By Jim Harvey
In 2015, the British author and journalist Johann Hari gave a TED talk that instantly went viral.
In it, he told his audience, “The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is
The title of his talk was no less provocative and was brief and to the point. “Everything you
think you know about addiction is wrong”. Hari’s overt objective was to question the most
prevalent ideas people have about addiction, what causes it, and what can be done about it. What
started out as a simple desire on Hari’s part to help loved ones in his family suffering from
addiction, turned into a two-year research project on the war on drugs – and on why such a war
does not, and cannot, work.
The fruit of his labours was a NY Times best-seller, “Chasing the Scream”. The pen is mightier
than the sword, the idiom goes, and through his writing and subsequent talks, Hari also boldly
challenged stereotypes around addicts and preconceived ideas around addiction. These included
arbitrary beliefs that cause the stigma often associated with drug use, and the judgemental
response to substance abuse in general, which is still so widespread.
Seven years have passed since Hari sent his message out into the world – though in fact, of
course, as a researcher, Hari was the student, and the message was that of the experts he
consulted, only in his own words. Thankfully, nowadays, in many (but not all!) addiction circles,
a more enlightened approach is taken to helping those in active addiction, and to how addiction
is viewed as a whole. But the fact remains that the critical approach to drug abuse, that dismisses
it as a moral failing or lack of willpower, in short, a perspective which condemns and, in many
ways, punishes people with substance use disorders (SUD), is still deeply entrenched in our
societies. In ways both subtle and not so subtle.
Is Lack of Connection Really Such a Big Deal?
Hari’s conclusion, and the closing statement of his TEDx talk, that the opposite of addiction is
connection, was a far cry from his initial assumptions. Seeing loved ones battling heroin abuse,
he, like so many others, bought into the idea that chemical substances are what cause addiction.
A century had already passed since certain drugs had been made illegal – a clear sign that they
were seen as the culprits, and causes of addiction in themselves. This narrative had been
reinforced by certain laboratory experiments on rats. The animals were placed in cages and
given the choice between plain water and water laced with opium. All the rats ended up
gravitating towards drug-enhanced water, and almost all eventually died of self-inflicted
What these experiments failed to point out, is that the rats in question were all isolated. They
were alone in a small cage, with nothing to do but simply exist. A subsequent experiment by
Canadian professor Bruce Alexander put identical rats into a rat park of his own design. With
access to games, treats and, above all, the company of lots of other rats, most of them were
happy with drug-free water, and of those that enjoyed an occasional tipple, none used the
chemically enhanced water compulsively or abusively.
We have a very recent example of how isolation and the resulting stress impact mental health in
a very short space of time. In the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
conducted a survey which found that, as early as June 2020, 40% of respondents reported their
mental health had suffered because of the Covid pandemic and the resulting government
restrictions. And 13% said they had either started using drugs or increased their previous use.
Almost all stated that isolation and loneliness played a large part in their emotional state.
We live in an age that the writer George Monbiot has described as “the age of loneliness”,
because never before has it been so easy to become cut off from human connection. We have, in
fact, become experts at disconnection. It has become far easier – so habitual, in fact, that it is
almost a default response – to hide behind a phone or immerse ourselves in online
communication, than engage another human being in conversation. And guess what – drug use in
the US is at an all time high, and the opioid epidemic has never been more rampant. Use of
alcohol and drugs is also on the rise in other so-called developed nations.
Fair Enough, But Drugs Still Cause Addiction, Right?
You will have understood by now that this blog is about connection. But let us first look briefly
at three examples that suggest substances alone do not cause addiction.
Less than one in five smokers who try to quit using nicotine patches actually succeed. Everyone
is getting pure, high-quality nicotine, without the smoke and chemicals, into their bloodstream.
But most still can’t stop smoking.
Medical morphine (basically heroin) – used as a painkiller for people who’ve undergone surgery
or are in severe pain from illness – is vastly purer and more potent than street heroin. And yet.
hospital patients – even long-term ones – don’t leave the hospital as “junkies”.
