April 24, 2019

Rat cage or rat park?

Like many people in West Virginia today, I’ve been thinking, listening, talking and reading a lot about issues of addiction and recovery.

Along the way, I’ve been struck by some interesting research that suggests there’s a lot more to it than the effect of certain chemical molecules on the brain. There’s a social dimension that could well be decisive in overcoming this crisis.

An amazing example of how social conditions affect addiction was found in the Vietnam War era. As the war continued, drug use — particularly heroin — became something of an epidemic among soldiers serving there.

That wasn’t surprising, considering the realities they faced.

According to some research, as many as 35 percent of soldiers had tried heroin at least once, and 20 percent were fully addicted.

At the time, Connecticut Sen. Robert Steel said after visiting the war zone, “The soldier going to South Vietnam today runs a far greater risk of becoming a heroin addict than a combat casualty.”

Obviously, many people were concerned about what would happen when these veterans returned to their communities. But something surprising happened when they got home. Fully 95 percent of veterans with addictions stopped using and never relapsed.

How could this be? Author Dan Baum summed it up pretty well: “Take a man out of a pestilential jungle where people he can’t see are trying to kill him for reasons he doesn’t understand, and — surprise! — his need to shoot smack goes away.”

To state the obvious, the situations in which people live have a lot to do with their life choices, including those related to addiction and recovery.

I think we could learn a lot from a fascinating experiment conduced by researcher Bruce Alexander with rats under laboratory conditions.

It was long known that, if you put a rat in a cage and gave it unlimited access to addictive drugs, it would hit the drugs pretty hard, often to the point of death.

Alexander decided to try something a little different. As Johann Hari explains in his book “Chasing the Scream”:

“With a few of his colleagues, he built two sets of homes for laboratory rats. In the first home, they lived as they had in the original experiments, in solitary confinement, isolated except for their fix. But then he built a second home: a paradise for rats. Within its plywood walls, it contained everything a rat could want—there were wheels and colored balls and the best food, and other rats to hang out with and have sex with.”

He called the second place Rat Park.

The rats in the isolated cage used up to 25 milligrams of morphine a day. The rats in Rat Park used less than 5 milligrams, despite having a 24-hour supply of the drug.

In a variation on the experiment, he took addicted rats who had been in isolation and placed them in Rat Park. In a short time, they stopped using morphine.

It’s probably not just a rat thing.

According to Alexander, “When I talk to addicted people, whether they are addicted to alcohol, drugs, gambling, internet use, sex, or anything else, I encounter human beings who really do not have a viable social or cultural life. They use their addictions as a way of coping with their dislocation: as an escape, a pain killer, or a kind of substitute for a full life. Maybe our fragmented, mobile, ever-changing modern society has produced social and cultural isolation in very large numbers of people, even though their cages are invisible.”

He argues that “today’s flood of addiction is occurring because our hyperindividualistic, hypercompetitive, frantic, crisis-ridden society makes most people feel socially and culturally isolated. Chronic isolation causes people to look for relief. They find temporary relief in addiction to drugs or any of a thousand other habits and pursuits because addiction allows them to escape from their feelings, to deaden their senses and to experience an addictive lifestyle as a substitute for a full life.”

It’s probably no accident that waves of addiction seem to hit populations going through extreme stress, hard economic times and declining community and social capital.

While there is an urgent need for other forms of prevention, intervention and treatment, it’s pretty clear that we could take a lesson from our friends the rats, re-weave our broken connections and re-dedicate ourselves to constructing a society worthy of human beings.

Less cage. More park.

(This appeared as an op-ed in the Charleston Gazette-Mail.)