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What Do Addicts Really Need?

07/21/2015 12:25 EDT | Updated 07/21/2016 05:59 EDT
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Whenever I hear clients repeating themselves in our therapy sessions, I take notice.

Their repetition alerts me that something is really important to them. Sometimes they'll tell me the same story more than once, other times they will ask the same questions a few times. In other cases, they will repeat words -- especially when they are striving to let me know how they feel.

So when I began receiving emails this past week from both colleagues and clients containing the same link to the same TED talk about addiction, my curiosity was piqued.

This particular TED talk by Johann Hari has some fascinating implications. I had seen Hari on a recent episode of Real Time with Bill Maher, and I very much enjoyed his perspective. I had heard about the Rat Park experiments before that show and agreed that these warranted further study -- and I still feel that way. As a society, we definitely do have a way of shaming addicts and making them feel even worse about themselves -- which is rarely conducive to a positive, lasting recovery for most people struggling with addiction. Hari names that dynamic for us, letting us know that there is another way we can look at this vitally important issue.

The basic premise of Hari's talk is that addiction is not really about "chemical hooks," even though, as we all know, the brain is definitely affected by mind-altering substances. Rather, Hari states that it is the loneliness and alienation -- the lack of human connection -- that creates the need for addictive behaviours of any kind. He explains that when those connections to others are not present, many people go searching for that same type of bonding experience elsewhere -- and often find it in addiction, be it to alcohol, drugs, gambling, eating disorders, pornography, or any number of other potentially damaging activities that keep us from having to be present in our lives.

I believe Hari has a point -- and it would be a very good idea for our existing addiction treatment programs to address that further. When people are in active addiction, they often feel incredibly lonely and miserable in their lives -- they feel as if no one really loves or understands them -- and these beliefs (faulty or otherwise) frequently fuel the addiction to become worse. Often, when people struggling with addiction go to residential treatment or to 12-Step or other recovery programs and begin to meet other like-minded people, they develop the human connection they've been craving. Sometimes this is enough to keep the addict on the path of recovery -- but sometimes not.

Although I enjoyed Hari's TED talk, I took exception to his message to the loved ones of addicts that he spoke of at the end. Because, as he postulates, people engaging in addiction need more connection and less shaming, he suggests that their family and friends give them a particular message. In essence, this message -- in his opinion -- needs to be, "We're here for you no matter what. We love you unconditionally and we will sit with you whether you're high or drunk or whether you're not. We will never abandon you, but rather we will be here for you always, regardless of the circumstance you find yourself in."

With all due respect, I say no to that. I believe there is a line that needs to be drawn.

I have often said that I don't believe anyone chooses to become an addict. I know I didn't. But once we know we have a problem, we are then at choice about whether to remain in active addiction or to move into some kind of active recovery, whether we are also feeling isolated or not.

I remember the alienation and deep loneliness I felt when I was in the throes of active addiction. At that point, well over 40 years ago, no one told me I had a choice about how to deal with what I was doing to myself or how I was feeling. And even when I chose to begin my recovery 28 years ago, I was simply told I had a disease. My feelings of never belonging anywhere, of not feeling loved by my family as a child and later on by others in my life were not really addressed. I was told that I was "powerless over my addiction" -- and that choice was not actually something to consider. It took me a long time to realize that my ability to stay clean and sober for all these years without relapsing was indeed a choice I made, every day, one day at a time -- even at my lowest, loneliest points. Today I feel quite proud of that choice -- it has often not been an easy one to make.

In my opinion, it is not a loving act to allow addicts to get away with self-destructive behaviour. If someone in active addiction is consistently being rescued from the potentially negative and harmful consequences of his (or her) behaviour by his family, friends, teachers, bosses, or colleagues, then why should he ever change anything? If, no matter what they do -- including lying, stealing, manipulating, being verbally, physically or sexually abusive with others, punching holes in walls, getting high or drunk in the home of someone they're being allowed to stay in for free, etc. etc. -- they are told "It's ok, I will stay by you, I won't set any appropriate boundaries, I won't leave you, I'll just love you unconditionally," then what kind of incentive do they have to challenge themselves and begin to live healthier lives?

Personally and professionally, I do not see that as being loving toward the addicts and I don't see it as self-respectful toward the loved ones. In fact, I believe that too many loved ones are still reacting in these ways -- allowing addicts to act out in childish ways with no boundaries in sight. These friends and family members are not speaking their truth to the addicts for fear that it might send them out on another relapse. To further spread this message to loved ones -- to tell them via well-respected TED talks that yes, this is exactly what they should continue to do -- is tantamount to teaching them how to keep the addiction going, with little hope of it stopping.

I agree that we need to help the addicts we love bond with others, to develop lives that are rich and full without the use of addictive behaviours. And I believe that we, as loved ones, need to assist addicts to reach for that kind of life through appropriate, healthy, and logical consequences. If nothing changes, nothing changes -- if we always do what we've always done, we'll always get what we've always gotten.

Yes, let's definitely stop shaming the addicts we care for so deeply -- but let's find ways to do that while also holding them accountable for their own choices and reactions.

Let's love our addicts enough to do the right things to help them, rather than continuing our own 'comfortable' behaviours that only serve to enable them.

If you would like to listen to Johann Hari's TED talk, here is the link.

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