In the 1980’s there was an experiment that seemed to solidify our understanding of drugs and addiction. The experiment took a rat and placed it alone in a cage. It then placed two bottles of water from which the rat could drink – plain water and water injected with cocaine. Once the rat tasted the water with cocaine, it continued to go back again and again and again, until it was dead.
In fact, there was a popular ad in the 80’s that highlighted this experiment, sponsored by a Partnership for a Drug-Free America, that explained: “Only one drug is so addictive, nine out of ten laboratory rats will use it. And use it. And use it. Until dead. It’s called cocaine. And it can do the same thing to you.”
But what Johann Hari points out in her book, Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, there was something wrong with this experiment. Her book goes through a list of other experiments related to this topic, but there were a handful that changed one significant detail: placing the rat with other rats and creating a rat-like heaven before introducing the cocaine-injected water.
This made a significant difference for the rats! Having companionship and being surrounded by an environment that was comfortable and enjoyable prevented the rats from drinking the water laced with cocaine. In fact, these rats didn’t like the taste of the drug-induced water. They avoided it.
Hari goes into the differences between these two types of experiments in much more detail in her book, but she makes one point clear – the antidote to addiction is not necessarily sobriety, but it’s human connection. It’s having others around you with whom you can relate, bond with, share stories and laughter with. Hari explains that the lonely rat in the cage found this sort of solace in the cocaine because it was the only alternative. However, rats and humans who have companionship, camaraderie, and connection seem to thrive without the need for drugs.
This finding is backed by research which indicates the significance of community in one’s recovery. Community gives recovering addicts an opportunity to hear the stories of others, relate to their challenges and successes, as well as find validation for the reasons why they’ve had a difficult life thus far. Community and relationships that can be found in them significantly boost one’s feeling of being supported and thus enhances one’s ability to face stress. Rather than turning to drugs or drinking when life gets challenging, they can turn to the relationships in their lives.
If you’re in recovery and you’d like to develop a network of supportive people, you might begin by looking for people who have successfully worked with addiction and recovery. Because, there’s still a great deal of misunderstanding when it comes to addiction, you might also look for someone you trust as well as a professional who is educated in the type of addiction you’re suffering from. Someone who is not as familiar with addiction but who means well might still sabotage your healing process by giving you misinformation.
In fact, having a community and a healthy social network might be one of the preliminary elements to recovery. For instance, when an individual chooses to become sober, they typically attend a treatment center, which immediately includes becoming a part of a health-oriented community. Then, that community extends to a halfway house and later to a large community of sober living oriented men and women through AA meetings, for example. And when an individual is finishing his or her out-of-home treatment, another way to extend a healthy network of support is to participate in support groups with others who are on the same journey of sobriety as you are.
Certainly, there is still much to learn about recovery and what recovering addicts need heal. However, for now, it seems that community and human connection is a powerful antidote to addiction.
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