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Connection is the Medicine for Addiction

-Guest blog by -Shelly Young

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Johann Hari is famous for his work in the field of addiction. His most famous quote is “Connection is the opposite of addiction.” His book Chasing the Scream and 2015 Ted Talk 

were revelational for many including myself and helped open up a bigger conversation, a bigger story around what the ideal conditions for wellness are and by creating the ideal conditions for wellness, substance use would decrease organically. 

I feel connection is the medicine for addiction rather than the opposite of addiction but either way, human beings require connection to survive. 

What are the ideal physiological conditions for connection? 

  1. A regulated nervous system
  2. A felt sense of safety

When our body’s nervous system is regulated, (relaxed, calm) our nervous system sends a message to the body’s around us that we are safe to connect with and that we are open to connecting. The bonding chemical oxytocin is released in the brain which moves your brain out of the primitive survival mode and into the social engagement mode.

When your body feels safe, safety is reflected outward through body language, the tone of your voice and in your eyes which signals ease to others. Sharing the sense of safety which creates a felt sense of ease is co-regulation. You can help others feels at ease in your presence by practicing regulating your own nervous system, the ideal conditions for connection. 

Your presence, your ability to connect and co-regulate is powerful healing medicine for your loved ones. 

What if you’re feeling dysregulated? Seek out people or animals who can breathe with you, hold your hand, provide comfort until you have the felt sense of safety in your body again. Keep practicing. It’s worth it. 

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Rat Park

If I could go back to those days when my kids filled my house with muddy shoes and red punch stains around their lips- I mean pure cranberry juice without sugar, of course- as any good Mom would buy- I would relish in the mess this time. I promise. I would take all those old Tony Robbins tapes and replay them over and over.

His theory is that every decision, every action, is dependant on what ‘state’ a person is in. State of mind, state of body- how we feel at any given moment has proven to be paramount in my search for addiction ’causes’.

As my Papa would always say “I wish I could do it all over again knowing what I know now.” I used to think that was such an old thing to say.

Well, now I’m old.

But if I could do a time travel- even for a day-I would pull my kids close to and whisper to them how many times they are going to feel confused and uncomfortable; and how it’s ok to feel out of sorts, that they can be in those moments and survive without having to change it or distract from it or bury their feelings.

As I described in this blog post when my son was spared a horrible accident as a toddler; this time-travel, I would tell him how strong and valiant he is. I would look in their little shining eyes and say “No matter what- you’ll be ok. The pain won’t last. You can work through it.”

Of course, I may have said these things to them, but I think I may have also done a lot of the opposite. “What do you need to feel better right now?” Eeek!!! Distraction, suppression, external validation. Anything to avoid the current state of fit throwing, or anger or sadness. Parenting advice changes every few decades so I only take partial blame if this happened.

When I set out on this journey in 2018 of wondering why this epidemic is happening and why in God’s name- as my Mama used to say- it had chosen MY family to implant itself on; I had no idea the answers would be so elusive, yet so vast in nature.

Everyone is just trying to feel ok at any given moment. That moment then turns into a lifetime of addiction because of what brain changes occur. I tire of the argument of whether it’s a disease or choice because as I’ve stated in many posts– how does that change how we treat it (or them?)

Pam Jones Lanhart, a recovery advocate, parent coach and Arise interventionalist, states it so well:

“The science and evidence based research shows that addiction is a reward and response. I think “pain” is a broad word but there is now doubt that people start using because the drink or drug does something for them. “When I drink this drink, I feel less anxious.” Or “when I use this pill all of my emotional pain goes away and it feels like a warm, comforting blanket.” The word pain is relative. But pain could mean the pain of feeling left out. The pain of a family divorce. The pain of a label such as adhd and being made fun of. Pain doesn’t necessarily mean big T trauma. But it does mean that the substance is the solution for the negative emotions that they are experiencing.

