Old Wisdom in Stupid Packaging.
The clickbait world has reached addiction and TED talks. There’s a recent one called “Everything You Think You Know about Addiction Is Wrong.” It starts with a discussion of Rat Park, a study from the 1970s that seems to show that rats in isolation become addicted to morphine-laced water, but that rats in a pleasant, social environment do not. It’s a pretty dramatic study and has some important insights. It’s also worth noting that follow-up experiments showed similar, but less robust, results.
Fundamentally, it seems likely and reasonable that morphine addiction in rats is moderated by social interaction and access to enrichment material. Furthermore, it is reasonable to me, and to many researchers, that there are basic analogues of this in humans. Isolation seems to make addiction worse. Warm and caring social environments seem to make it better. Rare indeed are people who recover from addiction through will alone in isolated circumstances. Communities matter.
This is old wisdom. AA has been discussing and employing these ideas for roughly 80 years. When drunks get together and discuss their drinking, and help each other through difficult times, relieve isolation, and form communities based around survival first, and then flourishing, we recover. We recover together, because we cannot alone. I know several people who say that they don’t really have alcohol problems. They have isolation problems that they treated with alcohol.
The TED talk is pretty ridiculous then, that this speaker is suggesting that this is some kind of new insight, when it was (a) known from at least about 1938 on, and (b) based on a rat study that can’t quite be replicated from 35+ years ago. But nevermind. It’s decent wisdom and there’s no need to nitpick over who thought it up first. But he really goes off the rails after that.
I’ll even stipulate that I agree with his basic point: treating addicts like sick people instead of like criminals would be a step forward. Finding ways to relieve the burden of addiction in a caring environment would be helpful. And prison is a notoriously uncaring environment. I don’t think that imprisoning addicts who are not criminals in other, aggravating ways is a useful response from the perspective of promoting recovery. Though it’s not really my business to tell the criminal justice system how to behave.
But next, the speaker goes on to state that he believes that addiction can be “cured” by promoting human connection. As if that’s some panacea which magically makes cravings vanish. And he then proceeds to tell people how to treat addicts in their lives: to be there for them, connect with them, love them, and never give up on them. This sounds like a lovely sentiment.
In reality, that’s a vicious piousness that places a toxic burden on the families and friends of addicts. It says, “If your addicted loved one doesn’t recover, it’s your fault for not connecting well enough.” That’s absolute bullshit. You don’t owe an addict anything. Period, end of story.
We addicts are liars, users, manipulators, and thieves. Unless we are ready to recover, we will suck anyone dry of any succor they offer, emotional, financial, or otherwise. We will abuse your affection and commitment to make ourselves sicker. While an addict is using, while an alcoholic is drinking, you don’t matter to us. You are a tool that gets us what we need. You are under no obligation whatsoever to aid us in that pursuit. And pious shame-peddlers like this TED speaker, wrapped in the language of compassion, are cruel charlatans.
Look: it’s good to love people and connect with them. Even people who are addicts. But you can’t cure us. It’s not your fault when we die of substance abuse or suicide. And the sole motivating factor I’ve ever heard from people in recovery was pain. When we hurt enough, some of us become willing to recover. Some of us never do. And that’s neither your responsibility nor your deficiency.
It was the prospect of losing things that led me to recovery. Losing my family, losing my respectability, losing my health and my comfort. That is the story I see echoed everywhere in the halls where recovered people congregate. Is it the only way? I don’t know. I don’t pretend that AA is the only route to recovery, or that I have any magical keys to this kingdom. But I know that you don’t have to go down with my ship, when I’m sinking.