Johann Hari and the cause of addiction

Here is an article that I want to talk about, but before you click over and read it, please be warned: I found this deeply, deeply triggering.   The author is effectively arguing that if you are happy and find community and happiness in your world, then you will no longer be an addict; that the root cause of addiction is loneliness, and once loneliness is removed, the addiction goes away.  If that’s not a perspective you feel like you can deal with today, don’t read it.  Otherwise, though, please do; it’s a fascinating article in its own right.  One of the things that really interests me is alternative approaches to drug and alcohol abuse, which legalises their use and concentrates on eradicating the pre-existing reasons why people abuse them.

The author, Johann Hari, has recently published a book about the American War on Drugs (‘Chasing the Scream’), from which this article comes, and a lot of his arguments are solid.  He’s a great investigative journalist.  In fact, his findings mirror a whole body of research done by, amongst others, Dr David Best, who has published widely on the findings that recovery is best achieved where the recovering addict has access to peer groups and a sense of community even when those are not specifically recovery focused.  That is, even joining a rowing club is more likely to bolster your recovery efforts than not doing so.

Hari talks about the fact that in the Vietnam War, up to 20% of American soldiers were using heroin.  Taken out of that environment and reunited with friends and family, most of them simply quit – as, of course, do the vast majority of people given medical heroin, or morphine, in hospital settings.    Also, rats.

Rat Park, a wonderland for heroin-addicted rats

Rat Park, a wonderland for heroin-addicted rats

So why then, at a time in my life when I am arguably the happiest I have ever been, did I read this article and feel a surge of hope that maybe I could drink normally?  If my addiction was caused by loneliness – and that rings partially true, in that it accelerated when I was an isolated new mother – surely I could moderate now?

But Hari isn’t talking about moderating.  He’s not relating experiments that allowed addicts to use their drug in a social fashion; he’s just saying that given enough support, community and other reasons to be happy, one stops being reliant on a drug.  Alcohol is the only drug about which we preserve this ridiculous illusion that the opposite of addiction is moderation.  Of course it isn’t.  I can get over an addiction, but I can’t drink.

Still, though.  My initial surge of hope tells me that my addiction is still there, waiting for me.  Because, really, there’s no reason for me to drink.  What is it that I’m hoping for, when I hope to be able to drink?

The same thing that drives the addiction to begin with.  Community.

party

Hari’s book may talk about this, I don’t know; his article doesn’t.  But he does say this;

If we can’t connect with each other, we will connect with anything we can find – the whirr of a roulette wheel or the prick of a syringe. He says we should stop talking about ‘addiction’ altogether, and instead call it ‘bonding’. A heroin addict has bonded with heroin because she couldn’t bond as fully with anything else.

Sure.  Probably.  But there’s something else.  The use of softer drugs, like alcohol and nicotine, have been sold to us explicitly as increasing our sense of community.  We haven’t turned to them because there’s nothing else; we have turned to them because they sell us the illusion that they will give us the friends that we want.  Happy shiny people clinking glasses in the sunlight; images of party crowds; romantic dates that create lifetime bonds.  Tobacco companies used to do the same thing, and then when they were banned from doing so, the smokers themselves banded together in solidarity.  Being a smoker became an identity, albeit a persecuted one.  A friend once said to me ‘I know I should give up smoking, but all the cool people at a party smoke, and I wouldn’t have an excuse to go outside with them anymore’.  I knew what she meant.

I have fulminated against alcohol marketing a few times on this blog, and every time I am misinterpreted as wanting to ban alcohol.  Let me be clear: I don’t want to ban alcohol.  I don’t want to ban any drug, in fact.  I am strongly in favour of decriminalisation.  Stop fighting a punitive war on addicts and start addressing root causes, and while you’re at it, how about funding some decent welfare programs and promoting equality and then let’s see who ends up under a bridge smoking crack.

web-bc-crack-pipes01nw1

My issue is with marketing, and this article – with which I pretty much agree – only strengthens that view.  If the opposite of addiction is human connection, then the attempt to sell human connection as a lure to buying a drug is all the more dangerous.  Marketing preys on the lonely and the unhappy and the isolated.  So does addiction.

