Been a while since we checked in on the world of addiction. Back in January The Huffington Post ran an article with the transparently baiting title of “The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered, and It Is Not What You Think” that went viral. I think we mentioned it in a weekender. It was the work of Johann Hari, a controversial British journalist and author of Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs. In June Hari gave a TED talk–embedded below–based on the same material, in which he stresses the social factors that play into addiction over the chemical ones (some would say too much), making the case that compassion can work where coercion does not. It’s not dissimilar to what Russell Brand has been saying for a while vis-a-vis how we treat and/or help addicts in our society, criticizing criminalization for failing to take into account the powerlessness of the addict over their disease. But Hari’s talk really catches fire after he’s cycled through the political and social dimensions of the problem, and gets personal. Here’s his ending:

300.brand.amy.cm.72411Everyone has a bit of them that looks at an addict and thinks, I wish someone would just stop you. And the kind of scripts we’re told for how to deal with the addicts in our lives is typified by, I think, the reality show “Intervention,” if you guys have ever seen it. I think everything in our lives is defined by reality TV, but that’s another TED Talk. If you’ve ever seen the show “Intervention,” it’s a pretty simple premise. Get an addict, all the people in their life, gather them together, confront them with what they’re doing, and they say, if you don’t shape up, we’re going to cut you off. So what they do is they take the connection to the addict, and they threaten it, they make it contingent on the addict behaving the way they want. And I began to think, I began to see why that approach doesn’t work, and I began to think that’s almost like the importing of the logic of the Drug War into our private lives.

So I was thinking, how could I be Portuguese? And what I’ve tried to do now, and I can’t tell you I do it consistently and I can’t tell you it’s easy, is to say to the addicts in my life that I want to deepen the connection with them, to say to them, I love you whether you’re using or you’re not. I love you, whatever state you’re in, and if you need me, I’ll come and sit with you because I love you and I don’t want you to be alone or to feel alone.

And I think the core of that message –you’re not alone, we love you –has to be at every level of how we respond to addicts, socially, politically and individually. For 100 years now, we’ve been singing war songs about addicts. I think all along we should have been singing love songs to them, because the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection.

Beautiful stuff, no? And clearly true, albeit in an idealized way, as the tentative response from other addicts might indicate. Over at The Fix Andrew Dobbs suggested a couple of necessary caveats that are worth mentioning here. First, he believes Hari is romanticizing things somewhat, especially in his implicit conflation of intervention with incarceration:

It is irresponsible for Hari to speak to a general audience—more than 1,000,000 views online already—about the need to deepen their relationships with the addicts in their lives without an accompanying warning about addicts’ tendencies to blow through boundaries and take advantage of the people who seek to help them.

Or as Brand puts it, “It is difficult to suffer the selfishness of a drug addict who will lie to you and steal from you and forgive them and offer them help. Can there be any other disease that renders its victims so unappealing?” The addict is not some stray puppy waiting to be loved, in other words. Part of the disease is their apparent complicity in their destitution, the way they actively and categorically resist what’s good for them. The same could be said of sin.

Second, Dobbs took issue with the dichotomy that Hari mentions at the close, where he implies that sobriety and connection are somehow opposing forces rather than deeply intertwined ones. But to these ears that sounds like a bit of a distortion of Hari’s rhetorical goal. The more salient objection (that Dobbs seems to be getting at) has to do with the kind of connection in play. Meaning, the connection that seems to help addicts is connection with other addicts, rather than, say, a bunch of really nice if perhaps somewhat patronizing non-addicts.

Of course, that brings us to one of the places where Christianity departs from AA. As Grace in Addiction explains:

There is often talk in meetings about two kinds of humans: “alcoholics” and (normal) “earth people.” The two conceivably cannot make heads or tails of each other. Alcoholics understand alcoholics, and earth people understand earth people. The alcoholic may find that she has a lot in common with a drug addict or even a gambling addict, but she has nothing in common with the those people out there who don’t struggle with the problem of personal powerlessness and the compulsive behavioral meltdowns that accompany it. This view is naïve.

Traditional Christian theology, in contrast, understands the universalities that unite and define all people. The Church teaches that addiction displays, in fact, the true nature of what it means to be a human being living in a fallen world. The bridge between the alcoholic and the non-alcoholic is called sin, and faith affirms that the alcoholic has no greater need for God’s grace than the “earth person” does, even if the circumstances in one case appear to be more dire.o-NEW-YORKER-570 Both people will die, and both people need love. The same is true for both men and women, people of different races and ages and cultures – it’s universal. Is the cancer patient who feels “fine” really any less sick than the depressed person who cannot get out of bed? We are all equal in sin and personal powerlessness, and although some manifestations may be more destructive than others, to obsess over one particular expression of sin is to misinterpret the data. For this reason, church leaders would do well to recall Christianity’s notion of the bound will. The fruit of this idea is a compassion borne out of a stark honesty about the human condition.

The compassion that results–theoretically (tragically so)–from such an understanding moves beyond empathy into sympathy. It leaves no wiggle room for superiority, or really distance of any kind. Which strikes me as healing in and of itself, especially if the root problem is one of isolation.

At the risk of DFW-overload, I’ll close a couple of semi-related paragraphs from Infinite Jest about the essential cruciformity of the program that I’ve wanted to post forever:

Something they seem to omit to mention in Boston AA when you’re new and out of your skull with desperation and ready to eliminate your map and they tell you how it’ll all get better and better as you abstain and recover: they somehow omit to mention that the way it gets better and you get better is through pain. Not around pain, or in spite of it. They leave this out, talking instead about Gratitude and Release from Compulsion. There’s serious pain in being sober, though, you find out, after time. Then now that you’re clean and don’t even much want Substances and feeling like you want to both cry and stomp somebody into goo with pain, these Boston AAs start in on telling you you’re right where you’re supposed to be and telling you to remember the pointless pain of active addiction and telling you that at least this sober pain now has a purpose. At least this pain means you’re going somewhere, they say, instead of the repetitive gerbil-wheel of addictive pain.

They neglect to tell you that after the urge to get high magically vanishes and you’ve been Substanceless for maybe six or eight months, you’ll begin to start to ‘Get In Touch’ with why it was that you used Substances in the first place. You’ll start to feel why it was you got dependent on what was, when you get right down to it, an anesthetic. ‘Getting In Touch With Your Feelings’ is another quilted-sampler-type cliche that ends up masking something ghastly deep and real, it turns out. It starts to turn out that the vapider the AA cliche, the sharper the canines of the real truth it covers.