February 9, 2015

On Environment, Connectedness, and Addiction

disconnected - 100PedalsThere was recently a flurry of commentary around two articles discussing the causes for addiction. The article that started this wildfire conversation was “The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered, and It Is Not What You Think” by Johann Hari. Relying heavily on a 1980 “Rat Park” experiment focused on morphine addictions, Hari presented a premise that addiction is caused by a lack of positive “bonding,” much of which is the result of the addicted person not feeling connected in their environment.

The Hari article triggered quite a discourse among parents of addicted children who read “disconnected in their environment” as implicating parents and heaping much responsibility on them for their child’s addiction. As these comments were pretty intense and emotionally charged, I opted to wait, step back, and provide a more thoughtful response once the fire died down. Contained in this article are my thoughts.

Quite honestly, there was nothing in the Hari article or in his conclusions that left me with the sense that I am responsible for my son’s addiction. I completely agreed with his premise about addiction, environment and disconnectedness. (please, read on before you react).

It is incredibly accurate and insightful to say my son felt disconnected from his world. As a result he sought to find something to feel better. It was a feeling of not being connected that started him on the road to his addiction. The “environment” my son was living in did not fulfill him and he felt empty and detached. It was that lack which sent him on a journey to a darker place, not a better place.

The point that was clearly missed by those condemning or criticizing the Hari article – My son’s environment was what he was struggling with, not the environment his parents created for him. While those environments are shared and overlap, they are two entirely different things.

My son’s environment is his school, home, family, friends, work, and the space between his ears! It was this environment and his lack of connection to it that drove him to look for something else, something better. Unfortunately, he found it in heroin and not in his parent’s love, his music, his athleticism, his friends, his faith or, most importantly, in himself. This is what I understood “environment” to be as I absorbed the premises in the Hari article; not some criticism for how I raised, educated, or loved him.

To help make these distressed parents feel better, a rebuttal article surfaced. This article was, “Looking for the likely cause of addiction won’t get you far” by Peg O’Connor. It didn’t take long for O’Connor to distance herself from any endorsement of the Hari article in saying “addiction is a highly complex set of phenomena that cannot be reduced to one cause, which means there is not one solution or treatment.” She also wisely posits, “as is always the case with articles and arguments (including my own right here), there is something right about them. And something wrong. It is always important to identify each.”

This past weekend I heard Dr. Drew Pinsky talk. When the Hari article was brought up in the Q&A session, Dr. Drew reiterated the same point, “I read the article. I agree with it. Is it accurate, yes! But, there is more to it than just that…

Parents, your child’s addiction is not about you or how you raised your child or where you went wrong. Their addiction is a byproduct of many things, one of which is their environment and their sense of connectedness to it. This is not the result of a moral or parental failing.

What concerned me as I read all these defensive, angry comments is so many parents missed out on an opportunity to obtain a valuable insight. I understand the guilt and anguish we all feel at some point as we come face-to-face with addiction our family. Over time we all come to learn, that our children’s choices are theirs, not ours, and no matter how much we love, coach, inspire, or encourage they are still going to make their own decisions. The behaviors I observed in these responses reflected parents who were more afraid about having been bad parents, than they were in taking advantage of a lesson in how to be better parents.

Your child’s addiction is not about you!

No matter how normal, happy, perfect, or great the situation in the home environment, there is still a lot of external garbage that our children experience. Talking with them, listening to them, and paying attention to the perspective of educators relating to things we may not see or understand on our own provide us opportunities to be more attentive and proactive. We must be willing to understand and be sensitive to their world view. We often see what we want to believe. Sometimes what we see isn’t true reality, rather it is our definition of reality. The Hari article reminded us that the environment our children see and operate in, has real influence on their behaviors.

We learn best when we are presented with a perspective that makes us uncomfortable and challenges our way of thinking provided we engage in the learning process! Instead of finding a way to escape, denounce, dismiss or avoid the learning opportunity, lean in, explore, and find ways to understand and reflect on the information being shared. When you do this, you will always learn something in the process.

Parenting a child with an addiction is a difficult painful assignment. Raising, teaching, and loving an adolescent in this day is quite challenging. There is a lot of great information out there that can be of great value in this journey. Keep your eyes, your ears, your heart, and your mind open. Your child’s addiction is not your fault and it is not about you. It is a byproduct of their choices and decisions. No one is to blame and no one has the clear cut definitive answer to the problem. If you are suffering, hurting or confused remember there is a very large community looking to love, support, encourage, and learn from each other. Embrace all of it with an open mind and a forgiving heart and you will make great progress on your journey! Peace!

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About Dave Cooke

Dave Cooke is a dad on a mission. His mission is to help parents get control of their lives over the powerful, destructive influences of a child's addiction. As the father of a son in a ten year heroin battle, Dave knows all to well the challenges parents and families face. He also knows there is a way to find peace in the chaos. It is his mission to help parents discover their path to a healthier, balanced life even if a child's active addiction is still part of their daily journey.