Maybe you are noticing that you don’t like the way you use anymore. Maybe it’s begun to affect your work, your social life, or your relationships.
But what if you don’t want to quit?
You’re not alone. In fact, only 1 in 10 people dealing with addiction receive treatment. And of those who did not seek help, 25% say it’s because they are not ready to stop using.
Many people use drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism, so changing your relationship to these substances can be daunting. Often people begin to use because it gives them something that they need. Maybe it helps them push past social anxiety. Maybe it helps them relax after a stressful day at work. Or maybe it helps them forget a past trauma and sleep through the night.
Drugs can begin as a solution to a problem and end up as a problem of their own.
Are drugs and alcohol really the problem?
There’s been a long-standing story that drugs in and of themselves are the primary cause of addiction. The idea is that certain drugs have chemical hooks that causes anyone who takes them could be vulnerable to addiction.
In response, people try to treat addiction by attempting to eliminate drugs. On a societal level, the War on Drugs attempted to stop the spread of addiction by criminalizing their use. On an individual level, the dominant story is that the only way to stop addiction is to opt for sobriety.
Yet research has shown that this idea is just not true. Most of our understanding about drug addictiveness comes from studies on rats, in which they were able to consume heroin on demand by the press of a lever.
Professor Bruce K. Alexander wondered if the isolated cages of the rats played a role in influencing the results. He wondered how the outcome would change if rats were placed in a social and fulfilling environment instead. He spearheaded his own study, known as “Rat Park,” where they tested rat consumption in a kind of rat paradise:
“[M]y colleagues and I re-examined some simplistic rat research, which was based on a contrivance that allowed rats to inject a jolt of heroin by pressing a lever on the wall. Under certain experimental parameters, these rats would dope themselves silly, not even taking time out to eat...
But these rats, a highly gregarious species, were isolated for life and tethered with rubber tubing that catheterised their jugular veins. Such extreme isolation and discomfort might well make euphoriants irresistible. We tested this possibility by building Rat Park, where rats could enjoy the company of their fellows, raise their pups and run around freely.
We gave them unlimited access to morphine and control rats, kept in isolation, were also given free access to morphine. The isolated rats consumed lots of morphine, while the rats in Rat Park took relatively little.”
Alexander’s experiment raised an important point. To understand addiction, rather than focus on the drugs, maybe it’s more important to focus on the cage you live in.
In fact, only 10 to 20% of people who try even the most stigmatized drugs like heroin, crack, and methamphetamine become addicted. And the majority of people who do become addicted to less stigmatized drugs like cocaine, alcohol, and cannabis cease their addictions before they are in their mid-30’s and most do so without treatment entirely.
Addiction, therefore is not just a person being taken over by a bad substance, but “a response to complex individual, social, and cultural factors, including trauma, isolation, and societal pressures.”
What does that mean for me?
If addiction is a complex response to a variety of factors, the best way to curb that addiction may be to first unpack exactly what those factors are. What drives the behaviors that you find problematic in your life? And what other possibilities exist for different ways of being?
Now, we’re not saying that quitting is a bad idea. Abstinence may be a the best solution for you if drugs and alcohol are extremely triggering or repeatedly stand in the way of what you desire.
However, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to addiction, just as there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to anxiety or depression.
Recovery shouldn't be exclusively defined by sobriety. Recovery is starting to walk down the pathway to change, no matter where you start or where you end up.
Whether you choose sobriety, moderation, or some other relationship with substances, the important thing is to get the support you need.
It’s a rough journey and requires huge risk-taking, but you have the ability to choose what a new life looks like for you.
Alexander, Bruce K., M.D. "It's time to exorcise the idea that addicts are possessed by demons," The Telegraph, April 11, 2006.
Alexander, Bruce K., M.D. The Globalization of Addiction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), “The NHSDUH Report: Substance Use and Mental Health Estimates from the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Overview of Findings,” accessed May 2, 2018.
Szalavitz, M. “Genetics: No More Addictive Personality,” Nature 522, no. 7577, June 24, 2015.