simply for trying to feel OK.”
Meanwhile, Wurtzman suggests that conceptualizing addiction as a mere place on the spectrum of normal human behavior as opposed to a “sickness” could help us to see addicts as mere people responding to the pain of disconnection rather than as fundamentally other from us.
Perhaps, then, to the extent that addiction is ever a choice, it should be understood as a choice to yield to a need that feels as ordinary and essential as hunger, a choice made to yield to fleeting pleasure only so as not to face seemingly endless unbearable pain.
Treatment, then, should focus not only on abstinence from the substance but on healing the underlying wound of interpersonal and societal disconnection. Wurtzman hypothesizes that social and psycho-spiritual interventions could help rebalance this reward system, noting that those in recovery who are at the lowest risk of relapse are those who can develop reciprocal relationships, ones in which they can both be helped by others and be helped themselves.
Perhaps it’s these principles that explain the success of mutual aid based approaches to addiction like the twelve steps at the pinnacle of Alcoholics Anonymous, a program which has been shown to be more effective than traditional therapies in helping alcoholics achieve sobriety.
Hari also references a program in Portugal that not only decriminalized addiction but offered recovering addicts employment assistance that helped them to rediscover their purpose, which in turn helped them to rediscover bonds and relationships with wider society. And, the astonishing results? IV drug use there reduced by 50 percent, and rates of overdose, addiction and new HIV infections reduced significantly as well.
Rather than cruel moralizing, it’s empathetic and meaningful interventions like these that we need in the here and now. To learn more about the welcoming and enriching community environment that Reco Institute’s sober living residences can offer, as well as about our comprehensive associated treatment program, feel free to call us any time at 561-665-5925.