If you’re on Facebook, you’ve probably seen it – an article suggesting that it is love that addicts need and lack of love and connection that causes addiction. The case made seems compelling.
There are some things we know to be true. We know, for example, that addiction is not just a biochemical process. There are famous studies and heaps of anecdotal evidence that show us that some people can use like fiends for a long period and seem in every way addicted, then suddenly stop using. Most of the heroin abusing veterans who returned from Vietnam fit into this category.
When they came home, they didn’t need the heroin anymore and walked away from it. Yet others came back terribly addicted. This and a great deal of neuroscientific evidence suggest that the brain is changed by addiction. Indeed, the latest research shows that the brains of addicts become co-opted such that addicts cannot make healthy decisions. They are stuck on the treadmill of addiction.
Yet these studies too leave us wanting, as they do not fully describe the addictive experience.
A recent NPR piece notes:
Data like these suggest that addictions, although they no doubt interact with neural chemistry, can’t adequately be understood alone in neuro-chemical terms. And this is because it is people, not brains, that get hooked. To understand the actions of addicts, you need to look at their lives as a whole. When doctors claim, as they do, that addiction is a disease of the brain, they are saying something that is either trivially true (that the brain plays a role in addiction) or something entirely false (that the brain is the whole story).
A new theory is out now suggesting that, “Addiction is caused by isolation. And the cure for addiction, it follows, is love. We need to give the addict back his or her feeling of connection to others.”
This theory, like the others, is at least partially true. Addicts are overwhelmingly isolated and isolating individuals. They skulk around and curl up in corners to lick and hide their wounds. I had one addict share with me the other day, “My life is sitting on my couch shooting dope all day.” The question then is, if addicts were more loved and more connected, would they recover more easily?
The answer is yes and no. In my experience, addicts who seek treatment and have the positive support of family and friends have distinct advantages over those who do not have that kind of support. Individuals who have children can also be more motivated than those who do not, especially if the children are still in the home. So there is some definite truth behind the idea that love is a necessary ingredient in addiction recovery.
But addiction is a complex disorder and part of the issue is nearly always pain or trauma. Addicts have most often been hurt in debilitating ways and don’t know how to deal with those hurts. Drugs make the pain tolerable or numbs the addict out altogether. “The remarkable and striking thing about many addicts is that they opt for self-medication over encounter — they turn inward and shut out the world,” reports NPR.
The NPR article continues, citing the work of Mate Gabor:
One reason love might not be all you need is that it could be that the wounds that lead us to turn to drugs, to really give ourselves over to drugs, might have their roots in our early lives. It’s hard to simply “get over” early childhood trauma.
In short, while we would like to believe that there is a straight and logical path to addiction recovery, there isn’t. Addiction is a complex disorder that includes neuropsychological changes, biochemical disruption, and interpersonal chaos. It is often accompanied by co-occurring disorders such as depression, anxiety, and/or PTSD.
Thus, addiction recovery must address all these issues: the biochemical, neurological, psychological, and so forth. Love is certainly part of that process, but it isn’t all you need.