I have not come up with any fancy ideas in the almost twenty years I have been actively, aggressively, religiously studying addiction recovery. What I have learned is that people get healthier when they are in community. When they hang on the fringes, hide in plain sight or resist community – they don’t. This is my experience. Henri Nouwen calls it, “the intangible manifestation of our common life.” I don’t think we can know ourselves without having people around us reflecting us back to self. It’s weird but I am pretty sure it’s true.
Who does this better than AA, NA and their kin? No one. They do community really well. Is it perfect? No, but it is very good. When Jonnie began talking about the “moral” model, he quoted the following: “The ideology of even the AA model requires us to get rigorously good at self-analysis.” ( See E. Summerson Carr’s, “Scripting Addiction”.) There is value in that. I am the blessed recipient of deep and abiding friendships with people who spend lots of time in the rooms, and their rigorous self-analysis has helped them be more decent humans. Jonnie argues persuasively that there are some problems with rigorous self-analysis to the exclusion of other important things – like community. He also took issue with reducing addiction to ONLY one model, including the medical model. He says that it is not helpful to reduce addiction to a compulsive behavior that the drug does TO A BRAIN. It’s too individualistic. It’s true, but it isn’t the ONLY truth.
For years researchers studied rats and made conclusions from these studies about how addiction works. They concluded that it works pretty effectively. Give rats addictive substances and they get, well, addicted. But another group of scientists said to themselves, well, if I lived in a rat cage I might prefer cocaine to water too! They built “Rat Park” – a cushy haven for rats with lots of rat friends and rat toys. I understand the place was amazing. But you know what was even more incredible? The rats in Rat Park had dramatically lower addiction rates. Why? They were too busy playing with the other rats! Sociability reduces the thirst for substances to numb us.
Basically, what I heard Jonnie say is that we cannot REDUCE addiction to either the idea that I need rigorous self-analysis (which I actually need but it isn’t the only thing I need) OR that brain chemistry is the only factor that causes me steal my grandma’s flat screen tv so I can by heroin. It’s not that simple. As challenged as I was by the initial slide title, I am grateful for the things I learned that day. Addiction has short-term consequences for the individual and long-term individual and societal consequences as well. Maybe if we all remember that fragmented societies, dislocated individuals, loss of connection and community foster addiction, maybe we can start making some different choices. Maybe we should start having game nights, small gatherings for dinner, work less and talk more with our friends, engage engage engage with folks. That is helpful. No matter what else we know or do not know about the addictive process – connection and community heals. What are you doing to build connection and community?
“We become neighbors when we are willing to cross the road for one another. (…) There is a lot of road crossing to do. We are all very busy in our own circles. We have our own people to go to and our own affairs to take care of. But if we could cross the road once in a while and pay attention to what is happening on the other side, we might indeed become neighbors.” ― Henri J.M. Nouwen, Bread for the Journey: A Daybook of Wisdom and Faith