Twice in the last six months a friend has posted a link on Facebook to a Huffington Post article called “The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered, and It Is Not What You Think.” The article was written by Johann Hari, who excerpted parts of it from his book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs. The Huffington Post first ran the article in January 2015 when the hardcover edition was published, and then updated and reprinted it a year later when the paperback was released.
The article troubled me both times I read it. I questioned some of the claims the author makes, and I was offended by his overly simplistic suggestion that drug addiction is merely a case of people substituting drugs for the close human connections they are missing in their lives.
But rather than go off on a Huffington Post article, I borrowed the book itself from the library and read it cover to cover. I wanted to see if the book actually claimed what the HuffPo article suggested it claimed.
At first, I loved the book. Hari began by describing the birth of the modern war on drugs a hundred years ago, and the tale he weaves of personal vendetta, ambition, obsession, and political maneuvering is both fascinating and believable. He then goes on to document the war’s global escalation and the resulting rise of a criminal underworld intent on controlling and profiting from the war. Next he describes the brutal consequences of the total criminalization of drug addiction through the eyes of several poignant witnesses and participants. I appreciated all of this.
But then Hari began looking for alternatives, and here things got a little shaky.
Hari’s first big mistake is when he cites a report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (which he mistakenly calls the United Nations Office on Drug Control) to support his claim that 90 percent of people who use drugs are not addicts. I looked up the document in question, and though the link he provided in the footnotes didn’t work, I did find the UNODC’s 2015 World Drug Report Executive Summary, which states on the very first page, “The magnitude of the world drug problem becomes more apparent when considering that more than 1 out of 10 drug users is a problem drug user, suffering from drug use disorders or drug dependence.” That statistic is foundational to Hari’s assertion that drugs are not dangerous to anyone but a small minority of the population.
However, Hari must have neglected to read the methodology UNODC used to arrive at that statistic, because there they acknowledge the limitations of their data. “Assessing the extent of drug use (the prevalence and estimates of the number of drug users) is a particularly difficult undertaking because it involves in most settings measuring the size of a ‘hidden’ population.” They go on to state that their numbers come primarily from what the governments can estimate from police reports, hospitals, rehab facilities, and surveys. Users and addicts who are never arrested or treated medically for an ailment resulting from drugs, or who choose not to disclose their drug use on a survey, are not counted. Because drug users and abusers are by definition a hidden population, accurate measurements quantifying their addiction are impossible. This truth is never acknowledged in Hari’s book, yet he repeatedly trots out that 90 percent claim.
The HuffPo article does reflect Hari’s ultimate conclusion accurately. Drug addiction is not caused by chemical hooks, but by traumatic or unsupportive environments. Changing the environment to one that is positive and nurturing will help enable addicts to shed their addictions. Towards the very end of his book he writes, “The opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety. It’s connection…If you are alone, you cannot escape addiction. If you are loved, you have a chance.”
I call bullshit.
I’m an addict, and my experience of addiction and recovery does not adhere to this pronouncement. My life as an addict bears very little resemblance to the people interviewed in Hari’s book. My experience is no more important than theirs, but it’s no less important, either.
First off, I should point out that I’m an alcoholic, not a drug addict. However since Hari repeatedly made the point that alcohol is far more damaging and dangerous than heroin or cocaine, I believe I’m qualified to speak on this subject.
I’m the only child of alcoholics. It was part of my life growing up, though I didn’t realize it until I was in my teens. While my childhood wasn’t great, it wasn’t traumatic, either. I was never physically abused or molested. I didn’t grow up in abject poverty. My response to recognizing my parents’ alcoholism was to vow I’d never go down that road myself. I did very little experimenting with booze in my teens, and in my early twenties I rarely drank. I’d have one or two when I was out with my friends sometimes, but that was it.
But sometime in my mid-twenties, something changed. I had a job that I liked, I was respected by my coworkers, and I was on my way up. It was challenging, but it didn’t cause me high levels of stress. I owned my own home, had friends, and was active in a faith community. I had a stable, supportive environment. And that’s when I let my guard down.
I didn’t start drinking to escape the pain of my life–my life wasn’t particularly painful. I started drinking because I liked the taste of wine. And then I drank because I liked the way a few glasses of wine made me feel. It felt great! Life was good but this made life better. Why wouldn’t I want to feel like that more often?
A year or so later my career went up in flames and I ended up in seminary. Now the stress began to affect me. My family wasn’t supportive of my new vocation, I’d had to sell my condo, and I was going into debt. Church politics necessitated that I transfer from Boston University School of Theology (where I had a full tuition scholarship and a small stipend for books and fees) to Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa, where I didn’t know anyone and the financial aid wasn’t nearly as good. But there I became part of the most supportive community I’ve ever experienced, before or since. Life had its painful parts, and it had its wonderful parts. Alcohol helped to dull the pain, and it enhanced the wonder. Alcohol could make bad experiences manageable, and it could make good experiences even better. (I also discovered that alcohol greatly improved my ability to make sense of systematic theology!)
