Meaningful Connections: How Relationships Can Help Lifelong Recovery

Why is so difficult for an addicted person to leave drugs behind and start a new life? Why is it so challenging for a person in recovery to not go back to the same destructive behavior? For British journalist, Johann Hari, the centerpiece of the puzzle is meaningful relationships. An addicted person should always have a hand he can reach for, and once in recovery, a structure where he can feel helpful, admired, and loved. “The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It’s human connection,” reads Hari’s best-known quote.

Hari, author of Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, went on his own journey to understand addiction after seeing family and friends succumb to drugs. In a three-year journey all around the globe, reviewing data, scientific discoveries and stories, he strongly believes that giving meaning and purpose to someone’s life is at the core of treating addiction.

You may think then, that just lonely and unproductive people become addicted. That’s rarely the case. Psychological traumas and the subsequent need to self-medicate have also been a longtime culprit. But what happens when kids with apparent perfect lives become addicted? What happens when the popular high school athlete gets hooked on opiates after an injury, or when the beautiful girl who is the life of the party develops a drinking problem?

The use of legal and illegal drugs is widespread in our culture. People do drugs recreationally, especially teens and young adults. Drugs may seem, at first, a way to connect. Once hooked, a life of self-destruction is the more likely scenario. “You get depressed because you are doing drugs, and then you do drugs to escape the depression. That’s the vicious cycle,” said Alan Eskenazi, a Licensed Alcohol and Drug Counselor, in a panel on opioid abuse at Ridgefield Independent Film Festival in Connecticut.

Hari does not believe that should be the logical path of events. Although it’s true that absolutely anyone regardless of class, ethnicity, gender can become addicted, Hari believes “addiction is not about the chemical hooks, but about the cage you are in.” The environment and circumstances are most likely what will set a person on that road to addiction.

He explains that people who undergo painful surgeries and have to take painkillers for months, don’t necessarily become addicts. He cites a Vietnam war study, in which soldiers who heavily used heroin while in the battlefield simply stopped using once they were back home, surrounded by family and friends. Countless people also experiment with all kinds of drugs and never became addicted. “Disconnection is what brings up addiction,” said Hari.

In his famous TED talk, he speaks about how “human beings have a natural need to bond. But if you can’t do that, because you are isolated, beaten down, or traumatized, you will bond with something that will give you some sense of relief, like drugs, gambling, pornography.”

One of Hari’s main premises is: “We are one of the loneliest societies that has ever been. We live in a hyper individualistic, capitalist and consumer based society. We trade real personal connections for floor space and stuff.”

People live in huge houses, don’t know their neighbors, don’t share meals with family members, don’t even watch tv together anymore. Everybody has their own portable devices to cling to, which provide them with a false sense of connection. “If you have a crisis, your 500 Facebook friends are not coming to your rescue but your flesh and blood friends,” he said.

As a society, we are also completely disconnected from nature, an essential component in living a wholesome life – simply compare the flow of people in a mall to a local nature trail on any given weekend.

Beyond that, once a person becomes addicted, things get pretty harsh. The established way to deal with drug abuse is to cut off the person from the family and the social fabric. Friends shy away, jobs become unavailable. With marginalization, sooner or later adventuring into some kind of crime seems inevitable, and with that jail sentences and criminal records. “This model doesn’t work”, Hari argues.

So, how do we, as a society, bring them back to a healthy and productive life? What’s the solution?

On the family front:

  • “Never make the addict feel alone,” Hari advocates. Let them know that there is support whenever they are ready. Love them no matter what.”
  • When looking for treatment, choose a program that has a holistic approach: a program that will not just keep the person clean while they are there but one that will offer a variety of behavioral therapies to address the underlying causes of addiction and ways to cope with it.
  • At home, facilitate new group activities, like continuing education classes, gym, sports, yoga.
  • Reconnect to nature by gardening, hiking, going to the beach.
  • Set the ground for open communication. It’s crucial that all family members express their feelings and be heard. Joining a group meeting, like AA or NA for the person in recovery and Nar-Anon or Al-Anon for the extended family, can be helpful.
  • Incentives to get a new job or volunteering positions are great ways to rekindle a sense of productivity and purpose.

On the public sphere:

  • Making treatment accessible to all. Treatment is a fraction of the cost of keeping someone in jail, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Why not give someone the chance to stay clean, stay alive, and become a productive member of society,” says Judge Joseph Reeder who presides a Drug Court in Putnam County, NY.
  • A program to create jobs for individuals in recovery could be a successful idea, like it was done in Portugal about 15 year ago with the advent of drug decriminalization. “They made sure everyone who sought help had something to get out of bed for in the morning”, says Hari. Drug abuse is down 50 percent in Portugal.