Saturday, 12 September 2015

Everything You Think You Know About Addiction is Wrong

That's the title of the most fascinating TEDD talk by Johann Hari (here's a link)

Hari is a journalist who, having experienced the fall out from addiction first hand, spent three years researching it, coming to some extraordinary conclusions.

Hari says that a lot of what we believe about addiction comes from early studies on rats. Typically, a rat would be put in a cage with two bottles - one filled with pure water, and one laced with heroin or cocaine.  Within a short space of time the rat gives up bothering with food, or anything except the drug, and kills itself. In one hundred percent of cases.

Then, in the 1970s, a Canadian psychology professor called Alexander makes a crucial change to the experiment. Instead of putting the rat in an empty cage, he creates what he calls 'Rat Park'. Rat Park is rat nirvana. It's filled with rat buddies, rat games, lots of food and sex on tap. And in rat park almost nobody dies. The rats usually ignore the drug water, or - if they do use it - they use it sparingly. They moderate!

Hari points out that a similar 'experiment' was done on humans, in that during the Vietnam War 20% of American troops became dependant on heroin (and who can blame them? They were in a horrid cage). But when they got back home, to friends and family, ninety-five percent of them stopped using. Without too much trouble.

Another professor, called Peter Cohen, in the Netherlands believes that addiction should be called 'bonding.' As a species, he argues, we have a primal need to bond. To make connections with other people. If, for some reason, you can't do that, you will bond with something else that gives you relief - like drink, drugs, gambling or shopping.

This theory has huge implications, argues Hari. Instead of punishing drug addicts with prison (a cage), social stigma and isolation, we should be working on improving their cage, making their lives better and more fulfilled.

This is, in effect, what has happened in Portugal where drugs were totally decriminalised in 2000, and the money which had been spent on enforcing drug laws was spent on re-hab and improving the lives of addicts. Drug use is down by fifty percent.

So what does it mean for us?

Well, it strikes me that so many of the e-mails I get from people talk about how their alcohol use (abuse) accelerated after events like divorce, redundancy and retirement. In my case the trigger was quitting work to become a stay at home Mum.

Don't get me wrong, I loved it being home with my kids. I chose to do it. But I was in a communications industry. I was used to constant adult interaction. My job was bonding. Being alone for most of the day with people who couldn't yet talk was a bit of a shock.

In all of these instances, divorce, redundancy, and so on, our cages had changed. We'd lost many of our 'connections' and turned to alcohol as a bond.

The dynamic that Hari ignores, is the one we know only too well: once you start 'bonding' with alcohol, your cage gets smaller and smaller. Emptier and emptier. We alienate friends and family, we stop going out as much and we quit our hobbies and interests.

And the worse the cage becomes, the less incentive we have to step away from the drug water. A vicious circle.

This doesn't mean that if we improve our cage we can go back to being moderate drinkers (once an addict, always an addict). The Vietnam vets didn't start using heroin 'moderately' on their return. They stopped completely.

No, the lesson is that it is really hard to quit without building connections. This is why AA has saved so many lives, and the reason why the blogosphere, and sites like Soberistas, have been so crucial to me.

The other lesson, for me, is that it exposes the belief that you have to reach rock bottom as a dangerous fallacy. Because 'rock bottom' is an empty cage. If you quit well before your cage is empty, you have a far better chance of success.

So, my friends, work on improving your cage. On de-cluttering, on gardening, on painting walls and filling your house with flowers. Build bonds and connections, as many as you can, real and virtual. That's the key to success, not punishing and isolating yourself.

Because, as Hari says: The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection.


  1. I reached out yesterday evening, emailing, texting and writing. Connections! I love them. Annie x

    1. The more ratty friends we have, the better ;-)

  2. SoberMummy,

    Wanted to say that I enjoy your blog very much. Over the course of the week I read all the entries in chronological order (oldest entry first). It's been fascinating to follow your story, progress, and hear your insights.

    I'm you second "official" male reader (I'm sure there are many more that haven't commented). It's a great blog and I can relate to your story even though 1. I'm a bloke and 2. I live in the states (California to be precise). I was a grad student in England about the time you were at Oxford - and I enjoy the english self-depreacting humor and point of view.

