By Dawn Percher
Gabor Maté has said repeatedly that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety, but connection (2010). In my work with people over the past 12 years struggling with alcoholism, drug addiction, and process addictions, such as gambling, pornography, food, etc., I have seen disconnection from self, others, and the world around them play into the perpetuation of unhealthy coping methods again and again. Our healing work together has often been centered on reconnecting to the lost and broken pieces of themselves – with sustainable sobriety as a by-product.
Everything that we think we know to be true about drugs and addiction comes from scientific experiments in the 60’s and 70’s, when the lab rat was our most favoured means of understanding human behaviour. Scientists would induce physical dependence on morphine, heroin, and cocaine in individually caged rats, and then provide them with access to both food and drugs through the pressing of a lever. Inevitably, the rats would press the lever for the drugs, ignoring food or water, until they became quite ill and/or overdosed and died. The logical conclusion from these studies was that if humans are exposed to hard drugs, they will use compulsively and suffer terribly for it. The truth of this conclusion was apparently borne out in our highly visible addicted homeless populations all over North America. Following this logic, we adopted prevention strategies that encouraged people to say no to drugs and avoid people who use them. Those who chose to ignore the warnings and became addicted were seen as individually flawed and weak-willed, and we adopted treatment strategies that were individually focussed.
In 1977, Dr. Bruce Alexander of SFU considered the inherent flaw in this research model. Rats, like humans, are social creatures. The isolated rat in a cage was an artificial construction. In fact, throughout human history, the most severe punishment humans inflict on other humans is not physical abuse but exile – banishment, ostracism, solitary confinement. The rats in cages may have been using the proffered drugs compulsively because it was the only source of comfort they had in their misery.
To test this theory, Dr. Alexander created a rat park – a space where the rats could nest, burrow, play, mate, raise their young, and interact with other rats. He then induced physical dependency on morphine, heroin, and cocaine, and provided the rats with access to those drugs using a simple lever press. The rats in the rat park refused to use the drugs. The control group of rats in isolated cages followed the same pattern as all the other experiments – they used the drugs compulsively and suffered.
Alexander developed a theory of dislocation to account for the differences. Essentially, humans require psychosocial integration for well-being – that is, we need to experience a sense of belonging and fit with others and with our environment in order to be well psychologically. In the absence of psychosocial integration, people develop a sense of dislocation – a lack of knowing oneself, who they are and where they belong in the world. This creates a feeling of isolation that can be temporarily soothed by activities such as drunkenness, impairment through drug use, checking out through gambling or compulsive shopping or eating, or disconnecting from the self through video games or internet use.
One of the ways in which we come to know ourselves, and to define our own identities, is through the connections that we have with others. I know myself as a mother because of my connection to my children. I know myself as a wife because of my connection to my husband. I know myself as a counsellor because of my connection to my clients. If those connections were broken or severed – if I lost my husband or did not see clients – my sense of myself in those roles would necessarily be shifted for a time. When our connections are called into question, we are untethered during the adjustment. We can come back to a sense of belonging, a sense of knowing ourselves, by intentionally connecting with the people in our lives and the things that we have always done that help us to know who we are.
I encourage clients to be intentional about connecting to their family members, friends, coworkers, and neighbours. Connect to themselves through the things they do. For example, I know myself as a long-distance runner, as a hiker, as a dog mom, and as a musician. I encourage my clients to connect to the world around them by being intentionally present with the elements of the earth – wind, water, earth, and fire. Feel the wind on your face when you are outside. Breathe. Be present with water when you wash dishes or walk through the rain – let it touch you. Stand in the grass with no shoes on. Garden, grow things, get dirty. Connect with fire at sunrise and sunset, sit by a campfire, or light a candle. Or connect to the fire inside you by being creative. Find yourself, and experience that sense of belonging. And have a look at the life you are creating for yourself and your ways of isolating versus connecting. Is this your cage, or your park?