Pretty Rat Cage.

There is a popular TED talk by Johann Hari that has received nearly five million views. In it he reports that after three years of extensive research he is convinced that we are incorrectly addressing addiction treatment. Instead of using punishment as a deterrent we should be saying “I love you.”

I wish I could have said I laughed. Instead my breath died in my throat. Of course I take this particular TED talk a little more personally than most. The premise that a lack of love had somehow been the missing ingredient… well, let’s just say I took umbrage.

Hari bases his conclusion partly on research done in the 1970s by Professor Alexander of Vancouver. Alexander recreated an experiment done earlier in the century that showed caged rats consistently chose heroin laced water over fresh water. In Alexander’s experiment the rat cage was outfitted like a rat “park.” They had room to exercise, ate good food, and had females to fraternize with. The result? The rats hardly ever touched the heroin water. The conclusion? Addiction is about your “cage.” (If only we had prettier more loving cages….)

I venture to say that such a conclusion is over simplified. If this were true the poor would be more likely to suffer from addiction than the rich. (This, by the way, is categorically untrue.) And, from personal experience, if loving an addict cured addiction – well then my daughter would be well. There are thousands of us who love our sick children – love them unconditionally! – and they remain addicted.

However, I do believe that self love is lacking. Parents of addicts report a higher number of children that suffer from low self esteem, personality disorder, social anxiety or depression. I have also heard parents say that these children were uncharacteristically giving…almost to a fault. And that they naturally gravitated to connecting with the “underdog.” Addicts themselves nearly unanimously acknowledge feeling uncomfortable in their “own skin.” They report feeling “different,” “misunderstood,” or “alone.” Hari cites this as failure of social engagement – a result of our bigger homes and social media interactions. But here again I beg to differ. We have always had addicts, even when we had closer knit social circles. The social disengagement is more likely an internal process, not an external one.

I have three children, only one of whom suffers from addiction. I told each one of them that they were important, beautiful, and loved by me. My middle child did not believe me. I could see it in her eyes. When she slept at night I would sneak into her room and whisper these things again into her ear. I was hoping that somehow, just somehow, my words would imprint themselves on her unconscious brain. I was singing her love songs.

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