So of course, we all make a choice to use or not use. Everyone does it. So we live in a culture where substance use is social glamorized and yet when someone gets ill from it, we demonize and shame them.

NO ONE and I mean NO ONE chooses addiction. Not one person who took a drink or a toke off of a bud expected to become addiction. That’s a ridiculous notion and not informed by any data or science. “When I used I was rewarded with a really good feeling. So I used again.” And eventually the neuropathways of the brain are reprogrammed and THEN in spite of all of the negative consequences and the fact that the using is no longer working for them, they can’t stop. That is the definition of addiction. Continued use in spite of negative consequences.

No one expects this. It sneaks up on them and before they know it they are addiction.

That being said, today 7,000 people will choose recovery. 7,000!

And yes, it has EVERYTHING to do with pain. We all have pain. When I drink a glass of wine I feel free. The pain of my life dissipates. Let’s face it. If substances didn’t make us feel better on some level, none of us would use them.

So using is a choice.
Addiction is NOT a choice
Recovery is a choice."- Pam Jones Lanhart

As I have explored the CHOICES and CAUSES of my son’s addiction, I keep coming back to the connection theory of Johanna Hari. Even if we never know someone’s true reason for starting (and maybe they don’t and won’t ever know either) we can still get a picture of the importance of a person”s ‘state’.

“Get a rat and put it in a cage and give it two water bottles. One is just water, and one is water laced with either heroin or cocaine. If you do that, the rat will almost always prefer the drugged water and almost always kill itself very quickly, right, within a couple of weeks. So there you go. It’s our theory of addiction.

Bruce comes along in the ’70s and said, “Well, hang on a minute. We’re putting the rat in an empty cage. It’s got nothing to do. Let’s try this a little bit differently.” So Bruce built Rat Park, and Rat Park is like heaven for rats. Everything your rat about town could want, it’s got in Rat Park. It’s got lovely food. It’s got sex. It’s got loads of other rats to be friends with. It’s got loads of colored balls. Everything your rat could want. And they’ve got both the water bottles. They’ve got the drugged water and the normal water. But here’s the fascinating thing. In Rat Park, they don’t like the drugged water. They hardly use any of it. None of them ever overdose. None of them ever use in a way that looks like compulsion or addiction. There’s a really interesting human example I’ll tell you about in a minute, but what Bruce says shows that both the right-wing and left-wing theories of addiction are wrong. So the right-wing theory is it’s a moral failing, you’re a hedonist, you party too hard. The left-wing theory is it takes you over, your brain is hijacked. Bruce says it’s not your morality, it’s not your brain; it’s your cage. Addiction is largely an adaptation to your environment.

We’ve created a society where significant numbers of our fellow citizens cannot bear to be present in their lives without being drugged, right? We’ve created a hyperconsumerist, hyperindividualist, isolated world that is, for a lot of people, much more like that first cage than it is like the bonded, connected cages that we need.

The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection. And our whole society, the engine of our society, is geared towards making us connect with things not people. If you are not a good consumer capitalist citizen, if you’re spending your time bonding with the people around you and not buying stuff—in fact, we are trained from a very young age to focus our hopes and our dreams and our ambitions on things we can buy and consume. And drug addiction is really a subset of that."
~ Johann Hari

This came up on my memories today. I’m unsure who to give credit to. It says what I feel in my heart, even though I know it is sometimes difficult to do.

The key to supporting people living with addiction in reaching their full potential is the exact opposite of “letting them hit rock bottom.” It is instead to move the bottom of that pyramid of human needs up so that the 
needs which are known to bring people closer to reaching their full potential are being met.
( Such as feeling loved, worth saving, forgiveness)

It means to foster social connectedness rather than to force isolation.... Wich leads to shame depression and death😭
It means to practice acceptance rather than intolerance.
It means to fan self-worth rather than to fuel shame.
It means to love rather than to disdain.
Mostly it means to never having last regrets for others...I can't imagine being on the brink of death knowing that you are a complete disappointment to everyone.