    Congrats again, I just wanted to say hi.


    1. Hi Eeyore! I'm thrilled! Not only another chap, but a pessimistic donkey too :-) Amazed you read the whole thing, and most chuffed by your kind words. Thank you! SM x

    2. Welcome Eeyore...Nice to meet you!

  3. Thanks for sharing that SM, the Ted Talk made me cry a bit. I've spent a lot of time trying to figure out WHY I drank so much, and it's true, once I was "disconnected", I did start bonding with the bottle. That, coupled with the reassurance from alcohol marketers everywhere, that it is completely NORMAL to glug away on our own, it's no wonder that alcoholism is on the increase among women who basically feel lonely. Great post xx

  4. I agree.
    I started bonding with happy hour and work friends, then each year, it became a smaller circle, until at the end it was just one friend.
    Then when retired, I had no one to bond with, just bartenders.

  5. I saw this talk a couple of weeks back too. It is so true, for me the triggers were moving to Belgium and becoming a stay at home mum. Drinking took the edge off the loneliness but also stopped me from making new connections so I became more reliant on it. The talk really made me think.

  6. Well, I disagree (without having seen the TED talk): You have written a very different story here, about how you drank a lot at work, and that you quit to get away from the boozy work environment (didn't work, of course).
    My drinking did take a turn for the worse when my father died, but I know for a fact that I was born with special genes. Even as a child I was focused on alcohol, wild to get to my parents' beer (they were not huge drinkers and thought it was cute), binging i high school etc., and had a huge tolerance from the get go.
    Meeting my husband, having a child, all very happy events, made me drink more rather than less. I drank because I was born to drink, no special circumstances required.

  7. This was a bit of a Eureka moment personally for me. My drinking took off when I left the fat cat corporate world. Im at the very beginning of my new sober life and last night I decided I needed to make more time for me, improve certain aspects of my life so booked up a couple of evenings (without the pub) with friends, listed some me time things that I want rather than just providing a service for child and parents! Etc Etc. I have no genetic predispositions to drink to my knowledge, maybe there is deeply buried one but the way I drank I think is born around escapism, lack of fulfilment and the need to get my derriere out there! I(not literally of course!) It would be easier just to open a bottle of wine and watch crap tv but Im sure if I make the effort now, life will be allot more fun!

  8. Yes the whole nature nurture thing is tricky. I think it's a bit of both with me. I'm from a family of big drinkers and have been around that scene my whole life. However I think I always was one of the biggest drinkers. My habits definitely changed after having children and becoming a full time mum. It was lonely and really hard work. Lack of sleep and no time to yourself meant that once kids were finally asleep you could have a glass of wine. Then it grew to 2 glasses then 3 etc etc. Numbing and relaxing and so well deserved but the dependancy and amount needed to have effect just kept growing! I don't know if I would have become so addicted if I hadn't stopped working but I don't think so....

  9. I think that we can find personal stories to fit both nature and nurture situations. Also, the way that we use alcohol can change. In my teens/early twenties I drank to fit in with the crowd - I wanted to be "normal". My drinking (much like yours SM) took a far more sinister turn when I started drinking alone, to self medicate, to drown out loneliness/get away from the stresses in my life. Whereas a wild boozy early life almost seems like a rite of passage, many people go on to have "normal" drinking habits as they mature. Some of us (more and more of us it seems) bond with alcohol to fill voids, our coping mechanism. The trick, I think , is to figure out the reason behind our personal drinking circumstances, understand it, and fix it. Sobriety enables us to do that. xx

  10. I watched the Ted Talk and it really makes sense. I started abusing alcohol after my husband left me and we got a divorce. The increase in wine consumption has been subtle and gradual until it hit a double bottle a night every night of the week three months ago. Exercising seems to help me not drink so much or want to drink so much. Hence I have decided to register for a 1/2 marathon in May 2016. That gives me 7 months to train. And I'm wondering: is there even room in there for moderate drinking?