In July 2015 Johann Hari did a piece on TED Talks called “Everything You Think You Know About Addiction Is Wrong.” Hari discusses how we as a society view addiction compared to what he believes addiction truly is. He questions “What really causes addiction? Why do we carry on with this approach that doesn’t seem to be working and is there a better way out there we could try instead?”
Over the course of this 14-minute video, Hari makes some drastic statements about the nature of addiction. He claims that the basis of addiction is a lack of human connection. This was based on experiments conducted in the 1970s which showed that rats (who will normally choose heroin- or cocaine-laced water over plain water, to the point of overdose) will avoid drug intake if they are provided with social facilitation and stimulation in the form of snacks and toys. From this, he deduces that humans who have positive relationships, bonds, and connections in their lives do not become addicts, and those who DO become addicted, by default, must be lacking in love or relationships. He points out that because everyone who is given opiates in a hospital setting does not become addicted, that addiction can’t be about the drug’s effects. Further, he uses drug policy in Portugal to reinforce this position, noting how a rampant drug problem was nearly halved by the legalization of all drugs, paired with providing jobs and social re-integration to addicts.
There’s one small problem with Hari’s talk, although he has a very convincing presentation. Hari is not an addiction expert; has not studied addiction, has not worked in the addiction research or treatment field, and is not himself an addict or alcoholic. In fact, he is a journalist, who has been the focus of controversy and scandal in the United Kingdom for plagiarism, accusations which held enough water to result in the loss of his job. Now, this doesn’t revoke his right to free speech, or his right to have opinions. The problem is when he presents his arguments as facts which not only provide false hope for a “simple” solution, but also refute the experience of hundreds (probably thousands) of addicts and alcoholics around the world.
The experience of countless addicts and alcoholics (whether recovered or not) tells us that there is no formula for “making” one of us- for as many addicts that grew up neglected or orphaned, or living in poverty with little to no valuable connections to other people, there are equal numbers who grew up in loving, stable, happy homes. Addiction as the recovery community knows it is rooted in a spiritual malady- a general restlessness, irritability, and discomfort, as well as unchecked self-centeredness, that is made bearable by only one of two things- drugs/alcohol or a program of recovery rooted in faith in a higher power. In one of his few moments of accurate clarity during this talk, Hari states, “A core part of addiction… is about not being able to bear to be present in your life.”
Further, science has proven to us that there are genetic characteristics (not an addiction gene, rather a set of particular heritabilities and traits) which can predispose someone to becoming addicted to drugs or alcohol (or gambling, or sex, or any other activity which acts on the reward receptors in the brain). The end result being that there are many, many factors which can go into whether someone becomes an addict or alcoholic- genes, environment, and spiritual defect all likely converge to determine odds of addiction. It is a very personal, individual disease, which makes any sort of research or hope for a “cure” difficult. Hari’s blanket statements that “The opposite of addiction is not sobriety, the opposite of addiction is connection” is wrought with issues and demeaning generalizations which make all to clear his total lack of insight or legitimate knowledge of the topic being discussed.
The only positive and healing message from this talk is that we need to reduce the stigma of addiction, and provide opportunities for addicts and alcoholics to connect with the world around them instead of shunning them. As a society, we shame those who have addictions. They are continuously judged and looked down upon by their peers who are capable of having just one drink and can use a substance on occasion without becoming dependent on it. Barriers are created that disconnect them from the world. It is time for us as a society to end the stigma of addiction and develop resources for addicts. It is time for us to help them reconnect with society and redevelop these bonds. But I would urge Hari (and anyone else with a public platform) not to make sweeping generalizations and bold statements about a disease which is complex, highly individualized, and very personal to those afflicted with or recovering from it.
If you have questions about inpatient addiction treatment, contact the team at Serenity Acres- we will answer all your questions and get you started on the right path. Call 1-800-203-2024 today.