Ideas that add up #139

This gives us an insight that goes much deeper than the need to understand addicts. Professor Peter Cohen argues that human beings have a deep need to bond and form connections. It’s how we get our satisfaction. 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.

So the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It is human connection.

Johann Hari blogging on his book Chasing The Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs

Resonates, doesn’t it? Anyone you know who’s addicted, there’s likely a hole in their life, a craving for something that’s missing. The fatty food, the fags, the wine and whisky, the compulsive gambling…these are stand-ins but they can’t fill the hole.

Hari cites research showing that lab rats, formerly observed to voluntarily OD on cocaine once forcibly hooked — only in fact do so if isolated in a cage with no other stimulation. Give the addicted rat some furry company and a fully-equipped rodent multiplex, it’ll soon shun the drug-infused water bottle, shake off the symptoms of cold turkey, and get on with it. Similarly in the human realm: the example of the many heroin-addicted GIs back from Vietnam who ceased to be heroin-addicted; the long-stay hospital patients issued morphine for pain relief who generally return to morphine-free lives at home.

So there is a chemical hook, for chemical addictions, but that’s not the whole story. Addiction also comprises elements of environment, and people associated with that environment. There’s the adrenaline rush for risky behaviour. There’s simple force of habit. And there’s physical habituation too — expecting and needing that jolt of dopamine and compensating for diminishing returns by upping the dose. But the common underlying factor, says Hari, is disconnection.

However, I’m going to take a punt here. Suppose that the human connection we crave is itself a stand-in. That the thing the hungry soul seeks is its own wild, free, animal self. And that some of us, and that includes the addicts, miss it more than others.

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