Research suggests that addiction has its roots in an inability to connect with others. Evidence shows that the opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety, but human connection. If that seems just too simple — or perhaps too vague — consider that one way or another, we have known this about addiction in all its forms, for a very long time.
In 1935, the authors of the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, which sets out the Twelve Step recovery program, stated that they believed selfishness and self-centredness to be “the root of our problem.” They were certainly onto something about the terrible isolation of the alcoholic, and his or her inability to relate properly to other people and to the world.
Which person who has lived with addiction hasn’t heard over and over from peers that they felt ‘different’ as children, as though perpetually on the outside looking in? That no matter the external circumstances, they did not know how to interact properly with others, and had a sense of being ‘wrong’ or strange? This type of story is pervasive in the 12-step community, suggesting that many of us suffer from more than just a mental obsession and a physical ‘allergy’ to certain substances; the addiction may be actually replacing human connection, and all the benefits that healthy relationships with other people bring.
Evidence Suggests the Opposite of Addiction is Human Connection
In his famous TED Talk about the relationship between addiction and isolation, British journalist Johann Hari discusses the Rat Park experiments which demonstrated that rats, social creatures much like ourselves in their need for stimulation and interaction, would forego heroin — even heroin they had already become addicted to — in favour of healthy, stimulating and connected relationships with other rats and with a nurturing environment. Now, human beings aren’t rats; but we do share the need for society. And earlier research into how trust and attachment forms in humans seems to bear this out: children who experience trust and connection in infancy and early childhood really do end up better adjusted and emotionally healthier later on, whereas those who did not receive secure attachment in childhood struggle with connection — and have a propensity toward addiction.
The theory that addiction, whether it’s to the needle or to the iPad, has some kind of correlation with social isolation, insecurity and an inability to connect, would certainly help explain why it affects such a relatively small percentage of the population — and perhaps points to why addictions like the Internet are becoming increasingly pervasive, as people disconnect from each other and engage more with devices.
How to Stay Connected in Recovery
Whatever your beliefs on the origins of addiction, it’s undeniable that having a supportive, empathetic community is conducive to solid recovery. We simply need others around us who we can relate to. Some will be fellow recovering addicts, who have come from their own individual isolation into a community dedicated to healing. Others may be co-workers, mentors, fellow students, anyone we learn to trust and rely on for companionship and community. We need to share our experiences with others, and avoid the old patterns and behaviours.
Here are three tips for staying connected in addiction treatment and recovery:
- Reach Out to an Old Support. How long has it been since you dropped your first counsellor a note to say how you were doing? How about the woman at detox who practically saved your life those first few days? Or the first AA speaker you ever heard, who seemed to be telling your story? Staying in touch helps us stay connected.
- Be of Service. It doesn’t have to be in the 12-step rooms, although that’s a great place to start; serving others out of a genuine desire to be helpful will increase your sense of connectedness, no matter where in the community you decide to serve.
- Find a Healthy Hobby. Joining a bridge club or a knitting circle or taking riding lessons or learning tai chi will automatically throw you in with a group of like-minded people with whom you can form new — and hopefully lasting — connections.