April 25, 2019

Are You Listening?

Amanda Alexander, SFU Student, SCI 301

The views and opinions expressed in SFU Public Square's blogs are those of the authors, and they do not necessarily reflect the official position of Simon Fraser University or SFU Public Square, or any other affiliated institutions in any way.

 “Who are we without addiction?”

That was the question presented by Dr Somers in SFU’s Health Science course on Addiction. I pondered on this question and wondered if this meant that without addiction we are strong, healthy, in control, and powerful. Did this mean with addiction we are weak, diseased, and bonded? Through Dr Somers’ research and expertise on drug addiction and numerous articles presented in his course we began the journey to explore that exact question, “Who are we without addiction?”

As we navigate the waters of addiction we begin to understand how addiction is defined. In class we explored brain development through the eyes of psychologist Jean Piaget, and we took a look at what is happening in dealing with addiction in Vancouver today. With drug addiction at a stand still, this is a topic worth exploring with the intention to consider a better approach to help addicts recover focusing on true community support and social connection.

Addiction in Vancouver

Harm reduction approach

Vancouver’s Downtown East Side (DTES) has a high concentration of drug addicts and high concentration of services but the prevalence of addiction is still high. Homelessness plays a key role in addiction. Safe injection sites are provided with the intention to reduce the number of drug related deaths as a harm reduction approach. Although a positive move, it does not promote the ability of recovery. Harm reduction proposes that individuals are always addicts and cannot change. It keeps addicts at the level of addiction and attempts to only focus to reduce the amount of deaths.

Natural Recovery – it’s a thing

Despite the popular phrase of “once an addict always an addict”, there is a vast amount of research we examined about natural recovery from drug addiction.

Stories about natural recovery do exist. We discussed the Vietnam veterans’ study by Lee Robins observing the natural recovery of addicted veterans upon returning from war. It seemed as though the return to home to their families and jobs demonstrated a priority that deterred their addiction. Addicts have the ability, the power, and capability to recover naturally. There is evidence to support that treatment does not always work according to Natural Recovery from Heroin Addiction by Waldorf and Biernacki. So where do we go from here?

Jean Piaget

In The Affective Unconscious and the Cognitive Unconscious article Jean Piaget proposed, as we go through different stages of physical development we also go through different stages of brain development. Our growing environment plays a role to form both our physical and brain development. Through the process of brain development we develop our schemas, certain patterns in the way we view the world.

An addict will have different patterns in the way they view the world than a non-addict’s view. The schema of an addict may be a result of childhood trauma, poor social status, poor education, and/or lack of social support.

Picture a man’s brain as a toolbox, and in this toolbox are a good set of tools. This toolbox consists of a level of social support, a hammer of education, a bolt of positive childhood environment, and a tape measure of positive self-esteem.

In the other man’s toolbox, he has a lack of tools. Instead of a level of social support he has social exclusion. He lacks a hammer of education since he did not graduate from high school. The bolt of positive childhood environment is absent as he deals with the result of childhood trauma, and a tape measure of self-esteem is found to be low.

These tools affect their views of the world. The first man may look at the world through a resilient lens and the other man may look at life through a non-hopeful lens. If the first man, the non-addict, tries to impose his schema onto the second man, the addict, it will not work because their views of the world are different and so the view on what recovery looks like is different.

Social support plays a key role in addiction recovery. Social support encompasses listening to the addict. Understanding the schema of an addict instead of imposing the non-addicts schema onto the addict’s schema and expecting them to see the world as the non-addict does.

Has society considered asking what support looks like for the addict? Have we considered taking a moment to learn their schemas as opposed to imposing a non-addict schema? Providing harm-reduction interventions and saying we’ve done all we can do, overlooking natural recovery does not work. Where are the support services that support, encourage, and promote natural recovery?

Once an addict always an addict? – not true

So who are we without addiction then? Perhaps we are individuals with social connection and a sense of community. Perhaps without addiction we are individuals who are truly supported by being heard. We do not impose and expect others with different life experiences to see the world the same way we do. Perhaps providing inclusion into society, meeting basic needs can launch positive self-esteem and change the way addicts feel about themselves.

Who are we without addiction? It is still an area worth exploring but I think Dr Somers proposes a promising stepping-stone, to ask the addict what helping them along the recovery journey looks like. We implement recovery programs pertaining to the non-addict schema. When non-addicts do this, they are saying they know what is best for the addict. We need to grab the hand of the addict and move forward together inclusively with open ears and open hearts.

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