It is estimated that 20% of US troops were using heroin during the Vietnam war. After they came
home, the vast majority of these men simply stopped using it. They didn’t turn into addicts on
But back to connection.
Humans are social animals. Human connection is one of the things that nourishes us most on a
soul level. Companionship, of all kinds, is one of the greatest joys of living. But human
connection is only a blessing if it is authentic. It is a fact that alcohol, for one, and other drugs,
seem to facilitate socializing. People find it easier to be around other people, to communicate
and, yes, to connect. So there is an apparent contradiction here. If people turn to drugs because
they’re isolated, why do certain substances help them connect? But the above is not true
As human beings, we like to be seen and appreciated for who we truly are. Not for some façade
we display to the outside world, or for some version of ourselves we feel we have to be to fit in.
Similarly, we like to be valued for our true qualities and attributes. Not for the behaviours we
feel obliged to adopt or display to be acceptable. While being acknowledged at work for our
efficiency or input is gratifying, it becomes much less so if it is for things we feel we have to do
as a part of our work responsibilities. Or for skills which we do have, but which we consider
trivial, because they stifle our greater talents, and hide our true worth.
It is likely that rats don’t suffer too much from superficial, artificial or forced connection. But
human beings need genuine, authentic bonding. While admittedly the world is not short of
superficial individuals, or ones with huge egos, even these people, whether they are aware of it
or not, crave a space in which they can just be themselves.
Human beings are also tribal creatures. People need community. We feel a need to belong.
People speak of “finding their tribe”. That’s why simply being among people, surrounded by
others, doesn’t necessarily create connection. We can feel like the proverbial “fish out of water”.
Sometimes we have to work to seek out the companions we value. And in modern-day society,
this task can feel a bit like swimming upstream.
On a very basic level, or course, people yearn for a strong sense of connection to life as a whole.
A bond with the greater whole. There’s a line from a song by the band Extreme, which goes:
“Stop the world! Stop the world! I wanna get on!” It can be easy to feel sidelined, unable to take
part in society, in life, in the way we aspire to. Feeling involved, useful, and contributing
something of value to others, is another fundamental need for most people. Sometimes we can
feel like outsiders looking in – the world and the flow of life never stop, but we feel we’re not a
part of them – we want in on all the action, but we feel somehow cut off. So people create their
own worlds in which to be someone, and with others – I speak, for example, of the universes of
influencers, Instagram stars with huge followings, or Youtube personalities. But these are not
real connection either – and can become addictive in their own right!
Can Reconnecting Really Help with Addiction?
How does this help with addiction, you may ask? Not everything in life is rocket science. People
take drugs or drink because they feel unhappy. Unhappiness is emotional pain. Drugs can help
cope with that pain – albeit not sustainably.
Connection helps both prevent and lessen emotional pain. There is a natural joy in togetherness
and sharing. Enthusiasm and zest for life come from connection to like-minded souls, society,
pets, or nature. Meaning and purpose come from connection with a cause, a project, a team.
Connection can’t be created with the wave of a magic want. But we can ask ourselves what kind
of connection is lacking in our lives. It could be as simple as we want to be less alone! Or it
could be better employment, where we work as part of a team. It could be friends to play sports
with, or share a passion. Maybe we seek people with similar interests. Perhaps volunteering for a
cause would help. Or it could be we just want to connect more to our own selves. The feeling of
having become distance from our own selves, from who we truly are, is almost ubiquitous
among those suffering from addiction. Worse, we may feel we have become a different version
of ourselves, one that does not honour who we are, and even betrays us. But this would be a topic
Connections that support and nourish people don’t usually miraculously appear. If we have
become isolated, disconnected, and are no longer engaging in society or reaching out to others,
the road back to connection can be quite a journey. Identifying what we feel is missing, it
becomes easier to take action to remedy the situation.
With all of the above being said, there are a great many substances out there, legal or illegal,
which genuinely are highly addictive. Though in themselves they may not be the root cause of
addiction, once a pattern of substance abuse sets in, we are on a very slippery slope. If you or a
loved one are going through this, connect with us at Kembali and find out how we can help.