The first thing I learned about alcoholism in college, was that it has little or nothing to do with alcohol. Similar to every other addiction, alcohol is not the problem. Alcohol is the person’s way of trying to cope with the problem.
So, what is the real problem, and how do some of us develop addictions whilst others don’t?
The theory that is most regularly bandied about is that there are chemical “hooks” in certain drugs that cause dependency and physical need. However, drugs like morphine are used daily in hospitals without triggering addiction and not everybody who drinks alcohol becomes an alcoholic.
Similarly, during the Vietnam war, 20% of troops were using heroin. The US army were worried that they would all be drug addicts when they came home. What they found was that 95% of the soldiers just stopped using when they returned.
The original experiments that concluded that drugs were addictive were done 100 years ago. A rat was put into a cage with two water bottles, one laced with cocaine, the other just water. In each case the rat always drank the laced water and killed itself very quickly.
Behavioural scientists in Canada looked at this in the 1970s. They realised that putting the rat into an empty cage was traumatising it. It had no social outlet, nothing to do, nowhere to hide and feel safe.
So, they built a cage called “Rat Park”. The rats had everything they needed: food, comfort, companionship. Both water bottles were provided, but none of them ever used the one laced with drugs. There was no compulsion, no overdose.
100% overdose when the rats were isolated, 0% overdose when they were not isolated, but able to live happy, connected lives.
Addiction isn’t about “chemical hooks” but something else. It’s not the drug that’s the problem, but your cage. Alcohol and drugs are your way of trying to adapt to your environment. Changing the term “addiction” to “bonding” helps us enter a whole new world of understanding surrounding addictions.
Need to bond
We have an innate need to bond. If we are happy and healthy, we bond with each other. But if we can’t do that because of trauma, isolation or being beaten down by life, we will bond with something that will give us some sense of relief.
This can be drugs, food, gambling, work, even unhealthy relationships. We use these to help us bond with something. If we have money, we could go out and buy all these things all the time and bond with them, but what stops us is that we have other bonds that fulfil our needs, so we don’t have to.
At the core of addiction is to not be able to be present in your life as it is. If we look at how we operate the war on drugs, we punish addicts and create barriers from them ever connecting again. Ostracise them by giving them a criminal record so they can never work again. This is the worst thing we can do, as it’s the most effective way of reinforcing exclusion and thereby addiction.
To change this, we need to reinforce connection rather than rejection with problems.
Overcoming our addictions.
We break our unhealthy connections in the same way that we grew them, by practice. You didn’t become addicted to your activity of choice overnight, so you won’t transform back into a balanced way of living by just stopping. You must build up your connections with other things, using skills that you haven’t got, but must learn, if you want to succeed. Success is all about finding other connections that are not other addictions.
Start with something simple. We live in a world where we have all become addicted to our phones, so practice switching it off for 24 hours. If you want to succeed at this, you must create connection with something else. Real friends are those that rush in when the rest of the world is rushing out. If you experience a crisis, it won’t be your Facebook friends that step in.
In the USA, the number of friends people can call on has reduced since the 1950s. We may be connected by social media, but we are the loneliest society in history. Hence the explosion of drugs. If we bond with something that doesn’t have the ability to nurture us, then we will rapidly find ourselves going back to it more and more and getting less and less back from it.
To overcome “addiction” we need to overcome four hurdles.
1. The OCD
Stopping the addictive behaviour gets you to the start line. Coping with cravings, one at a time. Learning that things do pass, when we take the right actions to make them pass.
Connecting with something other than the drug that has the power to nurture you. Re-learning skills in human connection that you have lost through your addiction.
Get professional help to confront your traumas and learn how to heal from them. You didn’t choose to become addicted. You were trying to fill a void.
Learn to identify and overcome the negative personality characteristics that you adopted during your addiction. Find your Mr Hyde and work towards changing him. The good news is that all addiction recoveries are a fairly straight-forward process. The bad news is that it all takes time to change. You alone can do it, but you can’t do it alone.
ALL Addictions ARE obsessive compulsive disorders
Did you know that if you binge drink, gamble or use drugs in your teenage years, you are 80% more likely to develop an addiction in your 20s? Don’t binge drink until you are 21 and this drops to less than 10%.
During adolescence, we are trying to find our identity and bonding with various activities helps us do that. If we are isolated, then we will eventually find something unhealthy that will help us feel better. This can be food, gambling, drugs or alcohol. By their very nature they hit our dopamine system very effectively, giving us a pleasure hit. Our brain very quickly figures out that if a little dose gives me a hit, then twice as much will give me twice the hit. And down the addiction rabbit hole you go.
Very quickly, you find that by taking the first drink, you set up a chain reaction. You make a decision that you are going to use. Once you act on that decision, you are then compelled to continue acting by taking more and more. This eventually leads you into the ritual of your addiction once again. You are powerless to stop it. By their very nature, addictions follow the law of diminishing returns. The more you try to get the high, the more it eludes you. So, the harder you try.
Anything can become an addiction if we are using it to try to fill other voids in our lives. Be it exercise, football, work, porn, food, they can all become a problem if we are trying to get more out of them that they are capable of giving us.
As one client told me, “At the start it was fun. Then it was fun with problems. By the end, it was just problems.”