You are not a rat in a cage. You are human and you can overcome your addiction.
Johann Hari, author of Chasing The Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, recently published a popular article "The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered And It is Not What You Think."
He summarizes quite a bit of research over the last several decades to make the point that chemicals or substances to not prove to be the leading driver in addictive patterns. In other words, science does not support the notion that someone becomes addicted to alcohol, or any other substance, based primarily on a chemical and physiological reliance. This can be tricky to fully understand, because in a case of addiction, there truly is a physiological change and reliance.
However, research supports that if you support someone through the physiological withdrawal from the substance, only about 5-10 percent of these people will continue with an addiction.
So why does this portion of the population develop an addiction? The research Hari sites by Bruce Alexander in the “Rat Park,” noticed that the rats in a social environment did not maintain an addiction even when presented with heroine—versus the rats in a cage alone, who compulsively used the substance. He makes the convincing point that the social context of connection is paramount as a factor in whether someone develops, or can recover from, an addiction.
In my view, this is true, and we seem to resonate with this message because it innately feels true. But we need to understand this more succinctly to understand how we deal with ourselves or a loved one struggling with addiction. We have all experienced attempting to provide an addict with what seems like a loving, supportive environment in which it logically appears that they could thrive, and yet they were not able to make use of that well intentioned offer. There are reality shows we seem to watch with voyeuristic entrancement documenting this dilemma!
First, we need to remember that the human brain cannot be equated with the rat brain. Rat brains operate on a basic stimulus/response model while the human brain is also composed of the cerebral hemisphere, which processes the social context in a much more complex manner than the rat brain. So, the human connection that humans need to protect against addiction is more specific than what the rats in Alexander’s study needed to steer clear of the heroine water.
As far as we know, rats do not contend with the tumultuous realm of interpersonal emotional life – the feelings of shame, rage, helplessness, hope, fear, grief – and the complex meanings that humans make of these emotional experiences. The thing about humans and the human connection that we need is that one of the primary functions of our human connection is to process, digest, organize and make meaning of our emotional experience. This is the nature of Attachment Relationships, which have taught us about the human brain and mind in the last few decades. What does this mean in terms of risk for or healing from addictions?
First of all, if the relationships we have in the time of our life while our brains are developing are not emotionally functional, we are at a very increased risk for addictive or compulsive behavior (as well as a host of other psychological problems). By emotionally functional, I mean that our early relationships must be an ongoing “emotional conversation” (verbal and nonverbal) in which we learn to discern, name, process and make sense of our emotional life. If this happens, we develop both a sense of security and a sense of mastery and competence when it comes to our own emotional life, and we are pretty sturdily equipped to navigate the waters of life – the ups, the downs, the hopes, the fears, the losses, and the gains. If this does not happen in our early life, then emotional life itself — which is biologically evolved to guide our choices! — now rather causes a feeling of helplessness and being lost.
Anyone can relate to this. Think of a time that you were overwhelmed with a flood of emotion that at least temporarily overrode your ability to think rationally. For instance, you got a call that someone you loved died unexpectedly, or there was a natural disaster, or a severe disappointment that you were not prepared for. This is called emotional flooding. If this happens in a state of isolation, and without a way to comprehend the experience, shame typically accompanies the experience.
These states of mind, while something we all experience at some moments, are characterized by a profound feeling of helplessness and shame if they are chronic. If profoundly chronic, there is also a collapse of the sense of identity of the self, which feels like a psychic annihilation. In simple language, this is the experience of terror. This is important because if we trace the psychological dynamics of addiction, we can see that addictive and compulsive behaviors are motivated by a need to regulate a feeling of profound helplessness.
If you ask an addict, they will almost always report that the decision to engage in the addictive behavior (even more so than the actual behavior or substance) typically provides a feeling of calm. What is being calmed? If you trace the experience closely, it is often some version of helplessness and/or a terrifying collapse of the self. The ability to utilize a drug is a concrete and very real reassurance that one can do something to change their emotional life in a predictable (if only momentary) way. This helplessness can be interpersonal—the feeling of being trapped in a situation, i.e. where you cannot confront someone but to not confront them compromises a basic need – or, the helplessness that is felt as a loss of control to understand or process one’s own emotional experience (chronic emotional flooding).
So what does this mean in terms of treating or preventing addiction? Yes, the human connection is profoundly important, and absolutely necessary. However, it’s more specific than that. Some people are profoundly tortured by the human connection in their lives because they do not know how, or even that it can, be utilized to safely process and organize emotional experience. Some people feel more shamed, trapped, or isolated in the human connection that their loved ones attempt to provide. Unfortunately the rats in the Rat Park cannot tell us about this, so we need to listen to the inner lives of our loved ones who’ve been down these roads.
Yes, we need to offer addicts more love songs, certainly not war songs, as Hari says. But true love songs are particular, not generic. They are about attunement, and close understanding. We all need a role in society, to feel a sense of purpose, to have housing, safety, our basic needs met, basic companionship. Certainly this is protection against addiction. But for many, obviously this is not enough. Because we are not just rats in a cage, we also need to attend to the inner life of these connections. It is the subtleties of human connection that make them meaningful and real – whether we feel truly understood, whether we have help articulating our deepest conflicts, the safety to sort out our torturous shame, the courage to reveal our actual needs and desires, and some faith that we can and will be understood.
Of course it is for this that we need each other, and continuously learn from each other, throughout the course of our lives. These relationships require, above all else, respect and honesty. If you’re struggling with how to help someone with an addiction, and want to offer the kind of connection that can be useful – start by asking yourself whether you can speak honestly with them, with a deep respect for who and where they are, and whether they can do the same with you.