The Cause of Addiction?

I’ve been reading Johann Hari’s article, The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered, and It Is Not What You Think, which the Huffington Post published last week. I’ve seen many references to the article on the internet, so it’s evidently spread quickly and been read by many. It’s basically an excellent essay. Flawed, mostly by ommission, but indubitably worth reading.

I disagree with Hari’s premise that addiction is caused by loss of connected’ness in society. There is too much evidence that genetics, early childhood trauma, brain physiology and chemistry, and other factors play significant roles in causing addiction. Unfortunately, we’ve not yet determined the exact cause, or combination of causes, that lead a young person to experiment with drugs and become hooked – while his peers (many with seemingly identical propensity to addiction) pass through experimentation unscathed. Insomuch as identifying a real cause for addiction is concerned Hari’s premise, at best, is merely another possibility we must add to the investigation.

However, I strongly agree that loss of connected’ness makes addiction worse; and I agree that our war on drugs contributes to our collective understanding that addiction is fundamentally a moral problem. It’s not. The reality, though, is that even long-recovered addicts – along with even the very best-intentioned of our helping professionals – harbor deep-seated beliefs about addiction that are moral in nature. This is not new. Since humans first discovered mind-altering chemicals (namely alcohol) the disease of addiction has been morally stigmatized.

The war on drugs, obviously, has worsened the dillemma by forcing addicts underground to a place where isolation from others only intensifies the terror, bewilderment, frustration and despair which become components of the downward spiral of active addiction. As Hari points out, stigmatization and ostracization are the exact opposite of what addicts most need if they are to recover.

I would argue, though, that loss of connected’ness is a serious and worsening problem for all of us – a problem we simply see more readily in the blank gaze of the addict. We’ve become a nation of hermits. I wholeheartedly agree with Hari’s statement that, “the rise of addiction is a symptom of a deeper sickness in the way we live — constantly directing our gaze towards the next shiny object we should buy, rather than the human beings all around us.” We don’t need to limit our discussion of addiction, though, to drug-addiction, alcoholism, or the other better-known “addictions”. I’ve seen obsession with money, property and prestige destroy countless families and lives; yet our systems of government, education and media reinforce these addictions to such an extent we all suffer to some degree and, for the most part, we think it’s alright. We might even call it “the American Dream”, or conclude that it really is “what it’s all about.”

For the longest time I tried to live in smaller spaces, in multi-family housing, because I knew the psychic dangers of isolation and materialism; and because I felt, rightly or wrongly, there were other things in life that simply were more important.

But, even then, it was an uphill battle.

Even in complexes of tiny apartments where we see and hear our neighbors constantly, few people actually know their neighbors. I routinely tried to connect with neighbors, to at least know the names and phone numbers of the people living so close at hand; but I was clearly an exception and considered an oddball by many!

This phenomenon of hermitage only seems to worsen when we look at life in suburban neighborhoods. People live in homes for sometimes 10-20 years without ever knowing their neighbors. More times than not an ambulance shows up next door, we stand on the driveway and watch, but we’re clueless what really happened – and then we choose to remain clueless. Even in moments of enormous need, we find justification for not knowing or caring.

It’s a matter of priorities, I suppose; but it’s difficult to prioritize togetherness and caring for our neighbors when our social imprinting tells us that rent, the car payment, electricity, and our credit report are all more important than deep meaningful relationships with those around us.

It’s certainly worth pointing out, too, that Hari has stumbled onto a phenomenon that’s been well-known since the inception of Alcoholics Anonymous and the blossoming of 12-step recovery programs for numerous types of addiction. At least two thirds of successful recovery in these programs consists of connecting with others. Many would argue that almost none of the recovery process is a DIY proposition. Even the few steps that might be construed as “an inside job” cease to be effective if taken out of the context of connection, relationships, altruism, and deep human caring.

M. Scott Peck, author of “The Road Less Travelled”, spotted the enormous value to all of us, of what came into the world with the birth of Alcoholics Anonymous, when he wrote, “the greatest positive event of the twentieth century occurred in Akron, Ohio. . . when Bill W. and Dr. Bob convened the first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. It was not only the beginning of the self-help movement and the beginning of the integration of science and spirituality at a grass-roots level, but also the beginning of the community movement. . which is going to be the salvation not only of alcoholics and addicts but of us all.”

Hmm. The greatest positive event of the twentieth century.

To loosely paraphrase the AA tradition, we must hang together and work together. Otherwise, most of us will die alone. In the case of alcoholism or addiction it’s a form of death whose loneliness, bitterness, despair and sheer ugliness are unrivaled by any other death.

The symptoms of this psychic sickness which leads to annhilation of the alcoholic or addict, though, are symptoms we all share. Isolation and slavery to independence are evident in almost everything we experience, and they cause the longterm wholesale destruction of unity, togetherness, and deep commitments at every level to “be my brother’s keeper”.

To circle back, Hari’s article makes what might be it’s most significant point virtually by omission: that understanding causal relationships is relatively unimportant to solving some of society’s worst problems.  Understanding why the war on drugs causes more than 20,000 unsolved murders every year in Mexico is far less important than simply stopping the war and ending the carnage.  The importance of finding a cause of addiction pales in the light of knowing we have sure-fire solutions for addiction.  If anything, we need to reduce or abandon our quests for causes and begin applying known solutions to our world’s greater difficulties.