“The opposite of addiction is not sobriety.” When journalist Johann Hari made that statement as part of the conclusion of his TED Talk in 2015, I didn’t disagree with him. I mostly didn’t disagree with him because I was still drinking in 2015 and didn’t give a shit about a speech titled, “Everything You Think You Know About Addiction is Wrong.” But even now, today, I think Hari got that first part right. Sobriety doesn’t fix anything. It is neither the solution, nor is it the opposite of the addictive behavior that has brought millions of us to our knees.
It’s the second part of his concluding statement that has been increasingly adopted as indisputable fact in the recovery community for the past six years. Hari ended his talk saying, “The opposite of addiction is connection.” From the first time I heard it, until a few months ago, I thought Hari was right. Now, I’m convinced that while the concept is useful, it is incomplete.
I believe the opposite of addiction is neither sobriety nor connection. I believe the opposite of addiction is self-esteem.
I drank for a variety of reasons ranging from celebration and relaxation to mourning and boredom. But my real drinking was medicinal. I drank when I didn’t feel good about myself.
The reason Johann Hari is at least directionally correct is because connection often makes us feel better – about ourselves and the situation that surrounds us.
I coach high school soccer. As much as I love it, sometimes I just don’t feel like going to practice. Sometimes soccer training is interrupting something else I am working on. Sometimes the weather isn’t cooperating. And sometimes, I’m just too tired to get up and be encouraging.
But always, when I drag my tired, disgruntled old bones to the soccer pitch, I feel so much better when it is over. The power of connection is indisputable. There are few situations in our society that offer a more potent dose of connection than in a team-sport setting where a group of people share a common goal.
But connection is an incomplete answer to solving addiction. Sometimes, connection does not feel good. I can’t tell you how many people have described this same scene to me: I went to an AA meeting, and bought booze on the way home. They felt worthless, hopeless or incapable of achieving their objectives, and the people in the rooms reminded them of their inadequacy. So they drank.
I get that. I can feel that in my bones.
Johann Hari bases much of his conclusion about the importance of connection on the infamous “Rat Park” study where researchers gave rats lots of toys and other rats with which to play, and the rats did not compulsively drink opioid water (unlike the rats who drank themselves to death when given opioid water in constrictive cages in isolation). Hari, therefore, concluded that the connection was distraction enough to keep the rats away from drug addiction.
Close. But I think that’s not quite right.
Rats are extremely social creatures. Constant interaction with each other, that included, “loads of sex,” as Hari explained in his TED Talk, would definitely make a rat feel pretty good. So would playing with the rat toys, an environment that provided safety and the copious amounts of cheese available in the experiment. Connection is not the determining factor in avoiding addiction. It is useful, even important. But if there are other positive stimuli available, connection or not, a rat is bound to feel pretty good about himself. and not need a substance to make him feel better.
This hypothesis is proven over and over again in my daily life, too. I am in my fifth year of sobriety from alcohol addiction. I rarely, if ever, feel any desire to drink alcohol anymore. I have embraced the fact that alcohol is a poison in any quantity completely devoid of benefits to humans.
I do feel bad about myself on a regular basis. Not with the frequency or severity of when I drank alcohol, but I still have bad days and endure unfortunate situations. Sometimes I say stupid things. Sometimes things don’t work out as I plan. Sometimes shit breaks and fixing it is time-consuming or expensive. Last week, my garage door stopped about a foot from the top while it was opening, and I backed into it with my Jeep damaging both the top of my vehicle and the bottom of the door behind which it is stored. I felt really stupid and loser-like.
After cursing and snorting for ten minutes or so, I went inside and ate potato chips and cheese for lunch. I was soothing my frustration and lack of self-esteem with comfort food. If I had backed into my garage door five years ago, I would have reached for the vodka.
When I go for a run, I usually feel significantly better when I finish as compared to directly before I lace up my sneakers. When I watch a movie that moves my emotions (laughter, fear, sadness, anger, excitement), I always feel like it is time well spent, and I feel thankful for the experience as I return to my mundane reality. When my soccer team wins a game, when I receive affection from my wife, when one of my kids is eager to tell me a story, or when I finish writing something and feel I’ve made a coherent point or two – when anything happens that makes me feel good about myself and my life, soothing is the farthest thing from my mind.
When I feel good, there is nothing to soothe.
Sometimes feeling good about myself comes from connection. Sometimes, joy comes from a solitary experience.
Self-esteem is often confused with traditional American measures of success: wealth, power and fame. I’m not interested in those superficial trophies and trinkets. There are plenty of miserable rich people, so I don’t feel compelled to belabor this point. After the last half decade, if you need more proof that a narcissist can still be devoid of self-esteem, you haven’t been paying attention. Feeling good about ourselves has nothing to do with how we demand that others perceive us.
What do you do that doesn’t leave you feeling a desire to soothe? Find that. Do that. Feel good about yourself, and give yourself a fighting chance to leave addiction behind. Connection might scratch that itch, but tending to your rose bush might turn your crank all by yourself. Hari was close. Connection is useful. But self-esteem is the total addiction-fighting package.
If you’d like connection to others who understand the importance of fellowship as part of a sober and satisfied human existence, join us in SHOUT Sobriety. You’ve got this, and we’ve got you!