London, 1992. I found myself alone, with a young baby, in a big city I didn’t know, teaching science in a tough Comprehensive. Life was hard, I was out of my depth and lonely. I needed help. The doctor suggested a counsellor. She cost £30 an hour. A bottle of wine at the time was about £7. Being on a very tight budget it didn’t take me long to decide that alcohol was going to be the best way to get some regular respite from my overwhelm and exhaustion… I could afford to have a glass of wine 7 nights a week rather than support for 1 hour a week. Also, my counsellor didn’t quite seem to be giving me the kind of support I needed, although I couldn’t work out what was missing…
Years later in Bristol as a stressed out single parent, I set off on a mission to find ways of relaxing for myself other than alcohol. I wasn’t, and never have been as far as I am aware, an alcoholic by any measurable standard, but I was very aware that I used alcohol to relax, and it was pretty much the only tool I had in my toolbox. I remember thinking, ‘I know all this stress will fade away if I have a glass of wine, so surely then there must be another way to get to the same place without the alcohol?’. I had a vague sense that massage might provide a good alternative – and so my journey with bodywork began. This lead me, via various different types of massage, to shiatsu, which I went on to to study, becoming a fully qualified practitioner in 2007. Shiatsu became by far my preferred method of relaxation. It gave me something very profound, more than relaxation. I couldn’t put it in to words….but if shiatsu wasn’t available then alcohol would always work well instead. Shiatsu isn’t cheap, also it can be a good few days until the practitioner is available, and I would want my treatment – NOW! So I still resorted to wine fairly regularly. I don’t believe this did me any harm – but it’s interesting in the light of current thinking around the link between addiction and connection and this is what I’d like to explore in this post.
In both of the examples above I have replaced connection (talking with a counsellor in the first instance, and physical touch in the second instance) with alcohol. This suggests that in some way alcohol is taking the place of connection – taking the place of the physical holding of bodywork or the emotional support of a counsellor.
Many years later again I was lucky enough to find myself in a relationship where emotional support was available to me just about whenever I needed it. An experience I had never had before. It was interesting to see my wish for a drink subside as I talked through any stresses or difficulties with my partner and shared my vulnerability and fears. In a similar way my partner, who didn’t drink but had a life long attachment to chocolate, found that he no longer felt the daily need for chocolate, and realised he had all but given it up, without any ‘effort’ at all on his part.
Recently research is coming to light in the world of addiction studies that suggests my personal experiences might demonstrate a more general pattern about addictive behaviour. Back in the 1970s an experimental psychologist called Bruce Alexander began to question the experiments that had previously been carried out on addiction. These original experiments were simple; they placed a rat in a cage with a bottle of pure water and a bottle of water laced with heroin or cocaine. The rat invariably become obsessed with the drugged water, choosing to drink more and more from this bottle until he or she eventually overdosed and died. This, and other similar experiments, were taken as evidence of the chemical nature of addiction and the irresistibly addictive nature of drugs. However, Bruce Alexander noticed something that hadn’t previously occurred to the researchers. He was struck by the fact that that in all these experiments the rat was alone, and in a cage. Socially isolated. Surely this wasn’t a ‘fair test’? Rats are social creatures and these conditions didn’t reflect the normal way rats live. These conditions, he realised, may be affecting the experiment. So Alexander devised a new experiment – he created Rat Park. An ideal rat environment with plenty of family and friend rats to play with, places to exercise, things to play with, physical intimacy and plenty of opportunities for sex and having babies. Everything socially that a rat could want. He then repeated the experiment, placing in to Rat Park a bottle of pure water and a bottle of water laced with morphine. The results were striking. The rats in Rat Park consumed very little morphine solution, much less than those in isolation. Also, importantly, the rats in Rat Park didn’t become ADDICTED and they didn’t OVERDOSE. From these experiments Bruce Alexander began to suggest that most of the consumption of drugs of the isolated rats was a response to isolation itself. This led him to take a very different direction in his study of addiction.
Alexander began to explore the idea that lack of human connection may be what fundamentally drives addiction, causing people to look for some replacement to attach to and become dependent upon. Maybe people don’t chose drugs if they have company and support and physical intimacy around them? They may still use drugs from time to time, but, most importantly, they don’t get ADDICTED. and they don’t OVERDOSE. Could this be true? He continues to study human populations to explore this hypothesis. While these studies (Further reading is listed below) are far from conclusive – I find them interesting as they speak to something that I sense I intuitively already ‘know’.
