A New Look at an Old Foe — Addiction

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Image Source: bbc

Image Source: bbc

It has now been over a hundred years since drugs were first banned. After a long century of waging a war on drugs, we have seen and heard the same stories about addiction the leaders in our lives. In fact, the story may be so deeply ingrained in our minds that we take it for granted. It’s nearly part of our subconscious – we forget that it’s there. It seems so obvious – so manifestly true. But as we know, with most scientific fields, they keep being expanded and further explored. Each new discovery yields previously undisclosed information that may contradict or support previous studies. And so the science begins to look more like and art than anything else.

In the end, we typically find that between the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual contributions to any condition, that we usually have much more power than we think to alter a situation. A lot of remedies come from changes in our thought patterns, heart fixations, physical in gestations and even personal beliefs. So while the headlines may continue to speak of a war on drugs, what we often find is that the war is really to change ourselves – and our lifestyle.

I am sure that with the plethora of media containing the sad stories of lives destroyed by drugs – whether it’s Johnny Cash’s story in Walk the Line or Leonardo DiCaprio’s depiction of Jim Carroll in The Basketball Diaries – there are countless others who we may also have known personally who have struggled with addiction. Further, “addiction” covers any thought pattern or behavior in which one feels they have no escape – they cannot say “no” to it. I mention this so as to ensure that the topic of drug addictions are not the only types of addictions that exist or that have ultimately lethal consequences.

So we are all familiar with lives who have suffered – some by choice and others by chance – in the prison of their own decisions. It seems they, in their minds, could not decide anything else. It was as if they could not stop – why is that? There are a myriad of reasons as to why. An interesting study was conducted recently that may shed more light on the topic – something to give us all something to think about – whether we have addictions in our lives or know of those who do.

The fact is that, when we peel back the curtain on all lives – we find a common denominator. We all have, and rightfully so, expectations, needs, hopes and dreams. When any of these are not met – needs especially – we experience pain. We each may process that pain differently anywhere from one, not even recognizing they are in pain to a complete meltdown and everything in between. Whether physical, mental or emotional pain, it is common for one, that is to say, natural, for one to make the pain stop. If one cannot determine the root cause – for example, locate the light switch to turn off the lights – then we look for the nearest hood to put over our heads. In other words, we look for something to try to take the pain away – to dull it. This needs no explanation in the medical world. It is unthinkable in western medicine nowadays to conduct surgery without anesthesia and heal up with morphine. To not have those available is something we consider in situations 100+ years ago or in wartime overseas on a front line somewhere. We would never entertain the idea of conducting a medical procedure on purpose without drugs. It seems inhumane. And so when we take another look that people are in pain without having a medical procedure, it also makes sense that they look for whatever they can get their hands on to make the pain go away. And when the drug or “medication” wears off and the pain is still there – what does one do? Take the drug again.

The broader picture here is that people are in pain – their needs are not being met or they were hurt by someone or have not recovered from a painful even and are still carrying that terrible moment with them – yes, even 40 years later.

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Having an addiction feels like there is a ferocious craving – you can’t stop thinking about taking it or doing whatever placates the pain. You go to sleep thinking about it and it is your first thought in the morning. There may be certain times of day where the craving is stronger than others. You will curb any other activities to get that fix – no matter what. It is as if you are committed to it and it is “committed” to you. Albeit, there is no commitment – but internally, for the person, there absolutely is. The thing/activity/person that is providing the “fix” (the word “person” is used in the case that one is a sex addict, and only, person “gets it done” for the addicted person), does not have a commitment or a care for the other. The need is one-sided and super strong. Internally, to the addicted person, there is typically a “voice” that is sometimes their own that becomes very loud regarding the need for the fix.

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Sometimes, for those who may have multiple mental issues, this may be why we see addicted folks “talking to no one” – it is this voice or sometimes voices that one now converses without loud (especially if they are external processors, meaning they process their thoughts out loud) and appear to be speaking with or to someone who is actually not in front of them. In their minds, it is so real. It starts small and grows. After a while, they likely don’t know that this voice is even driving them to do what they are doing. They don’t know how to separate what they can no longer see is not normal behavior. This can happen with simply one addiction – and if there are multiple, there can be multiple “voices” that really complicate things.

