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Addiction and your environment

Is addiction a matter of biology or an output of our surroundings and circumstance?

There was an undeniably interesting article by the American Journal on Addictions derived from a study in the 1970’s  The synopsis is simple, during the Vietnam War a large percentage of deployed service men and women used Heroin and a considerable amount of that population became addicted to the drug.  What the researchers found fascinating was upon their return most were able to cease their use of the drug with little or no professional treatment.  Interesting no doubt.  Entirely conclusive, not quite.

Around this time, Canadian researcher Bruce Alexander was conducting an experiment of his own, “Addiction: The View from Rat Park”.  Alexander studied the behaviours of rats with access to choose between morphine and water which can be succinctly summarized as follows.  A rat is put in a cage, one with bleak environment and virtually no opportunity for interpersonal connection or attachment.  In this cage there are two options: water and morphine.  The rats unequivocally select the morphine.  Now, provide those same two options however completely change the environment.  Instead of a cage, the rats are placed in “Rat Park” – essentially their utopia.  Toys, food, friends, sex, and entertainment; you name it.  What happens?  They prefer water to morphine.

Many have drawn upon the combined inference of these two studies in that addiction is formed as a symptom of one’s environmental context.  The service member in war torn Vietnam consumed heroin as a way to manage the appalling travesties of life in combat.  Similarly, the rats preferred morphine to water as a means of enduring their caged life, one impervious to any meaningful connection.

As you can image, the efficacy of this work continues to be adjudicated by the scientific community but consider this, a much more contemporary case study: the rise of prescription opiate abuse. Specifically the fastest growing demographic affected being the Caucasian, middle class to affluent suburbanites.  The working professionals or stay at home mothers with access to resources, connection to friends, relationships with loved ones and ties to their communities.  If addiction is solely a function of your environment and a mechanism for greater connection, how does one account for these individuals who make up the fastest growing cohort of addicts in Western society?

Is human connection important in individual recovery?  Its critical, but it is not a complete solution.  Is an adjustment in your physical and/or social environment imperative?  It can be, but unless that environment poses inherent risks to your abstinence it is not always required.

The truth is, addiction is a complex public health issue requiring chronic care over time.  Drastic changes in your environment & renewed social connections may in fact be part of one’s process, but they are not the entire process:  merely means among others to the desired end.

Carson McPherson

Our Residential Addiction Treatment Centre

Specializing in the treatment of alcohol and drug addiction, Cedars at Cobble Hill also provide treatment for other process addictions including eating disorders and gambling.