Addiction as a social disease

Stanton and Archie Brodsky wrote this piece in 1976 for the Addiction Research Foundation publication (now defunct), Addictions, which was subsequently reprinted by the recovery publishing house, Hazelden! Building on their approach in Love and Addiction, Stanton and Archie analyze how addiction, rather than being an aberration, grows from the well-springs of modern existence. Their views are in many ways prophetic of developments in the quarter century since. Consider that Freda Martin, an adviser to the Invest in Kids Foundation, said about a parenting survey in Canada in March of this year, “Never in the history of civilization have we had so much scientific information about how a child’s brain develops. And never have our young people been so isolated from their families, so bereft of practical experience and practical wisdom.”

Addictions (Addiction Research Foundation of Ontario), Winter 1976, pp. 2-21; reprinted as Hazelden pamphlet, Center City, MN, 1977 © Stanton Peele & Archie Brodsky, all rights reserved

Stanton Peele and Archie Brodsky


Early in 1972 the New York Times ran a feature article on a growing phenomenon of the youth culture: the religious commune. The article told of the Children of God, a sect with 50 “colonies” around the country where members lived in absolute devotion to God and each other and in absolute disdain for all worldly things. A year later the Times added a new wrinkle to the story. A black Californian named Ted Patrick was hiring himself out as a kidnapper to help parents reclaim their children (many of them legally adults) from the Children of God and other extreme sects. Together, Patrick and the parents would abduct a youth and subject him (or her) to a marathon “deprogramming” session in a motel room, where, with the help of Bible experts, they sought to undo the “brainwashing” the youth had received by showing him that the commune’s ideology was a perversion of true Christianity. How did the young people respond? Some resisted abduction or escaped from the motel, and a few filed assault charges against Patrick. Others accepted the new indoctrination and turned violently against the religious groups to which they had just recently dedicated their entire lives.

This story speaks poignantly of a serious dislocation in our society. What could make parents feel so desperate about their grown children as to resort to a stranger’s forcible intercession to resolve a split within the family? Why do both the young and their parents show such extreme and unstable reactions? We believe that the best way to come to grips with such anomalies is through an understanding of our society’s addictive patterns of life.

At first sight, this may seem a strange juxtaposition. What does addiction have to do with religious communes or religious communes with addiction? Well, we can start with Marx’s famous dictum that religion is “the opiate of the people.” But to understand the implications of what Marx was saying, we have to go beyond his purely metaphorical use of the term “opiate” and take a closer look at the real nature of opiate addiction, or any addiction. When we do, we find that addiction has equally to do not only with opiates and religious communes, but with obesity, early marriage, the PhD rat race, and the animal population explosion in crowded city neighbourhoods.

Debunking “Drug Addiction”

Recent research on the effects of drugs points us toward the conclusion that addiction is something very different from what we have thought it to be. To begin with, there is no necessary connection between addiction and drugs, or, more especially, opiates (opium, heroin, and morphine). More precisely, addiction has little to do with what drugs contain, although it has a lot to do with what we think drugs can do to us. People often react physically to a placebo—a chemically neutral substance that is presented as being, say, morphine or some powerful medication—just as though it were the real thing. Psychological studies have shown that the way people react to drugs, in general, is as much a function of their cultural background, expectations, and emotional involvement in the situation as of the chemistry of the drug.

There are no drugs of which this is more true than the ones we think of as the universal addicters, the opiates. Ten years ago Isidor Chein’s The Road to H gave us a glimpse into the Byzantine social structure of the ghettos of New York, where some adolescents use heroin without becoming addicted while others do not use heroin in quantities sufficient to explain their ritualized “addict” behaviour. More recently, Dr Norman Zinberg of the Harvard Medical School has observed that surgical patients who have been given morphine in dosages and frequencies heretofore considered sufficient to addict do not, by and large, feel a craving for the drug after their pain has abated. A milestone in this growing enlightenment is a U.S. defence department report released in the spring of 1973, which reports that of all the U.S. servicemen in Vietnam who experimented with heroin, even to the point of apparent dependency, very few have taken up the drug again once they returned to the United States, where presumably they have had better things to do. Chein describes the addict’s dependence in the following terms:

From almost his earliest days, the addict has been systematically educated and trained into incompetence. Unlike others, therefore, he could not find a vocation, a career, a meaningful, sustained activity around which he could, so to say, wrap his life. The addiction, however, offers an answer to even this problem of emptiness. The life of an addict constitutes a vocation—hustling, raising funds, assuring a connection and the maintenance of supply, outmanoeuvring the police, performing the rituals of preparing and of taking the drug—a vocation around which the addict can build a reasonably full life.

