Most addiction aficionados are familiar with the 1980’s commercial by a Partnership for a Drug-Free America that shows a rat and two water bottles. One of the bottles has water in it and the other bottle has water laced with cocaine. It demonstrates a popular belief about addiction, that once a person is “chemically hooked” on a substance, their bodies will physically crave the drug and are stuck in a powerful addiction cycle. In the commercial, the rat dies of overdose quickly.
However, Bruce K. Alexander, in The Globalization of Addiction, calls this experiment, “The Demon Drug Myth” and says, “In its most recent incarnations, it says that all or most people who take one of the demon drugs (including crack cocaine and methamphetamine, as well as heroin and prescription opiates) lose their willpower and are converted into hopeless drug addicts.” This theory directly contradicts an experiment Bruce did in the 1970’s called the rat park experiment, wherein a rat is placed in a heavenly environment, one filled with tubes to crawl in, food and as much sex as they could handle, but is also given the two water bottles from which to drink. The experiment found that the rats rarely touched the water bottle laced with cocaine, and when they did, never overdosed on it, not even once.
In an article, Rat Park versus The New York Times, Bruce asks the question, “The Rat Park experiments can draw a thoughtful person into asking a truly important question: ‘If drugs are not the cause of addiction, what is?'” Certainly, drug addiction is one of many societal ills, but we have always blamed the problem on sick individuals themselves and not looked at society, as a whole, as the real problem.
When I first got sober 21 years ago, I began to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings regularly and was told to start “working the steps”, that it was the steps and getting a sponsor that would help me to stay sober long-term. Over the last two decades, I will sheepishly admit that I have bounced between steps, bounced between having a sponsor or not, and bounced in and out of meetings. So how did I stay sober?
I have come to believe that it was not the steps that have helped me to stay sober this long, but being plugged into a community of other recovering addicts like myself. The opposite of addiction is not sobriety, the opposite of addiction is connection. I first heard that concept from a therapist by the name of Edward Anton, when he gave a class on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy at the Reach Seminar in St. Louis, Mo. in July, 2016. He says that “connections have purpose”.
Addiction in all forms, whether it be drugs, gambling, or porn, are primarily isolating activities. I could be at a party filled with people and yet, be alone, just me and my drink. My main problem was my unhealthy obsession with inanimate objects. As with any abusive relationship, there were negative consequences, but there was a lot attracting me to them. For one thing, they were cheap to come by and they didn’t require any vulnerability or courage on my part. In fact, I could easily fit into the “club” of other users and it made me feel like I had a kind of community, but one in which we were all isolated together.
Certainly, AA preaches connection, first with a higher power and then with a sponsor and the group as a whole. However, they are also known for transferring their addictions to other inanimate objects. Who has ever gone to an AA meeting when there aren’t hoards of recovering alcoholics outside smoking cigarettes?
Johann Hari, author of Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, says that our society is having a “crisis of disconnection”. Since the 1950’s and onward, we have steadily diminished our circle of friends, have few ties with our neighbors, broken with our church communities, and latched on with a fearsome grip to our technological devices (another addictive inanimate object).
So if our national drug problem is societal, rather than individual, what can we do? There are no easy answers, but one choice is to find your own Rat Park heaven, and then lead others to it. Get involved in your community. Serve the needy with other do-gooders. Or, you could just put the d*** phone down and go across the street and meet your neighbor.