It was sometime during seminary that I went from ‘problem drinker’ to ‘alcoholic.’ During my last year of school my mother died of alcoholic liver disease. I spent the summer after graduation leaving my community in Iowa, sorting through and disposing of my mother’s possessions in Massachusetts, and beginning my new job as Associate Pastor at a large church in Maryland, where I knew no one. I fell into a deep depression.
By then there was no wonder in my life, but there was a lot of pain I needed to dull. I never went to work drunk, and I never missed work because I was drunk or too hungover. I paid my bills on time, attended all my appointments, performed my job duties to the best of my ability, and was, in general, a productive and contributing member of society. But when I wasn’t tending to my real life duties, I was drinking. I felt a lot better about my life when I was drunk, but there was a little part of me that knew this wasn’t good. And then one night I realized the truth: I’d broken the vow I’d made when I was a teenager. I was just like my mother. And my mother was dead because she’d allowed alcohol to kill her. Seven months after her death, three months after beginning this new job in this new career field in this new place, I acknowledged my alcoholism and decided to get sober.
I tried going to some Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and I hated them. No help for me there. I had no friends or family in the area. There were a few supportive co-workers, but the inescapable power dynamics of Pastor ensured a certain distance. I couldn’t depend on them, not really. I was alone, and I felt extremely unloved. None of my friends from seminary were close by, and they were all busy building their own new lives anyway. My depression got worse. My relationship with my senior pastor was toxic. I felt miserable. Nobody should have to feel the way I felt.
And I knew I didn’t have to feel that way. I could just go out and get a bottle of wine, and I’d be back in my happy place where life is manageable. It would be so easy. It was so stupid for me to suffer needlessly instead.
But I continued to choose needless suffering over salvation in a bottle. I pushed through. My toxic relationship with my senior pastor resulted in the spectacular implosion of my ministry career, and a year and a half after getting sober, I was homeless*, jobless, and directionless.
I tried doing volunteer work in Mississippi, but my depression prevented me from being much of an asset to the organization. I ended up in a friend’s spare room in Massachusetts, practically catatonic. I just felt so wrong all the time. Is this what sobriety feels like for everyone? How do you stand it? I could barely function, but I didn’t drink.
A month later I had my own place (my friend wanted her couch back–I barely left it during the time I stayed with her) and was starting to think about what to do next. In an attempt to get out of the house sometimes, I set up a profile on Match.com, not really expecting much. At summer’s end I was dating a delightful computer geek named Tom, and in early fall I began serving another congregation in a temporary capacity, with the possibility of it becoming permanent. Things were looking up. Especially when Tom and I became engaged at the end of that October (yes, after only eight weeks of dating) and married the following spring. The congregation wanted to convert my position to permanent, but the geography just didn’t work with Tom’s job. We parted on good terms.
Slowly my depression dissipated and I began to grow accustomed to sober life. That doesn’t mean I liked it. I still knew that these good times would be even better in my happy place, and my occasional forays into the sinkholes of misery would be more easily endured with a nice Merlot.
Fast forward a few years. I’ve watched the ministry career I tried so hard to rebuild go up in flames again, but I got through it, and I’m reconciling myself to the fact that very soon I’m not going to be a pastor anymore, even though I still have over fourteen thousand dollars in student loan debt from seminary I have to pay off. I’m still happily married to a man who loves and accepts me as I am and who supports me in the things I want to do. We have two wonderful children who are the delight of my life. I haven’t had a drink since that last one in Maryland eleven and a half years ago.
And oh, man, do I want one.
Sobriety still feels wrong. Some days are better than others, and other days…aren’t. I love my husband and my children more than I ever though possible, but even they can’t fill the hole alcohol left in my life.
I was happy and connected when I started drinking. I was alone when I escaped addiction, and, now that I’m loved, I still want a damn drink. That’s why I get so offended by books like Hari’s that suggest that all we need is love. We do need love. Absolutely we do. And we do need to end this drug war; I’m with him on that. And we do need to get addicts treatment instead of punishment.
But getting addicts connected to the world doesn’t mean they can just leave their addictions behind. We also need to recognize that addiction is a complex thing, and we cannot reduce it down to simple answers we believe we can solve. Childhood trauma plays a part for some, but not all. Having a loving and supportive network walking with you as you figure out this sobriety thing is helpful, but it’s not a cure.
The opposite of addiction is sobriety. The opposite of connection is disconnection. We can let those two concepts work together, but let’s not confuse the two.
* I was homeless in the sense that from early-April 2006 to July 1, 2006 I had no legal address of my own. Housing was provided for volunteers in Mississippi, and then I stayed with a friend in Massachusetts for a month. I was not living on the streets, and I did have money enough to get my own apartment before I began working again.