But why are so many of us without connection?
How could I have been without connection in 1992, living in a city of 6 million people? Isn’t that just the human equivalent of Rat Park? Should I not have been in connection heaven? We are, most of us, surrounded by hundreds of people every day. Or at least we could access human contact if we wanted to – in a pub, a shop, a social club, park or similar. So how can we NOT be getting the connection that we need? Why would we turn to some kind of addiction to fill this hole rather than connecting with those around us?
There is a shadow work way of looking at this that may be helpful. In shadow work we are encouraged to explore parts of ourselves that have been cut off, repressed or denied. We’ve usually hidden away these sides of ourselves because at some point in our life we have received the message that this bit of us is just not acceptable for some reason. Now, looking at connection we can see that there are many common messages we could get that might cause us to cut off or deny our connection needs.
A child or young person could take on board any of the following shaming messages:
‘You’re too much.’
‘You’re overwhelming me.’
‘I’m scared of your emotions.’
‘You are never to speak about this.’
‘You’re too tactile.’
‘You’re over emotional.’
‘You’re too sensitive.’
‘You’re a nuisance.’
‘Stand on your own two feet.’
‘You’re so immature.’
‘Don’t tell people what you really feel.’
‘You’re a slut.’
‘You’re a flirt.’
The list is endless. These all give the message that we are ‘too much’ in some way, that our needs for connection, care, intimacy or touch are wrong, inappropriate, distasteful or too much and can never be filled. Whatever level of need is ‘normal’ many of us draw the conclusion that there’s something wrong about us, that we need just that bit more than everyone else, this makes us ‘not normal’ or unacceptable in some way. We can never get enough, because there is something unreasonable or excessive about us and our needs. Believing this we are likely to look to other ways of getting these needs met, rather than risk the vulnerability of declaring them openly.
Some parents offer their children food, sweets in particular, if they are upset. These can become a form of comfort for the child, to the point where they forget that what they really wanted was a cuddle, or to tell someone their worries – to be connected and cared for. Other parents may offer their child some kind of screen, TV , or computer games to substitute for connection. So the seeds for addiction are sewn. The underlying message is that we can’t have what we really want. It’s not reasonable or OK to want time, attention, touch or just to share our emotions and have them heard.
Some of us get exploited as children when we share our need for connection. We may be sexually or emotionally abused, and find ourselves fulfilling the needs of others rather than getting the connection we were looking for. So naturally we begin to hide this need that makes us so vulnerable.
Some of us are abandoned by those we have connected with. We may decide never to connect again, because the pain of this loss was so overwhelming. So we deny our need for connection in an attempt not to get hurt anymore.
If we’re used to facing dissaproval, disappointment or danger when we ask for connection then we will very quickly start to hide that part of ourselves. Often we’ll hide it so well that we’ll even fool ourselves, and we can end up really believing that we’re just fine on our own. We have no need for connection! We might even begin to look down on people who express these kind of needs. We might call them the same kind of names that we got called – ‘needy’, too much’, ‘vulnerable’, ‘unstable’, or whatever. – Our need for connection is now well and truly in Shadow.
Now, carrying this hidden need it is no surprise that, if we have the chance, we will look to find connection with something non human, that doesn’t shame us for our need, and is never going to say ‘Enough is enough!’, ‘Not again!’, ‘You’re so needy!” or ‘I’m leaving you.’ Attaching to a substance is hugely appealing, as it is far less risky than exposing our need to someone close to us.
It is our basic human nature to want to bond and connect. But in a society that shames ‘dependency’, ‘neediness’, and ‘vulnerability’, is it any surprise that some people choose to opt to bond with something else instead. We will bond with something, because that is our nature. It’s a question of whether we will bond healthily and safely, or unhealthily and potentially dangerously.
The pathway out of unhealthy bonds is to form healthy bonds. Vulnerability and the expression of our grief are the gateway to this connection. We have to take the risk to be vulnerable in order to connect, we also need to have people around us who are prepared to be with us in this place. Connection doesn’t come just from being with people, or from sex, or from relationships. It comes from being vulnerable enough to truly connect – to share our fragility, our dependency and our sorrows with another.
