The consuming nature of addiction means that by its very definition, it’s an isolating chronic disease. It manifests in various forms that permeate the fabric of society, destroying lives, families, and communities. As explored in previous articles in this series, the rates of addiction are running rampant in countries around the world and the misconception that some addictions are worse than others has left the door open for an explosion of seemingly “innocent” addictions.
Society has viewed an addict as the person strung out on heroin or meth, in a back alley, selling their soul for the next fix. But research has shown that an addict is any person that is unable to stop using a substance such as alcohol, prescription meds, and illicit drugs, or engaging in a behavior, even though it has harmful effects on their daily lives. These behaviors can range from gambling, eating disorders, and sexual gratification to social media and gaming. Even work can become an addiction. Addiction is addiction. It devours more than it returns, leaving us depleted and vulnerable, fueling a downward trajectory that ruins countless lives.
Misunderstandings and myths around addiction are part of the problem: A person addicted to gambling, for example, may be better able to maintain a job or appear healthy, but they remain 15 times more likely to commit suicide than their non-addicted peers.
The rise of social media and the very technologies that underpin it are addictive. Between social media, work, or even pornography—this fast and stimulating world we now live in is miles apart from the world we inhabited for centuries. Marketers and politicians promise we can have it all. We expect constant stimulation and pleasure, leaving us vulnerable to a hundred toxic indulgences. This has left many of us hooked on our phones.
Ironically, social media that was “sold” on the promise to bring us closer and provide connections in an ever-expanding world has left us more isolated and divided. The ease and addictive excitement of our social media feeds have stolen the time we need for face-to-face interactions. We are left with a mild depression that erodes our will to get out in the world.
Adding insult to that injury, healthy social contact is the most essential aspect to a successful recovery from addiction.
So how do we turn back the clock and reconnect with ourselves and others in a very disconnected world?
A Foundation for Recovery
Founded by Bill Wilson in the 1930s, the 12-step program known globally as Alcoholics Anonymous, or AA, remains central to the lives of many in addiction recovery.
As an addiction counselor and recovering addict myself, I have seen first-hand how the 12 steps, and the spiritual transformation that often accompanies them, looks in my own life and the many lives I have helped over the years.
The 12 Steps
- We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
- Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
- Decided to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
- Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
- Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
- We are entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
- Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
- Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.
- Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
- Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
- Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
- Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to other alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
Wilson’s work reminds us of the need for spiritual wakefulness in a time of great suffering and pain. While heavily influenced by Christian teachings, the 12 Steps can be applied to individuals of other faiths and non-believers alike. These steps carry a message that can be universally applied to any problem and addiction.
The collapse of faith in our society, and the explosion of new addictive forces—from hyper-palatable junk foods to social media feeds driven by artificial intelligence—have left us ever more vulnerable to addiction.
Prevention Is Greater Than The Cure
Change must be actively encouraged in all areas of society; research clearly shows that the earlier the intervention, the better the outcome.
For parents, that might be limiting their child’s screen time or discussing the dangers of addiction.
But even for those already caught by addiction and dependence, real change is possible with the right support networks and attitudes.
It’s important to acknowledge that the greatest factor in addiction is pain. People find relief from suffering in the addictive behavior, even though it increases their suffering afterward. For people who have suffered trauma, the urge to escape their suffering can be overwhelming.
There are many areas in society—from the home to the legal system—where we can take steps to better prevent future generations from developing drug addiction.
The Home Life
Where addiction is prevalent in the family home, or where trauma has been identified, children at high risk should have access to intervention as early as possible.
The National Institutes of Health makes it clear that the first eight years of a child’s life are critical in the prevention of substance abuse. Guardians, social workers, and family doctors have a collective duty of care to ensure high-risk children are screened.
Unfortunately due to several factors, fewer than half of pediatricians report screening children and adolescents for the use of tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs.
The Education System
For many children, the biggest risk of addiction isn’t substance abuse, but social media dependence. The correlation between social media usage and the rise in eating disorders is too hard to ignore. As many as 71 percent of teenagers experience withdrawal symptoms when unable to access the internet and an Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development study in 2018 showed that teenagers who experience the strongest withdrawal symptoms also reported the lowest life satisfaction.
The best way to deal with this issue is to educate children on the importance of self-preservation, balance, and delayed gratification. This will help them deal with the endless temptations to come. Teachers and parents alike must unite and voice their concerns to protect future generations from serious harm.
The Legal System
The war on drugs has failed to protect individuals from the harms of substance abuse. Possession charges that punish individuals for their deep psychological pain do little to help the addict or protect society.
More importance needs to be placed on rehabilitation when substance abuse and alcoholism have been identified. This approach will save lives, cut costs, and reduce crime in the long term.
Until we as a society connect and treat people for the problems that have led them to addiction, we will continue to see this issue harm our communities.
To further reduce the stigma around addiction, and to encourage open discussions around mental health in the workplace, business leaders should introduce several changes to protect staff in times of crisis.
Addiction awareness workshops, team-building activities, and compassionate policies will allow individuals to open up about their battles without fear of consequences. More importantly, giving staff better grievance policies so they have the time to heal properly will give more people the space to recover.
Local events, fundraisers, and clubs are the backbones of local communities. No Facebook group or virtual meeting can ever replace the real physical connection of the local community spirit.
In the TED talk “Everything you think you know about addiction is wrong” by Johann Hari, he made the point that “the opposite of addiction is connection.” It’s important to remember that addiction stems from emotional pain and detachment. It’s a manifestation of deep-rooted pain and disconnect, a toxic coping mechanism for life.
To you, the individual, be kind to your inner, wounded child. Take time for yourself and your individual needs to ease the pain that may push you towards addictive escapes.
Being a boss, colleague, parent, partner, caregiver, and community member can be tough. Being so many things to so many people while neglecting your own needs will undoubtedly affect the other relationships you hold dearly.
Having self-awareness and self-compassion is vital to breaking the generational trauma cycle so that you don’t pass it on to your children.
Be mindful of what you eat—not just in terms of food—but the information and quality of information you consume. If something doesn’t feel right, or it takes the form of escapism, trust your ability to discern what is healthy and what is not.
Paul Spanjar, the CEO of The Providence Projects UK, is a leading addiction specialist. In recovery himself for over 20 years, Spanjar and the team help others transform their lives through the rehabilitation programs offered at Providence Projects treatment centers.