What Chein fails to note is that this process of self-definition as an addict, and the need for heroin that develops in conjunction with it, is addiction.

On the other hand, what Vietnam veterans have in common with hospital patients being given morphine is that they do not think of themselves as drug addicts or even drug users under normal circumstances. Clearly, questions of self-image and self-esteem are crucial in determining whether a person is susceptible to addiction. The category of drug is not so crucial, as present-day observers are learning. It is commonplace nowadays for government officials to warn of the dangerous addicting effects of barbiturates. In the recent Consumers Union manual, Licit and Illicit Drugs, cigarette smoking is treated as a habit in exactly the same sense as an opium “habit.” And in Love and Addiction, we make the case that the same motivational and behaviour patterns occur when one is addicted to another person as when one is addicted to a drug.

The Experience of Addiction

It is wrong to blame drugs for addiction. Addiction is a kind of experience that happens inside someone’s consciousness. It is triggered by a drug or some other stimulus, but in essence, it happens because the person has learned to react to the experience in a certain characteristic way. Consider the heroin withdrawal syndrome. Of course, if you suddenly cease to administer a strong chemical which has been in your bloodstream for some time, your body will undergo a compensatory physical reaction that will be noticeable to you. It is the addict’s typical response to this—the agony, the intense craving—that is a cultural creation. It took form within certain groups of people whose lives revolved around heroin and was broadcast to society as a whole by inflammatory literature such as Nelson Algren’s The Man With The Golden Arm.

We now know that heroin withdrawal symptoms can be suppressed or minimized in social settings which do not nurture their expression, as in certain iconoclastically tough-minded rehabilitation centres. On the other hand, among individuals or groups of people who consider it reasonable and permissible to fall apart upon being jilted by a lover, something analogous to extreme heroin withdrawal can be observed, with alternating inertia and uncontrollable restiveness, physical reactions (chills, diarrhoea, sleeplessness), and an overwhelming feeling of emptiness. To understand why someone could find the absence of a drug—or a lover, or anything—so unbearable, we have to ask why that person found its presence so valuable. And this brings us to the basic hopelessness the addict feels about his prospects in life—a hopelessness which leads him to become addicted, which is intensified as he gets deeper into the addiction and further loses contact with life, and which looms all the larger upon withdrawal.

Addiction is caused by environmental factors—more common in our time than any other—which are destructive of the wholeness of the individual. Commenting on the curious contemporaneity of the schizoid (pathologically weak and detached) personality, R.D. Laing characterizes the schizoid condition as one of “ontological insecurity”—a basic uncertainty about one’s own being, one’s place in the world. According to Laing, this severe alienation causes desperate attempts to unite destructively with another person, to devour or be devoured, in order to find an identity outside oneself. Laing, of course, is talking about the most extreme form of reaction to the strains of modern living. But we believe that the psychological mechanisms he analyzes have broader applicability. For addiction, in its various forms, is an adaptive mechanism widely resorted to by “normal” individuals in our society—by all of us, perhaps? It constitutes a search for something external and secure to give reassurance in the absence of a deeply felt connection with life.

What addiction substitutes for is a strong sense of one’s own reality and the reality of the world in which one lives. The best antidotes to addiction are joy and competence: joy, as a capacity to take pleasure in people and things and activities, and competence, as a mastery of relevant parts of one’s environment and confidence that one’s actions make a difference for oneself and others. Both joy and competence require a real connectedness with life in the concrete. When this sense of being in touch is lacking, feelings of uncertainty, self-doubt, and anxiety can arise which create a desire to escape from oneself and one’s situation. This is where the need for an external solution arises.

The reason why heroin is so powerful an addictive agent for some people, and why it is so sorely missed by withdrawn addicts, is that it offers a soothing sensation that everything is all right. Anything which provides a strong dose of comfort, regularity, and external structure can serve the same function. Where life seems a pointless struggle, full of threats rather than opportunities, addiction is a way to give up the struggle. The difference between being predisposed not to be addicted and being predisposed to be addicted is the difference between seeing the world as your arena and seeing the world as your prison.

