Addicts Need Connection
Updated: Nov 15, 2019
For most of modern history, addicts have been criminalized for their behavior and forced to enter sobriety. It is through this mentality that many believe addicts need to be locked away to solve their issues alone. This could not be further from the truth.
Do you know any addicts? It is a very difficult question to ask and even think about. Many loved ones are affected by addictive habits, whether it be drugs, alcohol, pornography, or gambling, and these addicts are constantly at war with themselves over the pain they are causing.
For most of modern history, addicts have been villainized. They are often seen as nuisances, and their seeming inability to stop puts a wedge between themselves and those they love most.
I remember facing this reality firsthand.
When I was a child, I lost an aunt from both sides of my family to alcohol. It was quite strange to witness the behavior of my family as they watched their siblings essentially kill themselves. I remember very clearly their presence, their disappearance, and ultimately their passing.
The struggle and torture that my aunts faced must have been devastating. One day they were connected with a community that seemingly loved them unconditionally, and the next day that love is withheld and ransomed for a price. I cannot imagine how lonely they felt and how much pressure was placed on them to solve an issue they could not do alone.
In the early 1900s, researchers tested the behavior of rats by putting them in a small cage with two optional water sources. One was pure water, and the other was mixed with cocaine. The test was simply to prove the dangers of drugs and addiction, and their conclusion was simple. If given the choice, rats always went with the drugged water and eventually killed themselves.
However, in the late 1970s, a Canadian psychologist and professor named Dr. Bruce Alexander noticed something peculiar about this experiment. He believed that the drugs were not the cause of the addiction, but that the living conditions that the rats were forced into was the real problem.
To test his theory, he built "Rat Park", which was essentially heaven for rats. In addition to the two water sources, it was a large housing colony with an incredible amount of space, there were nearly two dozen rats living together, plenty of food, lots of wheels and balls to play with, and enough space for mating.
The results proved Alexander's hypothesis. Despite the cocaine-water being available to the rats in "Rat Park", most of the rats were not interested in the drugged water, and rarely-to-never did any of them drink it, which is a stark contrast compared to the research from the early 1900s. The rats were content with the plethora of food, community, and activities, and it opened up new doors of possibilities for a world that struggles with addiction.
One place in the world that severely struggled with drug abuse was Portugal. In 1999, Portugal had the highest rate of HIV transferred through drug use in the European Union, and heroin addiction plagued the country for years.
However, in 2001, Portugal took a risk and tried something extreme. They decriminalized all drugs and aimed to help treat those struggling instead of imprisoning them. The country's new goal was to care for their people, get them the treatment they needed, and find healthy and meaningful ways to reintegrate them into society.
The results could not be more encouraging. In less than 20 years, Portugal has seen many improvements thanks to their new approach. New HIV diagnoses have dipped tremendously, drug-related deaths have reduced, drug use among adolescents have declined, and the street value of most illicit drugs have dropped significantly.
Portugal is a great example of how the "Rat Park" experiment can work in the real world. Instead of locking their drug addicts alone in a cage, Portuguese people are presented a chance to be cared for by their country in a loving and communal way.
In 2015, Johann Hari, a Swiss-British writer and journalist, wrote a book called Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs and gave a wonderful TedTalk on addiction.
Johann Hari has seen the current methods fail firsthand as well, as he has watched loved ones struggle to manage their own addictions. He wondered why we treat addicts the way we do, and he began to believe that there must be a better way.
He began to discover the real issue of addiction and how modern day society and its approach attributes to the problem. Addicts do not need to be ridiculed, cut off, or given an ultimatum. They need to be embraced, unconditionally loved, and genuinely cared for. For those of us who have experienced addicts in our lives, it can be very difficult to do this, because we are often angry and disappointed in them.
I wholeheartedly believe that if this approach was applied to my aunts growing up, they would still be with us today. I wish I was mature enough to say to them at the time that I love them whether they are drinking or not, that I love them no matter the condition, and if they need me, I will be there for them, because they did not deserve to be alone. They need to be with family, and I will be there for them.
Because, like Johann Hari said, "The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addition is connection."