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.