Society and Addiction

While some individuals are more predisposed to blatant addictions than are others, we are not so concerned with differentiating between people here as we are with suggesting how deeply the addictive pattern of relating to our environment is woven into the fabric of our society. Addiction is indeed a major social problem, and not just for the substantial minority of illicit drug users and the (perhaps) majority using some popular drug or another addictively. Addiction to heroin (and alcohol, barbiturates, cigarettes, tranquillizers, coffee, etc.) only scratches the surface of the overall addiction problem in North American and Western society generally.

It has become commonplace to point out that when young people resort to marijuana and LSD they are only following the example of their elders, who lean so heavily on alcohol, medically prescribed stimulants and tranquillizers, and the daily stimulation of coffee and cigarettes. This analysis is accurate, but doesn’t go deep enough. Why do we have such a drug-dependent society in the first place? At least part of the reason is that our way of life doesn’t allow for enough joy and competence. Some of the social conditions responsible for these deficiencies came into being with the industrialization and bureaucratization of economic life in the 19th century. When Marx spoke of mankind becoming alienated from creative labour, he was isolating a major feature of what was to grow into a pervasive detachment from bedrock experience. Today we are fortunate if we are able to find work that we like, rarely can we initiate our own enterprises. We work and live in the shadow of institutional bureaucracies which we can hardly hope to influence, and our physical environment is made up of elaborate mechanical objects which most of us do not understand. And so our most basic contacts with the world are mediated by technicians, clerks, and repairmen.

This is most damaging to us when it is our own bodies that we give over to the repairman. We lose touch with ourselves when we lose touch with the self-regulation of our bodies through diet, exercise, and nature’s healing processes. Instead of being in tune with the natural physical rhythms of a normal human existence, we grow up learning to eat too much, to avoid physical exertion, and to run to the doctor whenever some variation in our biological functioning occurs. And the doctor in turn encourages us (in part because we want him to) to overuse drugs. Our reliance on official medicine is an unwholesome compound, made up of one part drug dependence and one part reverence for professionally certified experts. Both of these are crutches, solutions external to ourselves. And now we are even placing the medical profession, in the form of psychiatry, in charge of our spiritual existence, our psychic as well as our physical well-being.

The PhD Hysteria

Our relinquishing control over our bodies is only a reflection of a more general pattern of reliance on external support and authority. When the radical educational critic Ivan Illich says in Deschooling Society that the leading institutions of our society (educational and therapeutic as well as economic and military) are “either socially or psychologically ‘addictive,’” he means that they feed on insecurity which they themselves create. By keeping people away from real experience, the school makes them dependent on an artificial, formal certification of their knowledge and talents. Schools were originally intended to teach people the things they would need to do in life, but this original aim (or rationale) has long since been lost in the curricular rigidity and petty power hierarchies of the school system. Children only know that they are supposed to learn because school, parents, and others say they should, and thus they don’t learn. Too many parents don’t care whether their child ever reads a book outside of school, comes up with an original idea, or learns to think things through for himself. Grades, and later degrees, are the only signs of performance they can recognize.

One result of this hollow concept of education was the PhD syndrome of the 1960s, which peaked at the height of the Vietnam war economy. Those who lived through that period will recall that within the typical middle-class community it was de rigeur for an able-minded student to attain an academic or equivalent professional degree. To cease one’s formal education after graduating from college was to incur the disapproval, even the contempt, of one’s closest associates. So external was the definition of education then current that the deviant risked being admonished, “Don’t you want to learn any more?” as if learning were only possible within the walls of some institution. As Illich says, “Once we have learned to need school, all our activities tend to take the shape of client relationships to other specialized institutions. Once the self-taught man or woman has been discredited, all nonprofessional activity is rendered, suspect.”

An Ontological Insecurity

What was most interesting about this phenomenon was that the hysteria often generated within families and groups of friends over this issue did not always concern the practical economic consequences of earning or not earning a degree. Rather, there seemed to be a basic emotional uneasiness—an “ontological insecurity,” if you will—about how one could define oneself subjectively without having an advanced degree. And when you talk about one’s needing something external to create an identity for oneself, you are talking about addiction, even if there is no syringe insight.

