I grew up in a house with an alcoholic. From when I was born until age 10, my father was not drinking but things were still not good. Once he left, he went back to his old ways. He lost his job for driving intoxicated, lost all his money and did not show up for a family event again. He dropped twenty kilos of weight and died just over sixty years old with cancer unable to withstand treatment with a body that was not holding up.
It’s most likely this story that got me to stumble into the field of working with people struggling with addiction, from all sides. I work with those caught in the grasp of addiction and with the family members trying to help. Addiction rips families and people’s lives apart. But still, our common understanding of addiction is mostly diluted.
Our understanding of it starts with rat experiments. When given the choice of pure water or water laced with heroin or cocaine, rats will choose the drugs. They will continue taking the drugs, regardless of negative consequences, until they die. They will starve to death. Those who have experienced addiction first hand will know this all too well. This is what happened to my father. He had a curable cancer but had starved his body for his drink. When we do studies like these we see that rats cannot say no to the drugged water and that drugs are causing these rats to become addicted and they die. This unfortunately is wrong.
In the 1970’s (Yes, that long ago), a psychologist named Bruce Alexander thought differently. The rats in the previous study lived in cages. Alone. They did not have another rat to play with, they did not get to search for food or participate in any normal rat behaviours. So Bruce Alexander thought to build a large environment for rats. He made it as natural as possible. The walls of the enclosure were painted like an outdoor setting. He filled it with male and female rats and offered the same two drink bottles as before, one with drugs, one without. The rats curiously tried them both.
The rats that were living these happy lives did not consume the drugs. None of them became addicted. None of them died. To take the study further, professor Alexander took rats from their isolated cages where they had become regular drug users and placed them into the happier “Rat Park”. Surprisingly, despite having the choice to continue using or suffer withdrawals, the rats went back to pure water and a healthy life. The presence and availability of the laced water was not a motivator or cause of addiction. It was the cage.
So what does this mean for humans? In the 1990’s large organisations got together to study the effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences, also known as The ACE Study. This landmark research found that those who had suffered these adverse experiences were having effects lasting long into their adulthood. Think of these adverse experiences as a trauma. They include physical, sexual and emotional abuse, neglect, household substance abuse or mental illness, parental separation and divorce or a member of the family becoming incarcerated. Like the rats, these are people’s cages. For some, experiencing trauma changes our brain, affects our “feel good” systems and leads to changes in health.
Two-thirds of the thousands of people that participated in the study reported at least one adverse experience. However, more than half of those reported multiple traumas. The number of these experiences that someone went through was also predicting certain behaviours. Someone who had more than one of these adverse childhood experiences was seven times more likely to develop an addiction, twice as likely to be diagnosed with cancer and more likely to struggle with severe obesity, depression, promiscuity, heart or lung disease and have a shortened life span. More than six of these traumatic experiences increased the likelihood of attempted suicide 30-fold.
Let’s take this study and look at what is happening in Australia. Let’s look at the epidemics around us. There is an ice and drug epidemic. There is an obesity epidemic. Suicide is now the leading cause of death among our teenagers, not auto accidents which is second.
I posted on True North’s Facebook page yesterday about when we will see a mental health reform. It cannot be more needed than now. The problem is not the availability of ice or food as the rats and ACE study have shown. In the same way, the availability of a deck of cards does not make me any more likely to become a gambling addict.
The epidemic is not the drug. The epidemic is that today, we are seeing more and more people suffer and we are not picking them up. The stigma associated to mental health puts people in another cage. They are isolated and it is not helping. We are not collecting our wounded and traumatised colleagues.
If isolation and trauma can predict the onset of addiction, both for a rat and a person, then the answer is love and connection. This is the backbone of change. Connection. Although addictions push us away, we have to get closer. This will help us to understand the people we are trying to support and help them to heal.
During the Vietnam War many soldiers were using heroin on a daily basis. Many were addicted. However, when they came home 95% of those who used stopped and only a few went to rehab. The war was traumatising, anxiety-producing and an open invitation for addiction. Similar to the rats in the cage. But just like the rats that were moved to a better environment, the soldiers that were able to return home, to a safe and nurturing environment, began to heal.
Will Dobud MSW
True North Expeditions, Inc. provides adventure therapy programs and services for children and teenagers in Australia. Based in Adelaide, the TNE team writes about child and adolescent psychology, family dynamics and how adventure therapy programs can connect with struggling adolescents.