Never So Simple

There’s been a lot of buzz online in the past week about addiction. An article published in the Huffington Post (“The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered, and It Is Not What You Think” by Johann Hari) is claiming to have reduced the causes of all addiction to cultural and social factors. The article has garnered many responses, both positive and negative. While most welcome the attention drawn to environmental factors, some worry about the dismissive attitude toward medical aspects and current methods of treatment.

I’m not going to write a long, academic rebuttal to the article, even though I do agree with some others that a certain amount of cherry-picking was done in the studies quoted. In putting forth the primary point, the author tended to pooh-pooh some facts about the genetic propensity for certain types of addiction: a concrete physical phenomenon present despite environmental factors. The author ignores the physical reality of the addicted body and brain when he claims the problem to be solely cultural and psychological.

That’s the part I don’t buy…the idea that everyone who has enough healthful connection in their life could use in moderation. There are those who can’t. There just are, and you can therapize them to death and not make moderate users out of them. Abstinence seems to be necessary for their healing. And, if these people start to experience better circumstances and closer connections, beginning to use leads rapidly to losing them.

It’s not that I don’t respect the intended spirit of the article: I do! I agree completely that lack of connection is a primary element in addictive cycles. It’s one reason recovery fellowships exist and are promoted as important in recovery: we need community, and sometimes these are the easiest places for an addict to find it. Even the spiritual quest suggested in these groups is, after all, just another type of connection. If there were other widespread and easily found networks of recovery, I’m sure many would choose them. But, for historical reasons, the 12-step fellowships are still the largest (and cheapest) option.

I agree with the article’s call to change in the USA’s attitude toward drugs and addiction…parts of the system are broken. I once met a man who has three sons, all serving 25 to life for nonviolent offenses solely related to drug possession. Broken, clearly.

But turning the article into a condemnation of all the work that’s been done–and simplifying its premise into an entire re-interpretation of addiction in general–is a mistake. It ignores the work so many professionals are doing, and the caring they put into it, and the positive changes they have made in the last decades. And it ignores the work those in recovery do for themselves.

Let’s look at just one addict out of so many I’ve seen. One day I watched this man celebrate one year clean, congratulated by his recovery friends. He was a big guy who’d had a rough life. He’d done time, had the prison tats and such. After about a month of treatment, he’d thrown himself into his local fellowship and managed to stay clean by spending a lot of time working a program.

His life’s still rough. Nobody’s fixed the cultural and economic problems that set him up to start using, or made life without using suck. You might think the chances of him staying clean forever are slim…and, statistically speaking, you might be right. But think about this, even if there’s good reason to be cynical about his long-term chances.

Think about what this year might have meant to his family. For a year, his children lived in less fear. Because he could hold a job, they had better food and clothes. Maybe they didn’t witness violence, or see the police come to their house. Maybe he, or their mother, was able to give them some attention that wasn’t divided by the drama of addiction-related chaos.

Think about what this year meant to you, as a member of his community.
For a year, this man wasn’t breaking into your house and taking your things. For a year, you weren’t in danger of being terrorized at gunpoint by him. There was one less driver under the influence sharing the road with you and your children. Your tax dollars weren’t paying to feed and supervise him in custody, or pump his stomach in the ER, or cover the costs of his court proceedings.

It matters, goddamn it. As imperfect as it is, it matters, and so do the other chunks of recovery other addicts are managing. Take the new perspectives emerging about addiction and incorporate them into a balanced view–but don’t sneer at those who are doing their best. Remember that few things about humans have only one explanation, or only one solution.

2 responses to “Never So Simple

  1. I missed that article. Interesting, I actually can feel the genetic propensity to alcoholism in me, that I could become an alcoholic. I grew up in an alcoholic family, so no doubt part of it is a learned response. But a very real part, a tangible part, is biological, and is no doubt related to my bipolar disorder and to my genetic makeup. I drink minimally, and must be vigilant, for it triggers mood cycling and craving for more.

  2. Thx for adding balance to the article, I admit that I didn’t question it until I read your response to it.

    However, I am not so sure that the article is disregarding the amount of work that the individual puts in to overcome addiction. There is no statement or interpretation of how hard it was for the rat to avoid the opiated water. As we don’t know what the rat is ‘thinking’ it could be that the rat was quite miserable and had to work at alternative exercises to avoid continued addiction. We simply will never know!

    The article also stated that 17.7% of smokers gave up using nicotine patches. That does suggest that the ‘chemical hook’ theory of addiction may need looking at in more detail.

    I agree that the author may have cherry-picked his studies and in that you raise a good point.

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