22 May

Changing the Game for Drug Addicts

drugs for web

In January, we posted an article that briefly discussed a new book by Johann Hari about drug addiction. Today, Andre Van Eymeren, who worked for one of our member organisations ‘Partnering for Transformation’, writes a more in depth article based on Hari’s work.

What comes to mind when you think of drug addiction? Spaced out people, down and outers, alley ways littered with tags and needles, mental health issues, violence, the drain on society, people experiencing a lack of purpose and meaning, runaways. I guess for the most part the term conjures up fairly negative images and causes us to hold people suffering from drug addiction at arms length or further.

Some of the outcomes can of course be very scarey. People addicted to Ice for example can become violent at the slightest (perceived) provocation and the researchers are saying that the drug even begins to change brain chemistry. Currently they are not sure if this is reversible. All of this paints a pretty grim picture.

Enter into this dark landscape an article by Johann Hari, featured recently in  The Huffington Post. Based on the research for his book, Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, he “learned… that almost everything we have been told about addiction is wrong and there is a very different story waiting for us, if only we are ready to hear it.”

For Hari the journey has been a very personal one, beginning as a child trying to wake up a relative and not being able to. From that time he has mulled as I’m sure many of us have on what causes some people to become fixated on a drug or a behavior until they can’t stop? Learning from friends who have first hand experience, the pain of seeing a loved one battle with the ups and mostly downs of addiction and attempting to loose themselves from it and falling over and over again is excruciating. And in no way to blame them, for self-protection, eventually most family and friends remove themselves from the lives of the addicted person. Unfortunately this tends to have the effect of further cementing a lifestyle of addiction.

Hari writes, “if you had asked me what causes drug addiction at the start, I would have looked at you as if you were an idiot, and said: ‘Drugs. Duh’” As you would be aware drugs have a strong chemical hook and so if we were to take them for a period of time and suddenly stopped the belief is our body would crave them.  This theory was established through tests on rats, carried out in America. A rat placed in a cage on its own with two water bottles, one plain water, the other laced with heroin or cocaine. Time and time again the rat would become obsessed with the latter bottle till essentially it killed itself.

In the 1970’s some alternate experiments were run by, Vancouver Professor of Psychology, Bruce Alexander. He built what came to be known as Rat Park. This cage had coloured balls, the best rat food, tunnels and friends. And again the two bottles were set up. This time the results were significantly different. The rats residing at Rat Park mostly shunned the drug laced water bottle, consuming less than a quarter of the drugs the isolated rats used. None of them died. None of the rats living in the second happy environment became heavy users.

According to Hari and the studies he uses as evidence, returning soldiers from the Vietnam war provided a useful human equivalent. Many soldiers on deployment (20%) understandably used drugs to combat fear etc. When they returned 95% of that 20% simply stopped without the use rehab. What was different? Their environment. From being terrified everyday the soldiers returned to relatively pleasant home lives which left the need for the drug redundant.

Professor Alexander made a fascinating observation challenging the view that drugs are a moral failing as well as the more liberal opinion that addiction is a disease taking place in a chemically hijacked brain. He argues that addiction is an adaption. It’s got more to do with your environment than what is going on inside you. Of course your reactions to your environment may be another story. He re-ran the old experiments with the isolated rats, they became hooked, then he placed them in Rat Park and after a few twitches they got on with a happy life, addiction free, with no desire for the drug.

A further case for this theory of addiction is pain relief in hospital. For severe pain, patients effectively receive heroin at a much higher purity and potency than addicts on the street. After months of use hospital patients can simply stop. It virtually never happens that a patient then transfers their addiction to the street and they leave hospital trying to score on the way home. But the same drug wreaks havoc in the lives of users on the streets.

Hari points out, “…the drug is the same but the environment is different.” The hospital patient for the most part is going home to an environment where they are loved and cared for. The street user suffers continual isolation and rejection.

The issue then, according to Professor Peter Cohen, is not the drug but human bonding. We are created to bond to others, to form attachment, relationship. If these essentials go missing then we will bond with other things. For some this includes drugs of all sorts and others gambling and alternate addictive behaviours.

If we accept this theory of addiction then it is a huge challenge to the way we work with addicts. By in large the social services are not equipped to adapt to a relational approach to service delivery. Professionalisation of care and the perceived need for professional distance has meant in some cases a de-personalisation, particularly around people with complex needs, which are often compounded by drug addiction.

If we are to believe the points that Hari raises and take on board people’s need for bonding relationships, then as service providers the concern will not only be for the individual but for their network of relationships, their community if you like. Now many of these might be burnt but focusing on their relational web will be a starting point in the recovery process. Quite often people addicted to drugs will find themselves homeless and in boarding houses. How can housing providers work to ensure positive environments where relationships and attachments will form, which will negate the need for the drug. In Melbourne there are an increasing number of rooming houses that focus these concerns. Servants of Hawthorn and Magpie’s Nest are two examples.

This approach to working with people addicted to drugs also provides a window for churches, Rotary, Lions and other welfare minded community organisations. People with addictions often need new networks of relationships, opportunity to connect with people who will share life and journey with them. Obviously if there are family and friends left in the addict’s life who can provide these relationships in a positive environment that is a better option. But if these relationships have been burnt alternate connections are needed.

As humans we have an innate need to connect meaningfully with others, why then do we seem to have the propensity to deny this connection to people who it could be argued need it the most?

  • Jonathan

    Thank you Andre for this excellent post – really informative and helpful. It certainly opened my eyes to the issues around addiction.