As Illich says, schooling is a basic social experience that helps determine the character of our later interactions with our social and institutional environment. Even more basic are our family and social relationships. And the first thing that should strike our notice here is the excessive stress our society places on social contacts altogether. With spectator sports and shallow, uninvolving aesthetic experiences occupying the leisure time of the bulk of the population, most people don’t develop interests that are sufficiently intense and self-motivated to be seen as being worth pursuing alone. Without denying that going to the movies with friends adds to the pleasure and value of the experience, we may well question the priorities of a society where it is considered unthinkable (except by a small minority) to go to the movies alone. It would seem that most of the people who go to the movies don’t do so out of a very strong intrinsic interest in the substance of the films they are seeing.

Individually, it would seem, we don’t enjoy or feel secure in our own company. The need to have other people around all the time is part of what some psychologists have called “social dependency”—a need to cling to human “objects.” For many middle-class people, this form of dependency takes the place of the drug and alcohol habits that show up regularly in some lower-class cultures where family and friends are not such dependable sources of emotional gratification. If this social dependency expresses itself in well-established contacts with numerous friends, relatives, and acquaintances, it might be the basis of a rich and stable inner life. Instead, though, we are predominantly grouped into nuclear families—husband, wife, and children, with no other deep or permanent connections—and consequently, our heavy need for people is channelled into these few relationships. What often results, as in drug addiction, is an outright dependency on a single object.

The way we are taught to view the opposite sex is, in effect, preparation for such dependency. Those of us who grow up in conventional North American households are trained from an early age to seek out one special person as a partner through life. This contributes to the stampede to early marriages, half of which will end in divorce. It also tends to cheapen all our other friendships, stunting them at the level of trivial acquaintanceships which will be discarded once the social object of our dreams appears. Beyond all else, this indoctrination strains incalculably our relations with the opposite sex. It dehumanizes half the people we meet and stands in the way of the natural mingling and person-to-person relating in which real experience is rooted. As someone remarked about the subject of one of our case studies in Love and Addiction, a male addicted to sexual conquests, “He talks about women as though they were different from people.”

Addiction As a Way of Life

When a boy looks at girl, or a girl looks at a boy, he or she sees not a unique human individual, but someone to fill a role, a potential husband or wife. It is the same as thinking about school and envisioning not the experience of learning, but the comfort of social belonging that comes with being a member of an institution. One very positive thrust of the contemporary youth culture is its attempt to reduce the opposite sex to life-size by encouraging easy-going, informal contact among young people of both sexes. But even where marriage is not the one overriding goal and couplings take on a freer, more modern appearance, we still can see the same kind of empty relationship that results from the desperate search for a partner: a relationship where it is the lover’s mere presence and constant devotion that counts, and not the opportunities for mutual learning and growth, emotional and otherwise, that the lover can offer.

Anything that we do can be addictive or not addictive; the key is in how and why we do it. Just as learning for the sake of grades and degrees keeps us from learning by doing, artificially programmed relationships where mates (or lovers) are sought as tokens of security keep us from knowing ourselves and others. In both cases, the experience is external, and leaves us drifting in a state of detachment where we are always looking for the next degree, the next lover, the next “fix.” We have been taught that we need school, marriage, a steady job, a shrink, drugs. What we are not taught is that we can be whole in ourselves, confident in our ability to cope with, learn from, and enjoy the people and things that make up our environment. Addiction is not an aberration from our way of life. Addiction is our way of life.

While this fate is something we all have to come to terms with individually and collectively, it is of the most urgent concern to women. If there are indeed forces that operate to deny us all the elusive experience of wholeness, it is still women who bear the heaviest burden of the cultural assumption that a person can have no identity outside the structures of marriage, family, and school. It is women, too, who are most thoroughly (if subtly) brutalized by doctors and psychiatrists, and who therefore are leading the movement to liberate our bodies and minds from medical and institutional control. Consider the young divorcee who, never having lived on her own before marriage, is expected to—and does—return to her parents’ home and accept their neo-adolescent supervision of her personal affairs. To let the implications of that common situation sink in is to begin to appreciate what addiction is all about.

