Addiction Management Blog

Archive for July, 2010

Uncovering the pervasive roots of addiction: Part 2

Monday, July 12th, 2010

“Addiction in the modern world can be best understood as a compulsive lifestyle that people adopt as a desperate substitute when they are dislocated from the myriad intimate ties between people and groups – from the family to the spiritual community – that are essential for every person in every type of society.”

Bruce K. Alexander, The Globalisation of Addiction: A Study in Poverty of the Spirit

In the previous post I discussed how adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) to a large extent play an important role in the development of addictions. Given that over 80 percent of those who develop addictions begin adaptive behaviors to cope with ACEs prior to the age of 15, we as a society need to place a greater emphasis on identifying at-risk kids and intervening as early as possible. But there is another insidious root to addiction that I believe goes beyond individual ACEs and plays an even greater role in the development of addiction – free market society.

Bruce K. Alexander spent decades as a distinguished addiction researcher in Canada before becoming so frustrated by a lack of progress in helping those who struggle, that he completly changed careers and decided to focus on teaching history instead. Despite doing everything he could to avoid topics around drugs and addiction, the more he studied history, the more he discovered insights that began to change his entire perspective on the nature of addiction.

In general, when we think about addiction, we think about it as an individual problem. Individuals are exposed to a host of risk factors, including ACEs, peer group influences, and the availability of objects of addiction in communities. The more risk factors an individual is exposed to, the more likely the chances are that he or she will develop an addiction. Conventional wisdom also suggests that the antidote to addiction is intervention and treatment. But when Dr. Alexander began studying history, he discovered cultures and societies where common objects of addiction were present (drugs, alcohol, sex, food), yet addictive behavior was minimal or nonexistent. ”Addiction can be rare in a society for many centuries, but can become nearly universal when circumstances change – for example, when a cohesive tribal culture is crushed or an advanced civilisation collapses (Alexander, 2008).” Throughout history, the primary factor responsible for the societal change leading to pervasive addiction is the introduction of free market society. Why?

When a society introduces free markets, exchange of goods and services optimally are not encumbered by family ties, cultural traditions, religious values, or anything else that may impede free play of the laws of supply and demand. In other words, free markets create an “every man (or woman) for yourself” dynamic that puts me in competition with everyone else for jobs, insurance, a house, goods, services and Lady Ga Ga tickets. One consequence of this system is that people become dislocated, or disconnected from one another because of the time and energy necessary to keep up with the Jones. Free markets are incredibly profficient at knowing how to keep people focused on stuff over experiences. Flashy ads, mass media, and the latest gizmo from Steve Jobs keeps us always wanting more. In the pursuit of the American dream, what many get instead is isolation, fear, and dislocation, which ultimately leads to compulsive lifestyles where people develop addictive relationships to stuff and get further and further disconnected from nurturing human relationships.

Dr. Alexander’s Dislocation Theory of Addiction is well documented in a paper titled The Roots of Addiction in Free Market Society (highly recommended reading) and a more extensive read: The Globalisation of Addiction: A Study in Poverty of the Spirit. His work is extremely important in helping us all understand many of our current societal ills beyond addiction, including: divorce, single parenthood, children in poverty, obesity, unemployment, and excessive time in front of the TV. Until we as a society place relationships and experiences over materialism, consumption and stuff, Thoreau’s observation that ”the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” will ring ever more true.

What is the solution to mass dislocation? I believe part of the answer lies in making some tough societal changes including ending the senseless war on drugs (a big topic for another time). But for the individual struggling right now with addiction, the answer is much more about restructuring life in a way that emphasizes relationships over stuff. To do this, one must have the developmental  capacities necessary to know how to initiate, develop, and maintain healthy human relationships.

Uncovering the pervasive roots of addiction: Part 1

Wednesday, July 7th, 2010

“For every thousand hacking at the leaves of evil, there is one striking at the root.”  – Thoreau

In my life there have been many times when I felt isolated, lonely, disconnected, and alone. These times have never  been pleasant, and in the absence of nurturing relationships, close friends to call on a dime, or a tribe of my own, I coped by engaging in substitute relationships with work, money, entertainment, food, hobbies, and exercise (just to name a few). For years I felt shame about many of my behaviors, and my inability to connect in deep ways with others. Now I understand that so much of my adaptive behaviors were a response to underlying root problems, problems that needed resolving and hampered in significant ways my ability to intiate, develop, and maintain intimate and nurturing relationships with people. I also believe that now, more than ever, those who struggle with addiction share similar root causes that need to be addressed if successful longterm outcomes are to materialize.

The roots of addiction go much deeper than the adaptive behaviors that so often are the focus of intervention efforts. This is because dealing with the symptoms (addictions) are easier than dealing with the root causes. I have long believed that addiction is a problem best managed over time like other chronic illnesses. But successful management necessitates addressing what drives the addictive behavior in the first place. It requires knowing how to turn down the flame, dig out the roots, and resolve problems that are solvable. These underlying roots come in many shapes and sizes, but there are two forms that I believe are the primary drivers of addiction today. This post will address the first form: adverse childhood experiences.

Adverse Childhood Experiences
In the mid 1980s, physicians from Kaiser Permanente’s Department of Preventative Medicine in San Diego made an interesting discovery. Those who were losing the most weight and succeeding in the weight loss program were the ones most likely to drop out and quit. Was it because they no longer needed the program? Nope. Further investigation revealed that the majority of dropouts did not maintain their weight loss and went back to struggling with problems of overeating and obesity. Why did they quit if they were succeeding in the program? A deeper look revealed that overeating and obesity were used as tools to cope with unresolved adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). In most cases, overeating was an unconscious behavior utilized as a protective solution to these unresolved childhood problems.

How was it unconsciously protective? In many cases, the ACEs involved sexual, physical or emotional abuse. Developing a relationship with food was safer than developing intimate or nurturing relationships with people who might abuse again. Being obese unconsciously deterred romantic interests and physically enhanced protection of the body. The finding that most of the participants in the weight loss program had prior ACEs led Kaiser to collaborate with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to explore the link between ACEs and general health outcomes.

The study involved over 17,000 middle-class Americans and has produced over 50 scholarly research journal articles. Among the most signficant findings in the study was that two-thirds of the participants reported at least one ACE, and more than one in five reported three or more ACEs. In addition, the higher a person’s ACE score, the more addictive behavior was utilized as a coping response. For example:

Here you can see that as the number of ACE scores increase, so too does the percent who meet criteria for alcoholism. This finding is detailed in an insightful paper titled The Origins of Addiction by the lead researcher of the study, Vincent Felitti. What the ACE study helps us to understand is that the roots of addiction are real, diverse, and if left unaddressed, will continue to fuel the behavior we are so badly trying to manage (or end).

Dr. Gabor Mate, continued…

Monday, July 5th, 2010

The following interview with Dr. Mate provides additional context for his work and beliefs about addiction. One surprising statement he makes is that less than five percent of his patients overcome their addictions - not the best of outcomes. Of course what “overcome” means and how to define outcomes are messy topics, but I am far more optimistic about  the tenacity of the human spirit to change. Addiction is most definitely a challenge, but one reason for poor outcomes has been the lack of understanding about the nature of addiction, and the need for a comprehensive solution like MRC. Watch the interview, and then let me know your thoughts about Dr. Mate’s conclusions.