The good news is that this is all fixable, by the way – it’s just good to get a healthy snapshot of what is happening so people can really come alongside them to find out what the root cause of the pain is and find a way to remove that and so then the addiction’s power over them can more easily be broken. But the first step is seeking understanding and developing compassion for these folks who appear to be hopelessly trapped. So now let’s take a look at how to put hope into the situation…

There have been multiple scientific studies over the years that offer insights into addiction and how to understand how one gets into it as well as how one gets out of it.

Here’s a brief recap on studies using rats:

One study in the 80s was conducted with a single rat alone in a cage with two water bottles. One bottle had pure water and the other was laced with a drug like heroin or cocaine. Each time the rat repeatedly chose the laced bottle over the pure one and died. Essentially, it killed itself. The conclusion was that the drug was so addictive that what happened to the rat would happen to a person. An advertising campaign was launched based on this notion.
Later, the experiment was altered. What if the rat were not alone? What if the rat were “living a happy life”? Would it still then choose the drug? And so multiple rats were put together in a “happy rat park” with lots of food and toys – everything we know rates like. The rats ended up trying both bottles as they didn’t know what was in them – but ended up not choosing the laced bottle and none perished.
Conclusion: Rats left alone and unhappy became heavy users; happy rats in the community did not use nearly at all.
Great, you think – so those were rats. Human beings are far more complicated. We have studies on that too… the controlled environment is called the Vietnam War.

Time magazine had reported that heroin use was “as common as chewing gum” among U.S. soldiers. It was noted that about 20% of U.S. soldiers had become addicted to heroin while overseas, per a study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry. Folks at home were understandably concerned as they then believed a significant number of addicts would be heading home after the war.

What was interesting was that, according to the same study, ~95% of those addicted ceased taking drugs when they returned home. Only very few went to rehab. Like the rats, when they were moved from a petrifying cage back to an enjoyable one, there was no further need for the drug.

One possible conclusive thought to these studies is the role of one’s environment can have quite an effect on one’s psyche and thus increase or decrease the perceived need to placate something painful.

The study on rats was taken a step further. After leaving rats in the isolated environment for 57 days where they heavily used drugs, they were then released in the happier Rat Park – would they continue using drugs? Had the drugs taken them over? Nope. After a few twitches of withdrawal, the rats ceased from using the drug even though the familiar, laced bottle of water was made available to them.

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While it may appear that their “cage saved them,” I’d offer that whatever it was that was causing pain – i.e., an unmet need or expectation was met in their environment. That being said, I wished there were further studies with the soldiers to get a better understanding of what their thoughts and feelings were before and after. I offer this because there are lots of people who have been transplanted from “less than glamorous” living conditions into nicer ones only to have the nice ones quickly worn right back down to the level of conditions from which they came. This is where the balance of the environment and the true needs/expectations inside still needs to be explored.

Some may want to conclude that there are no chemical hooks – all one needs to do is change the environment. I’d like to offer that changing the environment may be a part of the solution. Just like some humans love anchovies on their pizza while others abhor it, each person is an individual chemistry set, with different personalities, drivers, motivators, love languages, etc. We are not a “one size fits all” with clothing – and we certainly are not chemically, emotionally or mentally.

I’m sure we have all heard of stories where one simply decided to quit smoking “cold turkey” – and they were successful at it. Meanwhile, your other friend has struggled with it for years. A drug addict enters a church service and meets the Lord Jesus and is instantly delivered from his addiction – and was never bothered since. In the same service also sat someone who has been in the drug rehab program for several months and is making incremental steps. We are all different – there is no “one size fits all” quick fix for complicated things like addictions. I’d like to offer, as one who has recovered from multiple addictions at once in my life, that there are chemical hooks, spiritual hooks, mental hooks, emotional hooks and physical hooks in each of us. Those with addictive personalities – more prone to addictive behaviors – are more susceptible to habits whether positive or negative.

