FOR THE LOVE OF RELATIONSHIPS – The complexities of addiction

Addictions are a personal challenge, a familial hardship, a workplace issue, a community concern, and a national tragedy. Addiction is on the rise. According to the CDC, over 81,000 people died from drug overdoses in one year, many of whom are teens.  This is alarming as it is the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded. The increasing mental health issues, violence, homelessness, crime, isolation, depression, and suicide associated with addiction are shocking.  It is beyond disturbing that adolescents are getting addicted earlier and earlier in their young lives. 

Why do individuals become addicted? The answer is extremely complex. Adverse childhood experiences, trauma, lack of coping skills, lack of relationship or communication skills, disconnection, unhappiness, disappointment, abandonment, overwhelming obstacles, lack of hope, and the list goes on. 

Johann Hari, an expert on addiction, states that the only reliable treatment for addiction is connection. In His book, Chasing the Scream: The Search for Truth About Addiction, Hari outlines the data about the importance of closeness, attachment, bonding, support, positive relationships, and social connections. Additionally, societies that are community-minded, and unified, and share food, traditions, music, language, and passions have the highest longevity rate regarding life expectancy and the lowest drug or alcohol addiction rates.

Another expert in the field of addiction experimented with rats. In one rat cage, he had rats living alone with no rotation wheels, toys, plants, or color. These rats had a choice of drinking pure water, or water laced with heroin. The solo rats preferred the drug-ridden water, and most of them died from an overdose of heroin. Dr. Bruce Alexander also set up a rat cage with toys, colors, wheel platforms, and other rats to befriend. The choice was the same, pure water or water laced with heroin. These social rats avoided drug water and, instead, chose pure water. This study and others like it highlight that social connection is the key. This experiment can be viewed on YouTube. 

One can cultivate social connections with a pro-social tribe. This is a healthy way to overcome any kind of addiction, whether drugs, alcohol, gambling, pornography, food, or shopping.  One must find people and groups that have common interests. Things like bowling, painting, concert going, sports, cooking classes, fitness groups, faith-based groups, Bible studies, political affiliations, and book clubs are great ways to be surrounded by like-minded people.  Those who care for an addicted individual need to be the ones to help build this community. Many times, the addicted individual does not have the capacity to do so. 

Preventing addiction should be a call to action for our nation. We must teach the next generation coping skills, build assets and resiliency, empower adolescents with self-regulation and decision-making capabilities and strategies, teach relationship and life skills, and assist young people in building their pro-social tribe.  Young people need to know how to protect their delicate and developing brain from substances that would affect the growth process, particularly around the pre-frontal cortex which is where decisions and executive cognitive functioning are stored. Those who feel they must take substances to escape need new coping mechanisms to deal with their hurt, anger, disappointment, or trauma. Mental health services are essential. If our national policies do not change the tide of rising addictions, we do so at great peril. v