Drugs and Their Equivalents

At the same time as we have difficulty achieving a secure sense of ourselves, the very chaos of today’s society and the breakdown of ordered family life often don’t allow us the externally structured security our training inclines us to seek. In this fluid setting, a number of compensatory addictions have begun to flourish. One is overeating, which renders one-quarter to one-half the North American population substantially overweight. Another is psychotherapy. An unhealthy feature of many psychiatrist-client relationships is that the attention of both parties is directed inward, toward this artificially conceived relationship itself, rather than outward, toward helping the patient interact better with the rest of the world and thus outgrow the need for therapy. In this way, a continuing dependency is established.

Pets are yet another outlet for addictive needs. Every time we walk down the street we note the effects of the rising pet population in urban residential neighbourhoods. Pets are concentrated not only among the old and lonely, but in what would seem to be an active, busily social segment of society—the student-hip youth culture. Surely it is unhealthy for a dog of any size to be confined to a small apartment. Yet at the cost of dirty streets, crowding, noise, and an increased risk of spreading disease, young city dwellers maintain these animals in ever-growing numbers. Where human relationships are transient and uncertain, as they are for many young people, a pet offers a kind of relationship which, by virtue of its obvious inequality, is safe and predictable.

The striking thing about all these addictions—and the tipoff to the fact that they are addictions—is that they are so readily interchangeable. Addiction is not sought as a vividly involving experience in itself (except sometimes in the early stages, as with the initial euphoria of heroin for the novice user), but as something in which to lose oneself—protection against experience. It doesn’t matter much what that something is; at any given time one addiction may be more convenient or palatable than another. Adults of all ages find themselves cursing their cigarette habit when they are not overeating, and gaining weight rapidly when they are not smoking. Young people fall into and out of heavy involvements with drugs, psychiatrists, religious movements, and all-consuming love affairs in rapid succession. The Children of God maintain a strict prohibition against drugs, since many converts to the faith are former users. As one member put it, “I used to do acid, chug wine. I thought it was the answer. But it didn’t satisfy, just like everything else. I went to a head shrink every Friday, till I saw that wasn’t doing any good either. Nothing ever did satisfy till I came to Jesus.”

The Opiate of the People

This brings us back to our story of Ted Patrick and the religious commune kidnappings. As a rule, membership in a religious commune is a total experience. We have quoted Chein’s description of how the use and procurement of heroin provides a structure for the addict’s life; the same is true here. And like a full-scale heroin habit, a total commitment to a religious sect negates everything a person has been and done and suffered and learned before “seeing the light.” Order is imposed by the strictures of the group, assurance and integration are sought through faith in an all-powerful God, and the threatening responsibility of self-assertion is evaded. Many youths undoubtedly join such groups in order to leave behind a life of confusion, failure, and self-doubt. Their communal experience amounts to a total restructuring of their cognitions along narrow, rigid lines. Once they submit to this, it requires an equally totalitarian assault on their sensibilities, such as Patrick’s “deprogramming,” to bring them out of it.

In the Times account, one 18-year-old woman who was made to see the error of her ways offered immediately to join the deprogramming group so as to help save others (as several deprogrammed youths have actually done). It was an understandable reaction when you consider that feelings of strong dependency invariably beget an equal and opposite reaction once the tie is broken. A newly withdrawn addict finds himself at least temporarily facing an emotional and spiritual void. Nothing is really salient to him, because the web of interconnections with others and the range of satisfactions in life which people normally can fall back on have been eradicated or suppressed by the addiction, and they can’t be restored in an instant. Even when this normal psychic context is restored, it is hard to find a place in it for something which was formerly the addict’s whole world. This is why reformed alcoholics and drug addicts are often the hardest line opponents of chemical intoxication, just as the deprogrammed Child of God wanted to join the deprogramming group. It is also why some ex-lovers, to the amazement of those around them, display in the aftermath of a breakup a vindictive bitterness toward that person whom they felt they loved more than anyone in the world.

What about the parents of the Children of God? Their reactions are indicative of the malaise that drove their children to lose their balance in life. One mother said of Ted Patrick, “He is my saviour.” Disappointed to find on meeting him that he was built to human scale, she explained, “I thought he would be a giant—some kind of god that we just had to have.” Calling upon this external agent to solve the problem, the parents who were interviewed were all too ready to blame something external—the subversive influence of the sect leaders—for what had gone wrong. The Children of God were brought up by people who could not come to grips with their world, and who passed on their uncertainty to their offspring. Parents and children are locked in their common befuddlement, blindly groping for a panacea.

