Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Between Addiction and Life, Take Life!

One of the most fascinating studies on addiction was conducted in the late 70's with an interesting and unique group of addicts.

These weren't alcoholics from the inner city or trendy youth using club drugs in discotheques. The addicts studied by Canadian psychologist Bruce Alexander were rats.

He had fed them water laced with morphine, sweetened to help the rodents get past their initial resistance to the drug's bitter taste. Once they'd been drugging up long enough to get hooked, he put them into an environment that he called "Rat Park." Unlike the usual bland existence of lab rats, they had access to a spa and neighborhood clubhouse. Well, at least the rat versions of those: pals to socialize with, balls to roll, tunnels to climb, wheels to run on, and colorful scenery all around.

Alexander had an interesting hypothesis: it's not the drug itself, but an addicts impoverished life that keeps them going back to their pathological escape. The rat subjects in other addiction studies typically kept up their "drug-seeking" behavior. Alexander argued that they remained dependent because their cages were comparable to the lifestyles of many human addicts: impoverished.

Here's the question he wanted to answer with his research: Could we reduce the incidence of addiction by providing and enriched environment with lots of opportunities to enjoy life?

So, what about those rats in Rat Park? Did they remain junkies, constantly loading up on morphine?

Actually, they preferred plain water to the morphine laced, sweetened water--even though they loved the sweet taste! Once they could socialize, choose how to spend their days, and enjoy themselves... apparently they weren't interested in numbing themselves!

Easy enough if you're a rat who's been set up for success by a kindly rodent psychologist landlord, but how do we make our own lives a little bit more like a human version of Rat Park?

What kind of activities should I try?

Try thoroughly absorbing activities. My colleague, Kreg Edgmon, has addicted teenage clients in their residential programs train for and compete in triathlons. I think that's fantastic: Diving in the pool and feeling the water all around you. Blazing down the road on a bike with the wind rushing by. Willing yourself to keep pounding on foot when your body's screaming to stop. Activities don't need to be that intense to immerse us--even gardening fully engages us when we're not our knees, hands buried in the earth.

Go for variety. Think of it this way: you're not looking for one thing to replace your addiction, you're trying to create a more fulfilling life. It takes an entire well-balanced lifestyle to replace the one thing you're giving up: porn. That makes it more challenging than just "finding something else to do," but having this mentality will help you be more patient and treat it as a long-term quest.

What if nothing lights a fire in me?

Don't worry, nothing will, especially at first. Don't expect thrills. Start to put better, healthier things in your life and let enjoyment come on its own terms.

Several months into his recovery, Peter began one of our sessions telling me about the delightful conversation he'd had with his teenage daughter, Breanne. She had called him to walk her home from a friend's house that Sunday night because it had gotten dark while she was there visiting. She talked with Peter about the music she liked, a board game her friend's family loved to play, and even the World War II veteran she was interviewing for a history report.

Peter's eyes were bright as he told me about this experience, but then his face suddenly sobered. "After we got home I told Jillian how much fun I'd had talking with Breanne. It was great to get that little window into her life. I tried to think back to when I'd last had a conversation of that depth with her. The last time that came to mind was when I drove to her cousin's house for a sleepover several years ago. She told me all about all of her friends' ninth birthday parties and exactly how she wanted hers to be. Then it occurred to me: back then she was turning nine, now she's fourteen. It's been five years! That's how long I've been caught up in this blasted addiction!"

Peter hadn't even realized that time with his kids had stopped lighting a fire in him until after he had been in recovery for a while and it started lighting a fire in him again.

But I don't have time to enjoy myself!

Of course you don't! Who does?

That's no reason to give up on it. James was an avid golfer before he descended into alcoholism, but that was also before he got married and had kids. When we talked in group about honoring our own desires, he appreciated the sentiment but didn't see a way he could put it into action. Being a father myself I respected how busy he was, but some of the other group members kept pressing him about it.

The next week James reported back with a grin on his face. "I'd been feeling sorry for myself ever since I started working swing shift and Carol and I have been trading off taking care of the kids. I knew I was doing the most important thing, but part of me was playing the martyr. 'I never get to do what I want to do.' That mentality sure fed my drinking: 'At least I have this.'

"I thought I had valid reasons for my suffering, but last week you guys kept calling them lame excuses. It kept eating at me after group: 'Do you want to keep feeling sorry for yourself or do you want to do something about it?' The next day I sawed off a few of my old clubs and moved the grip down so that they were short enough for Kelton, my six-year-old. Then we drove over to the city course and took Olivia, who's three, and plopped her in the golf cart. It was a gorgeous day and we were one of the only threesomes on the course. The kids loved it. They smelled French Fries in the clubhouse when we were done and wanted some, so I went back to the house and fried up some homemade ones for lunch. It was one of the best days I've had with my kids, they absolutely loved it."

Apparently, the good life is not just for rodents after all.

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