Name: Beau Sheil
From: Winston-Salem, North Carolina
Morality or Neurology: Views on Addiction
Seasons in Malibu
Addiction Awareness Scholarship Campaign
27 November 2020
Morality or Neurology: Views on Addiction
When I ask you to picture a drug-addict, who do you see? Your mind automatically paints an image of someone living on the streets, someone who steals money from their friends and family, and a person who isn’t above using violence to get their next fix. You don’t picture your grandma, who still has your kindergarten art posted on her fridge. Or your cousin, who used to come over every weekend to play Mario Kart. To the American conscious, addiction lies within one’s own sense of morality rather than its true origin: mental illness.
I think a large part of this affiliation, the association between those with addictions and those we collectively consider “bad people,” originates from the Western conception of mental illness itself. Less than a century ago, those with mental and neurological ailments were confined to asylums, shunned by society at large. Only recently have we as society began to develop a more empathetic view on those who are mentally ill. Depression and anxiety have become far less taboo points of discussion within the past few decades. People are much more open to talking about their experiences with depression and anxiety, and thus the topic has garnered much more sympathy and understanding. However, addiction still remains demonized by the societal conscious, and the basic understanding of where addiction comes from still remains highly debated in medicine today. It is still regarded as a “choice” rather than an illness, despite evidence explaining otherwise.
One of the most interesting studies on addiction comes from the “Rat Park” experiments by Dr. Bruce Alexander. It began with the observation of rats confined to a cage with access to only normal water and morphine-infused water. Rats unanimously become addicted to the morphine water, eventually leading to overdose. To Dr. Alexander, why wouldn’t they? The rats were confined to live in a cage for days on end, with no sense of fulfillment outside of drinking the morphine water. Thus, Dr. Alexander devised Rat Park: an enclosure for rats with enough food, activities, and mates to enrich a rat for a lifetime. The rats of Rat Park showed no interest in the morphine water outside of hints of curiosity. Rats who would drink from the morphine water rarely returned, even when the substance was readily available. Dr. Alexander concluded that rats (and by extent humans) who led fulfilling lives in an environment that fits their needs were unlikely to become reliant on drugs and substances. Could it be that addiction is the brain’s way of coping with an inadequate living environment?
My own familiarity with addiction has always made me wary of the emphasis on morality and ethics when it comes to addiction. While I myself have never had an addiction, much of my family has struggled with the illness since before I was born. I recall the time my mom began going to AA after a particular incident my ninth grade year. From what she shared, the group was heavily religious based, often citing the “light of God” as a means to get sober. To them, addiction could be prayed away, and those who still struggled with alcohol consumption just weren’t praying hard enough. While I’m sure religion could be used as great motivation for someone to get help, that leaves those who aren’t religious behind. My mother’s problem wasn’t her belief in God or her moral purity; her problem was, mostly, her depression.
Psychologist Alice Miller once said “what is addiction, really? It is a sign, a signal, a symptom of distress. It is a language that tells us about a plight that must be understood.” Addiction has been heavily documented with ties to other mental health concerns, such as depression or bipolar disorder. As such, the rehabilitation of those with addictions should start from its clinical source rather than a supposed moral one.
Attitudes towards addiction are slowly changing. People are beginning to shift away from the moral stigma of addiction and understanding it more as a neurological condition. Not only that, but more research is being done on the causes of addiction and how to effectively rehabilitate those affected by it. However, the idea of addiction as a moral issue will not disappear overnight, and the shame carried with addiction is still very prevalent. In order to better help those affected by addiction in our society, we must do better at showing them compassion and empathy. A quote by writer and journalist, Johann Hari, sums it up best: “the opposite of addiction is not sobriety, it’s human connection.” Therefore, it is important to challenge the preconceived notion of addiction as anything other than an illness.