The parents of the woman who wanted to join the deprogramming group persuaded her to go back to school instead. In general, the parents involved in the kidnappings seem only to want their children to revert to the outward normality—the acceptably disguised irresolution and dependency—that they exhibited before their religious conversion. One father said, “I’m sure it will take two years to rebuild what those kids destroyed in a week.” But what real stability, what grounding in life could his daughter have had in the first place if “those kids” could destroy it in a week? And how rebuild it—by sending her back to school and church, where her unsure sense of herself was nurtured? Couldn’t Ted Patrick kidnap some very young children from their homes and schools and try to deprogram them?

The Scope of the Problem

The relationship between addiction and the loss of personal bearing in an institutionalized society extends throughout the modern Western world. Nonetheless, it is only in America among Western countries that heroin addiction has become an unmanageable social problem. It was only in America that a concerted bureaucratic campaign, involving government, law, and medicine, inflamed the public with fear and loathing of the drug and its users. And it was there that the physiological myth of drug dependence—the idea that the individual’s independent will is powerless before the inexorable action of a drug—was fervently propagated and maintained. Thomas Szasz attributes this costly irrationality to our pervasive ambivalence about personal autonomy and responsibility. This ambivalence has been especially pronounced in America because of a cultural conflict between the accelerating institutionalization of life which began in the mid-19th century and the ideal of the individualism which Americans had believed in as a sort of national creed and had tried, with questionable success, to live up to since the first colonies were founded on this side of the Atlantic.

Americans were responsive to opium because it was introduced into the country at a time when some lulling antidote to this growing gap between ideal and fulfilment was very much needed. At the same time, the drug’s debilitating chemical action served to symbolize the futility of personal aspiration in an increasingly bureaucratized world. Opiates came to be used addictively, and addiction came to be associated with opiates, because this most powerful of the analgesics (pain—and consciousness of pain—killers) arrived at a moment when Americans were threateningly sensitized to both the allure and the shame of passive submission and escapism. It is worth pondering that the two decades which saw the largest increase in opium importation into the U.S. (1890-1910) began with the closing of the frontier, symbolic of the death of classic American individualism. (At around the same time, America was also in the throes of a series of state and nation-wide prohibitions of alcohol, culminating in the ratification of the 18th Amendment in 1919, and was taking up the cigarette habit in a large-scale way.)

Obviously, a malady so deeply embedded in our cultural life cannot be cured by rehabilitating “drug abusers” any more than by locking them up. To be aware of the full extent of addiction in America and the Western world generally is to recognize that it cannot be eliminated except by a global change in the quality of our lives, which in turn requires major political and economic readjustments. Short of that, an awareness of the dimensions of addiction can help us deal with it constructively either for ourselves or for others whom we are trying to help. For example, while one addiction may be less destructive or more socially acceptable than another, it is ultimately not the answer to treat one addiction by substituting another (e.g. methadone for heroin, or dependence on Alcoholics Anonymous for dependence on alcohol).

Preventing Addiction

What are the genuine solutions to the addiction problem? They are to bring people into contact with themselves, with other people, with their environment, and with their work so as to eliminate the need for artificial involvements in which people immerse themselves because they see no alternative. Such a program calls for nothing less than large-scale changes in our society, in the ways we think, relate, and produce goods. As with any such change, the larger the scale, the greater the degree of improbability that it will take place. Recognizing this, we can still outline the dimensions along which movement will be beneficial.

Whenever work or professional organization is able to give employees a better feel for the product of their labours, the result will be greater identification with the workers’ tasks and better feelings about work and self. Arranging workgroups so that they are responsible for an entire sub-assembly of a larger product (as Volvo has done in a new plant in Sweden), giving members of an organization the opportunity to influence decisions about the way work gets done and allowing individuals the maximum latitude in making their own work schedules are all moves of this sort. Of course, if an individual is in a position to control his labours entirely, say through starting a business or a farm or whatever, the relevance of a person’s labour to his or her life will be even that much more direct. While the prognosis for small businesses has been bad and getting worse in recent years, there seems to be a growing minority willing to try this route and to make the sacrifices it entails.

