In the late 1970s, Canadian psychologist Bruce Alexander gave two groups of rats access to water that was laced with morphine and sugar. One group of rats was isolated in cages, with no access to social interaction or connection. The other group was given a “park” full of other rats with whom they could socialize. Both groups had a bottle of plain water and a bottle of drugged water. Over the course of the experiment, the rats who were isolated drank more of the morphine water and less of the pure water, while the rats with a community were more likely to turn to the pure water.
This experiment took place at a time when addiction was increasingly being criminalized, when the perceived solution to addiction was “Just say no.” Today, we recognize that addiction is a complex and multifaceted disease. As others have explored in our blog series before today, factors like genetics, trauma, attachment wounding, and family dynamics play a role in addiction. Not everyone’s addiction story looks the same – addiction pulls in people from all walks of life and does not discriminate. As I have met and worked with communities at Makana Path, however, I have become increasingly convinced that a sense of internal isolation – “I will always be different from and separate from those around me” – is a thread that connects many people who turn to drugs and alcohol for release from internal pain. In a sense, people with untreated addiction are internally isolated in bare cells, just like the rats in Dr. Alexander’s experiment.
The challenge, then, in trying to open up the possibility of a life in recovery for people, is figuring out how to unlock that internal cell door and allow the core self-back out into the world to interact with other people in a genuine way. Recovery, ultimately, is tied up with unity and service – both of which require relationships.
Initially, this process of opening up to genuine relationships is deeply uncomfortable and may even feel unsafe. Relationships with other humans feel inherently riskier, moment by moment, than relationships with a drug of choice. Alcohol will not tell your secrets; pills will not cheat on you. Alcohol and pills may kill you, but up until that moment, they will lure you into a false sense of security for as long as you rely on them.
Humans, on the other hand, are unpredictable. Some humans rely on codependency to give them a sense of control big enough to feel like relationships can be okay. Some turn to the Karpman’s “drama triangle” – the relationship cycle in which people tend to fill roles of persecutor (“I’m okay, you’re the problem!”), victim (“I AM the problem, but you’re okay), and rescuer (“You’re not okay, let me fix it) for a sense of purpose and stability. Some move into “trauma bonds” – intense, tempestuous relationships that cycle between shows of love and bouts of abuse, ultimately functioning to keep the abused person trapped and the abuser in control. Some rely on being enablers to get their sense of purpose and affirmation, while some rely on having an enabler to keep falling into the easier solution.
Some people, though – and the people I’ve known who are working a program of recovery fall into this category – have formed relationships that are not defined by these dysfunctional patterns. They have recognized that they cannot control and manage other people through manipulation. They have learned to recognize and own their own defects of character in their relationships. Having recognized them, they have made amends and committed to being of service. At Makana Path, we work to create a community safe enough for this connection to happen. We learn to recognize these patterns in ourselves and others and to communicate in clear, respectful ways as we set new boundaries.
Addiction may look different on different people. Recovery, though, has looked like restored relationships every time I’ve seen it. The disease of addiction will not allow us to “Just say no” until we’ve found it within ourselves to take the courageous step of opening up to connection. Connection – to other people, to our Higher Power, to ourselves – opens the door to recovery.
Written by: Leila Anderson, LMFT-S, LCDCi