For some time, the basic narrative in our society around addiction has been clear and simple. It goes something like this. Some substances are so dangerous to the human animal that once we start it is very difficult to quit, particularly for those people whose personality may predispose them to addiction. Addiction has been categorized as a disease that we can catch if we fall prey to a “gateway” substance or if, again, we just have some sort of predisposition to the disease.
Some of the first studies on addiction were very straightforward. Put a rat in a cage with two water bottles, one of which is laced with a narcotic. Which will the rat choose? Consistently, the results were the same. The rat chose the narcotic and kept choosing it until it died.
Pretty simple. It doesn’t seem like you need to be a scientist to interpret those results.
In the late 1970s, a Canadian researcher by the name of Bruce Alexander decided these results were not nearly as simple as they appeared. He asked, what if the problem is not the access to a drug but the fact that the rat is in solitary confinement in a steel cage?
He decided to perform the same experiment, except with a significant change. The rat would not be alone and it would be put in an enclosure with other rats and in an environment that rats would enjoy living in. The result? The rats rarely chose the narcotic-laced water and never died from an overdose. The rats consistently chose the plain water and enjoyed the good life with their fellow rats in what came to be known as “Rat Park“.
You’ve probably never heard of Dr. Alexander. He had trouble getting this ground-breaking research published. When it was published, it was ignored and his funding was eventually pulled. It’s hard to go against conventional wisdom and politics, even when you have science on your side.
For years, we’ve been encouraged to wonder what predisposes an addict to addiction or what bad choices they might have made that got them addicted.
Perhaps instead, we should be asking ourselves what particular sort of steel cage the person who uses has been in that has made drug or alcohol use a preferred alternative.
Does this mean that those who use don’t have to take responsibility for their actions? Of course not. My experience is that people want to take responsibility. It’s simply much easier to do so if someone really works to understand you and your experience. That can happen more readily if we have a better understanding of the nature of addiction.
Many of the assumptions that have undergirded our understanding of addiction for decades are under intense scrutiny. Some of the brands that have provided addiction support over that same period may need to check some of their fundamental assumptions.
Our ability to be in healthy and sustainable relationships may well be the best tool we have in dealing with the negative effects of addiction and other compulsive behaviours.