For any individual, it goes without saying that doing the most appealing work that is realistically possible will leave the least room for perpetual yearnings. In a down economy, however, people’s natural conservatism in making basic economic decisions is exacerbated. On the other hand, when obvious options are not readily available, people are sometimes made to think more deeply and range more widely in determining what they will do for a living. Education, too, hopefully can serve to give a person a chance not only to rehearse the skills required in making a living, but also to gain a feeling for the performance of various jobs. The acquisition of both job skills and a perspective of what different work is like is fostered by an education that is reality-oriented and which offers the chance for real-world involvements. Ivan Illich’s detailed framework in Deschooling Society for how such education may take place is an extremely valuable aid to our notions about combatting addiction.

The other essential category into which we divide our lives is social. Here the movement in society which would most relieve the pressures that individuals and couples now bear is in the direction of greater feelings of community. Construction of housing units with this in mind—including allowance for the presence of people of different ages—and the planning of districts and cities to facilitate regular group experiences are crucial steps. As far as individuals and families go, becoming part of a neighbourhood or, where that is not possible, groups which meet regularly around some activity, offer the chance to escape the peculiar kind of alienation that most of us live within our modern era.

Whenever an individual can find nurturance in a range of human contacts, the insecurity and volatility which lead to an unhealthy dependency of any sort (or often, a series of such dependencies) is lessened. Learning to allot time and attention to other than primary love relationships means going against trends inculcated and reinforced throughout our culture, but, with events like the women’s movement, there have been encouraging recent developments in this area. There has also been a great deal of activity, however, unorganized, in the realm of alternatives to conventional marriage. That a need is felt for some modification of the historically recent, emotionally exclusive nuclear family cannot be denied. As yet, much of the reaction has been in the form of more of the same, say through divorce and remarriage or through casual sexual experimentation. But where there is activity of this kind, there is also bound to be some genuine effort to create broader-based intimate relationships which are at the same time substantial and lasting.

Beyond working and loving, or underlying them, are feelings of contentment with oneself. Being able to withstand addiction means principally having the ability to enjoy being alone at times, and to make constructive use of such time. This may require cultivating skills once possessed but now forgotten, such as reading or participating in a sport. Such activities have the additional benefit, besides filling time, of giving one a sense of improved physical or mental functioning. There is now a number of spiritual/physical practices in which many people regularly engage for this purpose. Running is among the most popular—and is probably the best—of these. Also widespread is the use of meditation and related techniques. In principle, as long as the focus of such an exercise is to gather one’s internal resources together while relaxing, it serves an admirable function. There are other ways to do this besides through strict meditation: for example through gardening or any physically and emotionally regenerative activity. It is when the practitioner of some type of spiritual endeavour makes it the centrepiece of his or her existence and sees it as salvation, that it may come to act more as an addiction than as an antidote to addiction.

Another benefit that often comes from an activity which involves getting in touch with one’s body is that it may change a person’s notion of physical health, and how to maintain it. Instead of being a passive consumer of medical services, the individual actively keeps up his or her body. For full impact on a person’s notion of keeping healthy, such an exercise or athletic program should be combined with an active orientation towards medical care itself. For example, the person should regard himself as an active collaborator with his doctor in his or her own health care. In doing so, we add the other main ingredient to internal peace in the array of weapons against addiction. As long as most of us continue to live our lives within a complex institutional environment, we must cultivate an active voice in all those matters which affect our destinies. To do otherwise, to allow management of our lives to fall passively to those institutions and to the popular opinion which all around tell us how to live, means giving up a sense of our desires and needs, which so often leads to the substitute need fulfilment of addiction.

Next Steps

We hope that you found these tips helpful and equipping going forward into the Holiday Season. If you are struggling with an Addiction or know someone who is. Please feel free to contact us and we can help you with your next steps.

Cherrywood House is a rehabilitation centre for people suffering from substance and other addictive disorders. It is situated in the tranquil, semi-rural environments of Constantia, Cape Town, South Africa. We offer  Residential Programmes, Aftercare Support Services, Outpatient Programme, Family Support Groups. For more information. Visit our Website Here.


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Chein, Isidor; Gerard, Donald L.; Lee, Robert S.; and Rosenfeld, Eva. The Road to H. New York: Basic Books, 1964.

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Dr Peele has a PhD in social psychology and was formerly on the faculty of the Harvard Business School, in organizational behaviour. He now has a consulting practice in Oakland, California. Mr Brodsky is a professional writer who has written on medical and psychological topics. The two collaborated on the book, Love and Addiction. References for this article are available on request.