We can look at it like this: We don’t get true connection from caring for others – because we are not sharing our own grief and vulnerability. We do not get true connection from being approved of – because we are not showing our vulnerability when we are ‘shining’ and being good. We do not get true connection from being a high achiever, having a perfect body, being pretty, being successful, having a lot of money or being famous, because none of these expose our vulnerability and our grief, infact, they often serve to hide these aspects of ourselves even further from others.
As I continue on this journey of talking with my partner it isn’t always easy or comfortable, sometimes it can take a long time for me to get to what I am really feeling. I have to share parts of myself I’d rather hide, parts I feel ashamed of, or unsure about how they will be received. We can feels miles apart until I take the risk of being vulnerable and sharing these parts of myself. But then, eventually I get there and the tears come – in this moment I am not only connecting with my partner, I am also connecting more deeply with myself, and those parts of myself from which I would normally disconnect. I have come home to myself, and right now there is no desire for alcohol or any other substance to prop me up or complete me.
I am lucky to have this.
But can we really have as much as we want?
Going back for a moment to my discovery of shiatsu 15 years ago. I’d discovered something that worked for me and gave me deep connection. Surely now my search was over. However, it was not to be quite that simple. Once I’d discovered how wonderful shiatsu was I then spent most of my sessions over the following years unable to actually enjoy the treatment, because I was so much dreading it coming to an end. I would dread the practitioner taking their hands off me. I had such a deep belief that I wouldn’t get ‘enough’ and I would be left wanting more, that I couldn’t take in what was being offered. After a few years a point came where I received several shaitsu sessions in a week from various different colleagues under the guise of practice, supervision etc. I remember reaching a point during that week where I thought. ‘I don’t really need a shiatsu. I don’t particularly feel like it today.’ I’d finally had enough shiatsu! It was possible! It was great to discover that my need wasn’t endless.
One of the most common reasons people don’t explore their shadows is because they believe they will be endless. Endless need, a bottomless pit of grief, or rage and anger that will never go away. However in shadow work I find the opposite is true. If we allow these feelings, in a safe shame free space, they naturally end when they’re done – and we know that something is complete. It’s only when an important need has not to be met, usually early on in our life, that we’re left with this sense of ‘it will never be enough’ ‘It will never be done’.
One of my shiatsu teachers once told me ‘You never know what’s enough till you’ve had too much.’ I liked this idea (and was happy to put some time in to verifying it!). When we have ‘too much’ we naturally wander away, lose interest, move on to something else. Think of a child who’s hurt themselves, they go to their father or mother for comfort, they sit on their knee and hold them, the parent doesn’t push them away at any point. Eventually they will wander off, back to whatever game they are playing. They’ll shrug the parent off – But first they need to discover for themselves what ‘too much’ feels like, and to experience that desire to move off, to become separate in the world for a time, knowing connection will be there again when they next look for it. If we’re constantly trying to avoid the shame of looking for what might turn out to be ‘too much’ we’ll never have enough, we’ll never discover what this feels like and we’ll always be left wanting more.
We are ALL addicted. We’re addicted to connection. It’s a human need. We’re hard wired to want it, and we find it hard to fully function without it. The only difference is whether we get this need met openly, cleanly and joyfully, or whether we get it met in an underhand, secretive, shameful or painful way.
It’s important to notice that while it IS possible to have ENOUGH connection/touch/closeness/support this is NOT possible with a substitute (drug etc.) With a substitute we never reach that point of feeing complete and satisfied, because we are not getting what we really need. So however much we have it will never be enough. Paradoxically then, in choosing a substitute we are actually creating a reality where we will never have enough – because we are looking in the wrong place. This can then serve to strengthen our belief that our needs are ‘too much’, and can never be filled.
How can we put an end to the cycle?
We can start by bringing this human need out of shadow. We can begin doing it right now, by stating to ourselves and to others who we trust, ‘I am someone who needs touch/support/holding/attention.’ ‘I am a very emotional person.’ ‘I like a lot of attention.’ ‘I love to be held.’ or whatever it may be that is true for us. Let us celebrate our human nature and our need for bonding and connection! In doing so we can liberate those around us and they too may begin to speak about how much they really need. Our level of unmet need may be high initially – after all – there can be a huge imbalance to redress. We may need a lot , but it is never ‘too much’. In fact quite the opposite is true – this need is essential, healthy, universal and life affirming and it is worth all the searching and exploring and wrong turns to eventually find the connection we need.
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The Globalization of Addiction: A study in poverty of the spirit. Bruce Alexander
Chasing The Scream. Johann Hari