An addict’s environment contributes to one’s psychological state and the “drivers” or voices that compel one to keep on keepin’ on with the addiction(s). However, under it all is still one or several pains that are truly the driver for all of this. Without addressing the unmet need or cause of pain in one’s life, symptoms (the addictions) are likely to continue. For example, if the pain in one’s life had not been addressed – “my father fully rejected me” – then one might have been able to quit smoking “cold turkey” but may have also picked up drinking later on. This is very typical. The symptom was addressed – but the cause still remained untouched and festering. Another example is sexual addictions – this is sexually-related activities, whether that is sex by yourself (masturbation), sex with another person or multiple people or selling yourself for sex. Any of the above are addictive in their own right. Some will look and say there is a lust problem or there may have been abuse early on in one’s life. What the true cause could be is rejection within the home or an unhealthy view of fear in one’s life. This could cause a perpetual feeling of anxiety and loneliness. Together, a “fix” of sex creates a release of chemicals in the brain (endorphines) that make one feel happy. So from the outside, the addiction may look like one has a certain type of problem – but the reality can be that one is just feeling anxious or in need of comfort and they look for sex to fulfill that. And that doesn’t have to be an addiction, by the way. Folks looking for or willing to do one-night-stands are often in this bucket too. They are looking for intimacy or comfort – legitimate needs for a human being to have – but are looking for it in places that will only fulfill them for a short time. This means we’ll see them at the same bar again next week.

So if one believes that addictions are purely physical, chemical, emotional or mental issues, this is an invitation to revisit the thought. As we saw with the experiments and studies, one’s environment contributes. And as we saw with personal examples, unmet needs and expectations can cause pain that one legitimately wants to cease. No one likes to be in pain.

Sometimes our needs can be met in a healthy way through community. We also saw this occur with the rats. Those who surround themselves with folks they feel safe with and can be happy with often have happier lives. Safe, non-sexual physical touch needs can easily be met there. Open and honest relationships can create a safe environment where people can feel safe to be close – building intimacy with others. This intimacy is no comparison for sex. Sex is awesome and momentary but what one is really looking for is the safety and comfort that comes from a trusting relationship – this supersedes an orgasm in the long run. The encounter meets the need in the moment, but then goes away quickly – it is unsustainable.

Addicts live in a world that is like a prison except there are no visible bars. In some cases, they might not even know they are addicted. There is a voice (or two or more) inside them that compels them to continue behaviors that are not healthy. There isn’t “something wrong with them” – they are not animals to be gawked at or avoided. They are human beings in pain – just like we all are from time to time, but they cannot make the pain stop.

Another aspect of addiction is the idea of bonding. Whether bonding with another person or inanimate object – a bond can be formed that appears difficult to be broken. To the alcoholic, the clinking of the ice against glass just before the liquor is poured out has a certain ring to it. To the gambler, the whir of the roulette wheel or the crackle of dice and the slapping of cards. To the drug addict, the prick of the needle or the blub-blub-blub of whatever bowl is bubbling. There are sights, sounds, smells, feelings – a sensory overload that also helps to feed the sensation as well as the appetite for the “fix” that is medicating the current pain.

I am not addressing gambling or drinking of course as bad things – I’m just saying that through the lens of the life of an addict, things that may seem simple or no big deal carry a much more significant meaning and have a heavier effect.

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And so, between the physical aspects, the mental and emotional “reminders” that lure and try to keep addicts right where they are, it appears, once again, that there is no hope for the addict. The answer is not in a war on drugs or isolation or programs or medical treatment or communities or will power or decriminalization or an ultimate Rat Park. The answer is in all of those things combined. And just as one person likes lima beans and another hates them, each person is susceptible to one thing and the person next to them is unaffected. The one thing we can all share is compassion for those who are struggling and a heart to hear them out. There are roles for the addict to play in their recovery that only they can play. There are also roles for those around them to not enable. None of these things are cut-and-dry – there is no magic formula. Certain keys open certain locks. The best thing to do is to study the situation and try what keys make the most sense. Maintaining an open heart of love for an addict is not always easy. It forces us to examine the motives of our hearts, politics, laws and the environments we create for others. It also forces us to examine our own role in situations – am I enabling someone or am I really helping them? Knowing there is not a one-fix for the issue is the first step. Understanding the intricacies of the issue is the second step. The next steps are up to each of us – to keep seeking understanding, wisdom and to question what we have known in our traditions and cultures. Is a “war on drugs” necessary? Maybe. And now that we can have a healthier look at addiction and know that drugs is one of many things one can be addicted to – perhaps we can also learn more recovery methods from the other addiction types to apply to drugs.

The bottom line is that we are always still learning. Ruling things out is not a good idea on this topic. We still have so much to learn about the human body and how it works – the mind especially.

So, keep your eyes open for those around you who may be in need. We all deal with pain differently – or not at all for some. Addiction is a symptom of a larger problem – a broken heart, broken dreams, disappointment, etc. Learn to look past the symptom that offends your eyes or your ears and examine the heart. You will often be very surprised at what you may find.