When I miss drinking, what I miss is the shared experience of drinking.  Of course, in the end drinking became deeply isolating for me, because I was hugging secrets, and living with shame, and choosing to stay home and drink instead of go out and painfully moderate.  That, too, is part of the nature of addiction.  Like an abusive partner, it creates an environment in which it can flourish.  It robs you of friendship, family, community, so that all that is left in your life is the drug itself.

But twenty years of associating alcohol with community don’t go away just because my logical brain knows better.  It is lonely to be the only person sipping cola in a room of twenty drinkers.  It feels like a loss, sometimes, that I can’t share a bottle of wine with LH, a bottle that we bought together on our honeymoon and saved for a special occasion.

I don’t miss drinking.  I miss bonding.  I know it’s an illusion, and that my authentic self is better at making authentic connections with people.  But this, you see, is where my issue with alcohol marketing comes from.  It isn’t enough to tell people that they should drink responsibility, when most marketing campaigns are aimed squarely at the people who won’t, because they can’t.

But in the meantime, sober friends, go join a club.  Make a new friend.  Take up a hobby.  You are loveable and worthy and valuable in your own right.  We all are.

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11 thoughts on “Johann Hari and the cause of addiction

  1. I keep those these thoughts in mind when I miss the community of drinking: I am actually more social now because I am interested in activities that don’t involve alcohol, where I wasn’t before, and I was pretty anti-social when I had a few too many drinks, which was often. I learned in marketing classes that perception equals reality, so I work hard to perceive my alcohol-free life as a positive thing. Thanks for an interesting read!

  2. Thanks for posting this article! I was just about to! A very interesting read. I’ve been a fan of Gabor Mate, who he mentions in the article, for a while and he has a similar perspective.
    I also found it unsettling and confusing, because I feel like I’ve been surrounded by people by entire life so how could addiction happen to me? But I was reflecting on this today and I remembered that when my addiction really took hold (i.e. drinking alone every night) I was overseas working and very lonely and isolated. I also have a history of trauma and depression, so I think that I am more susceptible to addiction because of this. I also think that some of us are just quite sensitive, and even if we have been surrounded by people, we still might have felt very alone.
    And finally, thanks for offering up another perspective about the power of marketing. That definitely feeds the problem; the illusion.

  3. I’m sceptical about Johann Hari, given the storm a few years back about him (for anyone who doesn’t know, http://www.theguardian.com/media/2015/jan/02/johann-hari-interview-drugs-book-independent). The article gives food for thought, and I haven’t read the book, but not convinced it is that scientific or even telling us anything we didn’t know – as commentators have noted, finding a community has been an essential part of recovery from addiction for ages.

  4. PS. But I completely agree with you about marketing, Ali, and think you’ve hit on an important difference between how alcohol is perceived and how other drugs are.

  5. Hey Allie Great blog post and link article although Johann Hari has had a difficult time re-establishing his credibility. I completely agree about marketing and have been reading Ann Dowsett Johnson’s book. There is a chilling couple of lines in it that underline your point “If you want to get into people’s wallets, first you have to get into their lives” said by a chairman of an ad agency to Jean Kilbourne. Advertising and marketing needs to be tackled and fast because they perpetuate the myth of bonding to peddle their product which maintains and deepens the addiction.

  6. It is a fascinating article. The rat park experiment in particular. And yet, i do get what you mean about it feeling triggery, unsettling. I thought well, i got into trouble with drinking when my life got troubled, and now it’s not anymore. Yikes. An interesting read, but I’ll stick to my sober happy life.

  7. In the end I don’t miss that community at all. I was a fraud when in it since the drink caused me to continually change my persona to fit what twisted perception i had that moment as to what was the perfect projection of me those around me were desiring me to be and therefore who i wanted to be. Now sober I am just me and today that me chooses not to drink simply because i don’t like who it made me be before.

  8. Such a fascinating article and such a great post. I know EXACTLY what you mean. When I think about missing drinking it’s about missing the EXPERIENCE, the romance, the bonding with other humans, blah blah blah. It is DEFINITELY not about what happened to me when I drank or how far I took my own experience when I drank.

    It’s sad that I can’t experience that again but the joy of my sober life completely obliterates that sad.

    Sherry

  9. This is a very interesting article…I read it yesterday too. I think the key for me is that when I drink, I lose my human connection to myself! And therefore, to everyone else. Thanks for your thoughts.

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