What is the nature of addiction? Is it simply a chemical dependency that physiologically grips your tissues and overpowers your will? Is it a psychological habit that grows and grows until it has strangled away your ability to put it down?
These questions exemplify an outlook that has given us the failed drug war and the cruel criminalization of addiction. The approach has been (with less than stellar results) to think that, if the substance is removed from the user (via rehab or incarceration), then the physiological and psychological ramifications will also disappear. Basically, given enough time free from the drug, the body and mind will normalize and the user can get their life back on track.
This view, while perhaps not outright or intentionally short-sighted, is incomplete and does very little to help former addicts truly rejoin society. Even if a crackhead kicks the drug while in prison, he still leaves with a criminal record, poor job prospects, and, after released, copious amounts of time to sit around wishing things were better. That is a perfect recipe for a relapse.
If you’re a supporter of marijuana policy reform, there is little need to rehash the broken thinking behind current drug laws. I read a very moving piece by a man who has lived with drug addicts his whole life and who asks us to completely shift they way we view addiction.
The revolutionary idea? Addiction is not caused by substances, rather, it is caused by isolation. That is not to say that there aren’t some powerfully physically addictive substances out there. Cocaine is insanely addictive on the physical level. But it is not the substance alone that compels you to go back for more and more. It is a feeling of immense and insurmountable isolation that drives the addict to the substance in an effort to not feel isolated.
This is not just some wild theory, either. There is science to back up this idea, though not as much as there should be. After all, there isn’t much money to be made from compassionate treatment of addicts. Rehab and prison facilities (not to mention law enforcement) make a ton of money off incarcerating and persecuting addicts.
One scientist a few decades ago, firmly entrenched in the historical view of addiction, wondered why soldiers returning from Vietnam did not create a throng of heroin addicts in the US. See, the reported rate of drug use (heroin, specifically) among US servicemen in Vietnam was through the roof. In the accepted view of addiction, that should mean that when these soldiers got home from war, their physical/mental need for heroin would be so strong, a whole generation of addicts would be engendered on American soil.
But it just never happened. Sure, some soldiers came home and kept using heroin, but the vast, overwhelming majority got back home and never even wanted to use it again. How could this be? Heroin is one of the more addictive drugs known to man, was there something in the DNA of American soldiers that made them immune to addiction?
To get more information, a study was conducted using rats. Scientists took some rats and put them in isolated cages (by that I mean, no toys, fun things, and certainly no other rats). Attached to each cage was two water bottles. In the first, just plain old water. In the second, water mixed with cocaine. The lonely rat tried both bottles at first, but soon began to behave just like an addict, only drinking from the cocaine-water to the point of death.
In another cage, the scientists created what they called a “rat park.” It was a large enclosure, filled with toys, mazes and a bunch of other rats. To this cage, as above, two water bottles were attached, one with just water and one with coke-water. The rats in the rat park sampled both bottles. What happened? No strong preference was given to either bottle. The rats drank water when thirsty and then returned to playing with their fellow rats.
Even more remarkable was when the scientists moved the addicted, isolated rats into the rat park, the coke-fiend rats stopped acting like addicts. They re-adapted to their society and no longer needed the cocaine. As a caveat, there were some rats in the rat park that did develop addictive behaviors, but it was not nearly the same intensity or drive found in the isolated rats.
The returning Vietnam soldiers were like the isolated rats who were reintroduced to rat park (home). They used heroin because being in Vietnam was horrific. They were away from their homes, friends, families, and needed something to help them feel less isolated (heroin). Once they were home, the need to escape from a hellish life no longer persisted and the corresponding need for heroin dissipated.
Now let’s look at your average convicted drug addict in America. Addicts seek out a drug to alter their reality to something they perceive to be better. They get arrested and thrown in jail (likely increasing their feelings of isolation and hopelessness). While in jail, they cannot get their drug, so, physiologically, they are “getting clean.” Once released, our system more or less just kicks them back out onto the street, hoping that their shitty experience in jail will “scare them straight.” Very little is done to help these people land on their feet and it’s next to impossible to get a job if you have a conviction on your record.
So what happens? They try to stay clean and look for work, to find something to give them purpose. Some may find their way, but most try for a little while and get discouraged, which leads to feeling hopeless and isolated again, which sets them up to go back to drugs. It’s no wonder the recidivism rate is so high. It is a truly vicious cycle and has repeatedly, overwhelmingly, failed.
The author traveled the world and has written a book on the subject and has come to see that a much better solution is to stop treating addicts like criminals and instead treat them with acceptance, compassion and a spirit of inclusion. He witnessed successful rehabilitation programs that placed addicts into low-pressure jobs and gave them purpose, a place and time to be somewhere everyday, and a team of fellow employees to whom they were accountable. He came back from his journey believing that unconditional love, not further isolation and punishment, is paramount to truly beating addiction.
Changing our collective mind about how we view addicts is no small feat, but I feel it is a shift that must happen if we are to make any fruitful progress against the ravages of addiction. Fear, oppression, and further isolation are like salt in the wound to someone who already feels their life solely revolves around misery. I am eager to see what might happen if we can exchange handcuffs for handshakes and prison bars for support groups.
We are not meant to live solitary lives. We crave and require community. Will this be a sweeping solution to every addiction problem? No, of course not. But I do believe a new perspective could make a huge impact on success rates.
by Raylan Campbell
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