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Everything you think you know about
addiction, and your part, is wrong.

July 15, 2015

By Gordon Vivace -
Gordon on Facebook

I am a fan of podcasts. There are many titles in my Podkicker, including The TED Radio Hour. But, this talk by Johann Hari, "Everything you think you know about addiction is wrong," I somehow missed and was brought to my attention by my social worker. And, I'm grateful. In addition to my personal struggles with this topic, I was the Assistant Director of Education in a drug rehab center for three years and am a SMART Recovery addiction group facilitator. This is a topic close to me on a lot of levels, and my personal experience draws me in large part to this man's conclusions. It's only 15 minutes and applies to a lot of life, not just addiction. Take a look.

I know at the height of my own issues, my entire life was an experiment in isolation. Some of it I created myself due to constant disappointment, fueled readily and therefore disproportionately by my then good friend Elija Craig. And some of it, most notably the emotional isolation, was helped along by others. As Johann says, the people you can call on in a crisis is decreasing for us as a society. What he doesn't come out and say, which is an obvious result of feelings of shame, is that's true even if someone's standing right next to you. When you can feel isolated in a room full of friends because you're living in your cage looking pretty for the audience instead of all cards being on the table, it's hard to tell where the circle starts and ends; but there can be no doubt situational gravity will turn that circle into a spiral if someone doesn't step up to break the laws of physics.

I don't bring this to you to rant about addiction necessarily. You can think you understand this without having lived it, as so many of the incredibly self-righteous viewers leaving comments on the TED site did, but I think the issue can be isolated from addiction. Wherever you think the spiral starts or who is in control of it or how it should stop, the question of why we, as a society, treat each other as we do remains. I don't think one needs to struggle with addiction to understand this feeling of isolation or lack of bonding this guy is pushing. We've all been there when a heart-felt reaching out draws criticism instead of support, or someone snubs your latest great triumph at work, or nobody steps up to give a hoot about something important to you. We've all had that.

Did you not want to crawl a little further into your shell? Did you not retreat a bit and say to yourself "Well I'm not doing that again!" until someone or some other activity made you feel better about it? For the moment, remember that feeling of retreat, and then multiply it by every day of your life, without reprieve, for months. "Not being able to bear to be present." This is the start of the spiral, for addiction, for depression, for their mutual predecessor: isolation. There are no hands willing, or sometimes able, to hold strongly enough to stem that tide. There are studies upon studies on addiction, big presentations of MRI scans and colored behavior charts, but I have yet to see one that shows conclusively what you see in those is the cause of addiction instead of the effect. In fact I see a lot that state the opposite. You don't need to have a heroin needle in your arm yet to display the brain functions of an addict. All we know is there was a needle shortly before that scan and there's consistency in the findings. What there is conclusive proof of is those neon brain displays are not permanent. They cycle through a period of cause. So, I won't say I believe there are no such things as "chemical hooks" in addiction, having lived through withdrawal, but I do think they take a very long time to exist and this is the more important issue. I'm hard pressed, then, to understand why we don't hear more of talks like these regarding addiction; and to see the value to us as a unified society.

I know how to beat addiction. I asked every participant in my SMART Recovery groups what his or her personal motivation to quit was. Personal motivation is key. "Someone saying 'That's not good for you.' has never made anybody quit smoking, and it won't make you walk by a liquor store. You can't do this because people are telling you to. You have to have your own reason, and it has to mean something." You'd be surprised how many people said "Nobody's ever asked me that before." You'd be surprised by for how many people that made a tearful moment. You'd be surprised by how many people got sober through that one thing nobody asked them before. You'd also be surprised by how many people get to be 47 before they're able to look someone who's shaming them in the eye and say "I'm sorry, but that doesn't motivate me anymore. Understand that." and truly tell the world to take a hike if they don't like it instead of just saying they feel that way. Myself, for example.

What I don't know is how to get others to see the defeatism of shame in general instead of just in isolated instances like body-shaming. Wouldn't it all be so much easier, for all of us, if we didn't force everyone to stand up and be counted like that every day for every single thing you don't happen to approve? How is being the better person, the more knowing person, the more right person with a wagging finger instead of the more empathetic person let us still feel kind? How does even an allegedly good intention outweigh its wake of destruction and let us not learn from our own splashes in the pool? "Well, it's a pity, but he did it to himself." Exclusively? Ponder. How much do you know about what that person did to himself, or why? Is everyone solely responsible for locking his own cage, even if someone hands him the lock after slapping him on the ass to push him in?

Shame creates isolation, internal or external. Isolation creates binges, often for escape. Shame creates binges. This applies equally to someone holding a bottle of vodka and someone hoarding a carton of Twinkies and someone with the remote control in his hand through an all day Netflix binge if he's there because he's lonely. Too simple? Eh. The shortest distance between two points is still a straight line, even if the curvy road is more interesting and littered with beautiful scenery, or brain scans.

Maybe the guy with the Twinkies or TV remote is easier to deal with. I get that. Johann's right, it's very hard to love an addict. It's hard to love a depressed person. It's hard to be either of those people as well, and compounded by one often leading to the other through a cycle of shame and escape. Maybe the junkie is the next best thing to Einstein if he's sober. Maybe having one person believe in him truly could make that happen. Maybe having another Einstein in your life isn't worth the trouble. Maybe not being worth the trouble is shameful and puts the spiral in overdrive. Maybe it all starts and ends in the same place. Shame, and isolation because of it, or vice versa. What does that say about the isolation we cause others and ourselves by not truly reaching out instead of calling a slap in the face a reached out hand? "I'm trying to help, asshole! And this five minute blasting is as far as it goes, so take it." Not constructive, even if said more gently. Not to an addict. Not to a depressed person. Not to someone with Twinkies under the bed. You can tout self-reliance as loudly as you want, nobody innately blows off shame unless he has no spirit to crush. We all just survive it, whatever tools we use to do so.

I always say substance abuse is a symptom. There's another problem beneath. Wouldn't it be great if all our problems could be solved simply by really being there for each other? If we could really let caring replace "concern?" Maybe if we cut through all the muck and spreadsheets and need to intellectualize everything, many could be. You probably noticed that as knowledgeable and articulate as Johann is, he had notes written on the palm of his hand. We all need a little help sometimes, a little something to lean on under pressure. It's just not always something we can put in the palm of our own hand.