We recently published an interview with Eric Spofford done by our partners at the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, specifically for their F.I.G.H.T. Opiates program. An outspoken addiction treatment center owner in New Hampshire, he makes innumerable interesting points about the opioid epidemic that you’re not likely to hear elsewhere. On the belief that his perspective is as critical as it is unique, we asked Spofford for permission to publish an excerpt from his new book, Real People Real Recovery: Overcoming Addiction in Modern America, that he co-wrote with holistic recovery expert Piers Kaniuka. -Dig Editors
THE FOLLOWING IS EXCERPTED FROM THE CHAPTER ‘THE DISLOCATION THEORY OF ADDICTION’ FROM REAL PEOPLE REAL RECOVERY BY ERIC SPOFFORD + PIERS KANIUKA
Digital culture is only exacerbating our sense of alienation. The world is indeed more connected because of the internet and social media. We have access to information and people like never before. But it has come at the expense of authentic personal connection. Ironically, this attempt to connect us all—globally and digitally—has led to us all becoming more isolated than ever before.
Life is increasingly virtual. We live in an age of online celebrity, blogebrity, and internet personality. Adults are tethered to their smartphones, whether for work or to stay in constant touch with family and friends. Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter have become the primary source of community for many people. It’s where they go for validation, to have their voices heard, or to find out what’s going on in the world or even in their own neighborhood. We are far more likely to text, Snap, Tweet, Instagram, or Facebook than actually sit down and share space with each other. Share time together. Share conversation. Share silence. Human interaction is increasingly disembodied.
At the same time, many Americans are feeling the effects of unrelenting economic uncertainty—the ever- rising costs of living and higher education, stagnant wages, and the offshoring of jobs. Millennial men will be the first generation of American men who can reasonably expect to earn less than their fathers.
While the opioid epidemic is the most glaring effect, it’s certainly not the only symptom of our societal malaise. Things are getting worse across the board—suicide, homelessness, mass incarceration, ecological disaster. Taken together, all of these factors are making life in 21st century America increasingly untenable. The hard truth is that millions of our fellow citizens lead lives of quiet desperation.
Although we’re born with the same innate capacities of our ancestors, we are effectively divorced from the natural world and no longer live in tight-knit extended communities. Humans are social creatures and strong communal ties benefit everyone. Unfortunately, we have not really adapted to modernity. We have the same need for connection that our ancestors had 1,000 years ago, but we now find ourselves struggling to relate to one another in an increasingly fragmented world. The pace of life is relentless and disorienting. We are at the mercy of the gods of Wall Street and Silicon Valley.
Given the anxious lifestyle just described, it is no wonder that addiction has become a pandemic. Dr. Bruce Alexander, (the creator of the Dislocation Theory of Addiction), argues that addiction is actually an adaptive response. In the face of overwhelming stress and alienation, we turn to substances or other compulsive behaviors to soothe our overwrought minds and bodies.
It is important to note that Alexander does not confine his analysis to the abuse of substances, nor does he medicalize the issue. He argues that one can be overwhelmingly involved with any number of behaviors as well. These include (but are not confined to) shopping, working out, eating, sex, or gambling. (The so-called process addictions.) By this definition an addict is someone whose investment of time, energy, and/or money in said substance or activity comes at the expense of his/her parenting, marriage, or work performance.
Alexander’s addiction research began with heroin addicts in Vancouver’s notorious Downtown Eastside in the 1970s. His findings led him to conduct his now famous Rat Park experiments. Before his landmark research, opiate addiction had been widely studied by isolating individual rats in small skinner boxes equipped with a button that, when pressed, delivered a hit of morphine to the rat. Not surprisingly, the rats repeatedly hit the button and, in short order, became addicted. Some used to the point of fatal overdose.
Alexander took note of the oppressive, isolated, lonely environment and changed it accordingly. He constructed a large Rat Park replete with toys, food, and other rats. The rats were curious. They explored their environment. They interacted with one another. Remarkably, morphine consumption dropped precipitously and none of the rats became addicted. Substance abuse largely extinguished itself after the rats were integrated into a safe communal environment.
Dislocation in 21st century America is accelerating because of relentless economic forces (i.e., free trade and automation) that are utterly indifferent to the well-being of our communities and to the planet itself. In the age of globalization, corporations continually seek ways to maximize profit for shareholders. This is usually accomplished by cutting labor and manufacturing costs. High unemployment is desirable since it drives down labor costs even further. Although these policies benefit stockholders, owners, and upper management, they also cause widespread harm to workers and their families. Globalization has caused a degree of income inequality not seen since the Gilded Age.
Since the adoption of NAFTA and other free trade policies, the United States has seen a dramatic contraction of the middle-class. Factories have been permanently shuttered. Manufacturing jobs have either disappeared or now require advanced specialized training. Giant buildings that once buzzed with activity sit empty in many cities across America.
Detroit, Flint, Lawrence, Mass., Cedar Rapids, Allentown, Buffalo, Cleveland, Newark, and Baltimore—these once-thriving manufacturing hubs are fossils from another era, the detritus of globalization. Their skeletal remains lie crumbling and decaying, the rusted blight of past glory. The destruction of legitimate local economies fuels the black market at home, which is dominated by the sale of illicit drugs. The burgeoning drug trade is, in large part, an effect of the dislocation caused by free trade and economic globalization.
Remarkably, researchers have almost never taken the socio-economic dimension of addiction into account. The medical model tacitly endorses the myth of the demon drug—the assumption that addiction is caused by addictive substances. Certain substances have been deemed so addictive that they must be criminalized. This myth lies at the root of the prohibition mentality as well as the Just Say No, DARE, and Scared Straight campaigns. (All of these fear tactics and propaganda campaigns have been spectacular failures.)
The demon drug narrative also promotes the idea that only vulnerable (i.e., defective) individuals become addicted. Instead of looking at social factors, it focuses almost exclusively on biological causation. The dominant narrative asserts that addiction occurs when genetically vulnerable individuals recklessly abuse dangerous substances. If that were the case then there certainly is something genetically distinctive about people living in the United States, Canada, Western Europe, Australia, and Russia—because rates of addiction are markedly higher in those regions than they are in the rest of the world. We contend that those populations suffer high rates of addiction because of dislocation and not because they are more genetically vulnerable than people living elsewhere.