Tuesday, March 31, 2009

America Anonymous; Eight Addicts In Search of A Life by Benoit Denizet-Lewis

Alcohol and drugs (including steroids), eating, shoplifting, gambling and sex.

Usually people aren't recognized nor recognize themselves as addicts until feeding their habit brings them to a very low point in their lives: near death, in jail, bankrupt, homeless, unloved or a combination of all these conditions. .

It's not easy to finger the cause of addiction which admits an easy or reliable treatment, much less a cure. There may be some individual genetic predispositions to addiction but it is well nigh impossible to disentangle them from the effect of experience. Neurobiologists have detected certain patterns of activity in the brain associated with the 'feel-good' hormone dopomine common to most forms of addiction (stress-related craving- or as Nora Volkow*, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse calls it in her stump speech: 'free will gone awry'). Pharmaceutical companies are thus very excited about developing drugs that can effectively and consistently block or transform these biological processes into the form of a readily patentable pill. It is not difficult to bring their discoveries to the market but so far none have proved consistently effective, not subject to abuse or really even met the gold standards of clinical study.

Interestingly, just about every institution or self-help group involved in the treatment of addiction uses one variation or another of Alcoholic Anonymous's Twelve Steps.The author suggests that the spiritual component of this kind of program is undeniable and essential to its success, however far that concept of 'success' might be from ' a cure'. The Twelve Step program has, never-the-less, helped millions of people overcome the most debilitating effects of all forms of addictions.

This seems to be the tragedy (scourge) of addiction. Getting out from under the claws of addiction- having a life- most often requires a lifetime of dilgence, attention and effort to avoid or mollify "stess-triggers" to compulsive consumption- often to the exclusion of enterprises or interactions which may otherwise have been quite self-fulfilling. But addiction is also self-limiting. Perhaps it would be better to speak of this problem as one of stress management or cognitive flexibility and recognize various degrees of disability. The subjects of the author's journalistic investigations are representatives of the more extreme forms of addiction so portrayals in this work are grim.

In 1981 Bruce Alexander and his team of psychological researchers at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver set out to study the role of environment in addictive behavior in a new way.

"Until then, most scientists studying addiction had simply put rats in small individual cages and watched as they eagerly guzzled drug-laced solutions and ignored water and food, sometimes dying in the process. This phenomena was regarded- first by researchers, then drug czars, then parents trying to keep their kids off drugs- as proof of the inherently addictive quality of drugs and of the inevitable addiction of any human who used them repeatedly (This was false, of course. Most people who try drugs don't become addicted to them)."

"So, what made those lab rats lose their minds? Bruce and his team had a simple hypothesis: The rats had awful lives. They were stressed, lonely, bored, and looking to self-medicate. To prove it Alexander created a lab rat dream house he called "Rat Park Heaven". The two-hundred-square-foot residence featured bright balls and tin cans to play with, painted creeks and trees to look at, and plenty of room for mating and socializing."

He put sixteen rats into the Park and offered them water or a sweet, morphine- based cocktail. He offered the same drinks to sixteen rats in isolated cages. The Rat-Parkers hardly touched the morphine solutions no matter how sweet Alexander and his colleagues made them. The isolated rats eagerly got high.

Although not mentioned by the author other studies confirm analogous results. In experiments where rabbits and monkeys are placed in isolation or in subordinate positions, or they are put under stress, their blood pressures and levels of bad cholesterol tend to increase. Epidemiological studies show that death and sickness rates from cancer, heart disease, and other major illnesses in the U.S are higher in states where participation in civic life is low, racial prejudice is high, or a large gap exists between the incomes of the rich and poor and of women and men. ( "Social Epidemiology" by Ichiro Kawachi and Lisa Berkman, cited in The Gospel Of Food; Everything You Think You Know About Food Is Wrong by Barry Glassner).

Of course, we cannot expect a "cultural renaissance" along the lines of Rat-Park Heaven in America anytime soon, certainly not for addressing public health issues such as addiction, heart disease or cancer. Rescuing banks and fighting evil-doers in Afghanistan comes first!

* Nora Volkow, the great grand-daughter of Leon Trotsky, who grew up in the house where he was murdered.

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