Addiction is not genetic, nor is it the result of the “irresistible” chemicals in drugs. Addiction – whether to alcohol, porn, screen time or heroin – is the result of human disconnection.
In an ever-more socially disconnected world, addictions of all kinds are on the rise. While governments wage wars on drugs and parents nag kids for being glued to iPads all day, few people understand the root of the problem.
Rats in cages get hooked on crack. Rats with friends leave it alone.
The story that drugs inevitably hook all of their users comes from a series of experiments conducted on rats in the early 20th century, said journalist Johann Hari in a Ted Talk last year.
When you put a rat alone in a cage with two water bottles – one laced with heroine or cocaine – the rat almost always prefers the drugged water and drinks it compulsively until it dies.
Conversely, when a psychologist put rats in a “rat park” in the 1970s, with cheese, colored balls, tunnels and, most importantly, lots of other rat friends (and let them have “loads of sex”) the rats weren’t interested in the drugged water.
“None of them ever use it compulsively,” Hari said. “None of them ever overdose. You go from almost 100 percent overdosing when they are isolated, to zero percent overdosing when they have happy, connected lives.”
Human beings were lab rats in a similar experiment about a decade earlier, Hari said – “it was called the Vietnam War.”
In Vietnam, 20 percent of American soldiers were “addicted” to heroine. News reports warned there would be hundreds of thousands of junkies on the streets when the war ended.
The Archives of General Psychiatry studied these soldiers and found 95 percent of them quit using when they returned home.
“They didn’t go to rehab, they didn’t go into withdrawal, they just stopped,” Hari said.
“What if addiction isn’t about your chemical hooks?” he continued. “What if it’s about your cage? What if it’s an adaptation to your environment?”
How Portugal cut heroine use in half
As part of his research, Hari visited a “chain gang” of female prisoners in Arizona, who were forced to wear Scarlett Letter-like t-shirts saying “I was a drug addict,” while they dug graves and members of the public jeered at them.
“When they get out of prison their criminal records will keep them from ever working in the legal economy again,” Hari said.
If you wanted to design a system that would make drug addiction worse, this punishment system is exactly the kind of system you would design, says Dr. Gabor Mate.
In 2000, Portugal decided to implement exactly the opposite system. At the time, 1 in 100 of its citizens were addicted to heroine.
“Every year they tried the American way more and more – they punished, stigmatized and shamed them more – and every year the problem got worse,” Hari said.
So they decriminalized all drugs and diverted the funds spent on cutting addicts off and put it toward reconnecting them to society. In addition to rehab and psychotherapy, the country incentivized businesses to hire addicts by paying half of their wages for the first year and giving them microloans to start small businesses.
Fifteen years later injected drug use is down by 50 percent. Meanwhile, heroin deaths have increased five-fold in the U.S. over the same period.
Dutch social psychologist Peter Cohen says maybe we shouldn’t even call addiction “addiction” – maybe we should call it bonding.
“Human beings have an innate need to bond,” Hari said. “When we are happy and healthy, we bond and connect with each other. But if you can’t do that, because you’re traumatized or isolated or beaten down by life, you will bond with anything that will give you some sense of relief, whether it’s gambling, pornography, cocaine or cannabis.”
The number of close friends the average American feels comfortable calling on in times of crisis has been declining steadily since the 1950s, at the same time the amount of floor space each individual has in their home has been increasing.
“We’ve traded floor space for friends,” Hari said. “We’ve traded stuff for connections.
“If you have a crisis, it won’t be your Twitter followers who come to sit with you,” he added. “It’ll be your flesh-and-blood friends whom you have deep and nuanced, face-to-face relationships with.”
Instead of focusing so much on individual recovery, Hari says we need to talk more about cultural recovery. Unfortunately, he says, the reality TV show Intervention highlight’s our country’s backwards approach to people struggling with addiction:
“All of the people in the addict’s life are gathered together to confront him. They say – ‘if you don’t shape up, we’re going to cut you off.’ In other words, they take their connection to the addict and use it as a threat. They make it contingent on the addict behaving the way they want. It doesn’t work.”
The approach that does work is unconditional love and emotional support, Hari says – tell the addict “I love you whether you are using or not, no matter what state you are in. And if you need me, I’ll come and sit with you, because I love you, and I don’t want you to feel alone.”
“The opposite of addiction is not sobriety,” he concludes. “It’s connection.”