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How Social Connection Plays A Role In Recovery

The neuroscience model of addiction radically changed the way the world can see the brain functions of addiction. For the first time, it became evident that addiction was compulsive and that morality, goodness, or choice, had little to do with what compelled the brain to turn to drugs. Most of the neuroscience model experiments looked similar. Mice or rats were placed in individual cages for observation. How their addiction increased was a matter of interval of how much substance was available to them. In the beginning, mice were given two drinking options- a water bottle with regular water and a water bottle laced with a drug like cocaine. Over time, the mice would choose the water with the cocaine- the more cocaine laced water the animal consumed, the more compulsive the need to consume cocaine water became. Some mice developed a tolerance, visiting the cocaine water repeatedly, and in increasing frequency to get the high that they needed. Regular water was no longer appealing, even when a pain factor was introduced.

Addiction Over Pain

Famously, scientists introduced a small electric shock panel. In order to receive an administration of cocaine laced water, mice had to step on a small lever which would deliver an electric shock, followed by the cocaine water. Regardless of the frequency of the shock, and ultimately, how frequently the mice had to endure the shock, the mice continued to return to the lever in order to receive the cocaine. Like many men and women who become addicted beyond their ability to discern pain, risk, or consequence, mice died. We learned one of the most important components of addiction- that someone who is addicted loses their sense of negative consequence, even when the pain of addiction is, quite literally, shocking.

Something Missing In The Model

Bruce K. Alexander, a Canadian Psychologist, wasn’t entirely convinced that the neuroscience model experiments were entirely accurate. Throughout the experiments, there was one factor that was always unchanging: the mice were isolated in their cages. Not only were the mice alone, they had nothing else to do aside from seeking water and food.

Men and women who become addicted tend to isolate. As their addiction worsens, they become physically, mentally, and spiritually ill. Feeling like nobody could understand them, feeling guilt and shame, and feeling the need to prioritize their substance of choice above all else, those struggling with addiction limit their lives to a metaphorically lonely cage. However, the world at large which continues to go on around them, even during their active addiction, is always available.

Alexander wondered how compulsive the mice might continue to act towards cocaine if they had a bustling world to live in, friends to play with, and mates to mate with. To further his inquiry, he and his colleagues built “Rat Park”.

Rat Park: The Experiment That Changed Everything

Ultimately, Alexander and his team built a large, open cage full of wheels and toys, access to light, other mice, and mice of the opposite sex. Included in the cage were two water bottles, one which was laced with cocaine. Mice who were not addicted did not become addicted. Some mice recreationally indulged in a drop of cocaine water occasionally, but none developed a compulsive addictive disease. Most fascinating about Alexander’s findings, was that mice who had become dependent upon cocaine stopped turning to the cocaine-laced water. With a new life full of activity, cohorts, sex, and thusly meaning, there was little role left for cocaine to play.

From the Rat Park experiment, we learned that social connection plays a huge role in the recovery of addiction and that social connection leads to a more full life, creating a robust lifestyle of living which doesn’t leave room for substance use.

Anecdotal Evidence: The Fellowship Of Alcoholics Anonymous

Alcoholics Anonymous’ text, also referred to as “The Big Book” emphasizes to its readers that sobriety is no dull time. In the chapter titled “The Family Afterward”, the authors and founders explain that the previous chapters have highlighted all the worst of alcoholism. “But we aren’t a glum lot,” the authors state. “If newcomers could see no joy or fun in our existence, they wouldn’t want it. We absolutely insist on enjoying life.”

Recreational participation in the consumption of drugs and alcohol is enjoyable for some. For those who have developed the obsession of the mind, the allergy of the body, and the spiritual malady which are the three components of the disease of alcoholism or addiction, consuming mind-altering substances ceases to be fun. Living in active addiction is living in an active hell- the brain is sick, the body is sick, and the spirit is broken.

Many a story in The Big Book and nearly every story of a member of the worldwide fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous includes a few similar moments. Upon arriving at 12-Step meetings, the sheer joy, laughter, and functionality of other members may be figuratively nauseating. Newcomers are in utter disbelief that any such people who also claim to be alcoholics could be so happy and so healthy without taking a drink. As their time in sobriety adds up, these newcomers find their own laughter, their own light, and build their own happy lives. By participating in meetings, working the 12-Steps with a sponsor, making new friends, getting a job, healing the family, developing a relationship with a higher power, and discovering all the nuances of life they missed before due to intoxication, the obsession and the desire to continue using drugs and alcohol is lifted.

“Life will take on new meaning,” the authors of Alcoholics Anonymous write. “To watch people recover, to see them help others, to watch loneliness vanish, to see a fellowship grow up about you, to have a host of friends- this is an experience you must not miss. We know you will not want to miss it.”


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