The Opposite of Addiction is NOT Connection

The Opposite of Addiction is Self-Esteem

“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.

 

But…but…

 

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 makes you feel good? What helps build your confidence? Where do you find pure, untoxicated joy? What activities bring you satisfaction? What makes you feel accomplished?

 

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!

SHOUT Sobriety

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8 Comments
  • Reply
    Anne Katharine Scott
    June 9, 2021 at 6:53 am

    Another great post Matt. Yes to self-esteem and what is obvious to me is that self-esteem comes from a deep connection and compassion with self. And we dont exist in isolation, like the rats, being in dynamic connection with others allow us to amplify our connection with ourself. If it isnt robust well that leads to dysfunctional destructive behaviour. You always open up interesting ideas that make me feel more love and compassion for this journey I am on. Thank you.

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      June 9, 2021 at 6:57 am

      I like that, Anne – looking at self-esteem as a form of connection to ourselves. Thanks for reading and sharing your insights!

  • Reply
    Loretta
    June 9, 2021 at 7:27 am

    Not a fan of the self-esteem paradigm. I’m more associated with the self-compassion aspect of my sobriety. There’s a “let-down” factor in self esteem. As Kristin Neff puts it “It’s important to distinguish self-compassion from self-esteem. Self-esteem refers to the degree to which we evaluate ourselves positively. It represents how much we like or value ourselves, and is often based on comparisons with others. In contrast, self-compassion is not based on positive judgments or evaluations, it is a way of relating to ourselves. People feel self-compassion because they are human beings, not because they are special and above average. It emphasizes interconnection rather than separateness. This means that with self-compassion, you don’t have to feel better than others to feel good about yourself. It also offers more emotional stability than self-esteem because it is always there for you – when you’re on top of the world and when you fall flat on your face.

    Research indicates that self-compassion offers the same benefits as self-esteem (less depression, greater happiness, etc.) without its downsides.”

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      June 9, 2021 at 10:17 am

      Wow Loretta! Great feedback. Thanks for giving me something to think about. I feel like compassion for self or others is an important component, but just like connection, it is an incomplete solution for me. I need the motivation offered by self-esteem. I honestly don’t feel like I compare myself to others. When I do, I have gotten better about recognizing it and trying to move a different direction. Self-esteem as a driver offers me motivation to keep going, in sobriety and in life. I don’t care about comparisons or traditional accomplishment, but I very much care about making personal progress. Thanks again for this perspective!

  • Reply
    Beth
    June 9, 2021 at 6:03 pm

    Thanks Matt for this thought provoking article. The buzz phrase, “Connection is the opposite of addiction” has been buzzing around the app I use, I Am Sober. I have found this app very helpful and supportive in my sobriety. I have often pondered if this idiom is true as well. At this point in sobriety, I am 5 months sober, I have felt the need to isolate. I have been questioning whether I should listen to this desire to be alone or push myself to get out and get “connected,” as the mantra suggests. Gabor Mate says that (I am paraphrasing here as I don’t have his work in front of me) what often times leads to addiction is disconnection from self. I think this feeds a bit into what you refer to as self-esteem, even though it might be coming at it from a different angle. Your example of tending your rose garden doesn’t really point to self-esteem, in my opinion, but on being connected to self and what brings you personal joy. I totally agree with what you are saying I am just not sure that self-esteem is the right term for it. And I also think that every person is different. For some people connection with others may be the key, but for others hiking solo to the top of the mountain might make them feel more connected to the universe than going to an AA meeting. Also, the reference to the guy going to the AA meeting and leaving and buying a bottle, I truly think this is an example of drinking because he didn’t feel connected to the group he was with. Just because you are with people does not mean you feel connected. I typically feel less lonely when alone than when I am with a group of people that I don’t feel in synch with. So, I think I agree with Johann Hari and you, I just don’t think that connection necessarily has to refer to being with people. Thanks for your wise insights. I enjoy reading your stuff!

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      June 9, 2021 at 8:09 pm

      Thank you for giving me so much more to think about. I think we are philosophically close, and pondering the nuance is really interesting to me. Thanks again!

  • Reply
    Flatball Matt
    June 23, 2021 at 4:13 pm

    Interesting discussion…is “worthiness” the word for the combination of self-esteem and self-compassion?

    I think it comes down to figuring out yourself, and what will be satisfying to you in the long run. Defining your values and being true to them.

    I just read Johann Hari’s book “Lost Connections”, and he talks about many kinds of disconnection that bother us – disconnection from people, from nature, from autonomy, from hope, from purpose.

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      June 23, 2021 at 4:35 pm

      Worthiness or self-worth? You might be into something, Matt. I think we are narrowing in on some answers here.

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