I am so excited to share this with you! I have been looking for a video to support this blog for months and something good just came out last week!
There has been a shift in addiction treatment in recent years. We used to think of addiction strictly from the perspective that it is something that happens to bad people with poor morals and ethical judgment.
As time went on, people began to understand that addiction is something that can happen to anyone, regardless of social standing or moral character. We started to look past all of the negative behaviors associated with addiction and at the actual people underneath. This led to a number of discoveries and changes in the ways we think about addiction. I will talk about all of these in their own time, but the focus of this blog post is on the idea that the way to “cure” addiction is through relationships. It all has to do with attachment and healthy relationships.
There is a classic study we refer to a lot in the psychology of addiction. There have been several studies done in the past where researchers would put a rat in a cage with the ability to push a lever for a drug (usually cocaine). What the studies found is that once the rat figured it out, he/she would push the lever for cocaine, ignoring everything else, sex, food, water, etc., until he/she died. The lesson taken from these studies was supposed to be that addiction is very powerful and addicts will continue to self administer despite great detriment. But there is much more to be taken from this study. At some point another researcher (Bruce Alexander) realized that all of these studies examined rats in isolation. Since then researchers have repeated similar studies, but allowed their test subjects to be around other rats, and gave them things to do aside from sitting around in a cage. What they found in these follow up studies is that rats will choose to do other things aside from using, and will usually not become “addicted”. They also found that rats exposed to a study similar to the original (kept in isolation) and then put into a social environment with other rats reduced their use of the drug and often times stopped displaying addictive behavior altogether.
As a therapist I am very attachment oriented. Attachment theory says that as social creatures, human beings crave and need close, supportive, empathetic relationships with other people. As babies we are born into this world being completely vulnerable and needing our parents for everything. If our parents are reliable, supportive, empathetic, and caring, then we usually grow into well adjusted “securely attached” individuals. When our parents are not able to provide us with the support we need then problems can arise and we usually develop unhealthy attachment styles. Attachment styles are important because they influence the ways we interact with our partners and other significant figures in our lives. If you have a secure attachment style, then you trust that your loved ones care about you, are there to support you, will meet your needs, and will not abandon you. If you have an unhealthy attachment style then you have learned and internalized the belief that you cannot trust other people, they can hurt you, abandon you, and you cannot reliably get your needs met through your relationships with them. This is important because when people cannot meet their needs through healthy relationships, they turn to other means to cope. This is often when addictions form.
When talking about attachment, we often explain things through the needs of children, because that is a time in our lives when we are most vulnerable and dependent on others. If you were to imagine a child reaching out to his/her caretaker, being vulnerable, and really needing care and support, what do you think would happen if that child’s caretakers were unable to meet his/her needs, be it safety, love, empathy, attunement, etc.? Typically what we see in cases like this is that children learn that their parents cannot meet their needs and then pull away and look for support elsewhere or simply internalize the belief that the world is not safe and their needs will never be met. A life of looking for ways to fill that hole ensues. Fortunately, people can heal from difficult upbringings through healthy, supportive relationships. This is part of how therapy can help. Counseling can provide a safe, supportive environment for people to work on identifying their unmet relational needs and fulfilling them in healthy ways. Having a good therapist who is supportive, caring, and nurturing can be helpful in healing from attachment wounds and unmet relational needs.
Jon Daily with Recovery Happens here in Sacramento talks emphasizes to role of attachment in addiction in his presentations. Check out this video of his if you are interested in learning more!