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Connection: The Opposite of Addiction

By Helen Farrel

Being Irish, it was inevitable that I would become interested in addictions. Many of my favorite musicians, literary idols, athletic heroes and friends have struggled with, surrendered to, and thankfully – for some – overcome their addictions.

According to the great Irish poet, playwright and novelist, Brendan Behan, the most important things for us to do in this world are “to get something to eat, something to drink, and somebody to love you.”

I agree with this wholeheartedly, although when Behan mentioned “drink,” I’m pretty sure he wasn’t talking about water. He was well known for his alcoholism, having developed a taste for Guinness at a very young age.

A Behan biographer recounted that one day, at age eight, Brendan was walking home from a drinking session with – guess whom? – his Granny!

A passer-by remarked, “Oh my, how terrible to see such a beautiful child deformed!”

“How dare you!” replied his Granny, “He’s not deformed, he’s just drunk!”

When I think about that story, it makes me remember my friend, Sam. We grew up together in the Midwest and knew each other since we were little, sharing very similar upbringings in nice, middle-class homes.

Sam was that guy who starred on the soccer team, got straight “A’s”, and was well liked by everyone. But somewhere amongst the college partying and launch of his career, Sam became more and more reliant on drugs and alcohol to unwind.

At first, nobody minded much because Sam was always the life of the party. He could even be amusing when he stumbled around tipsy. But before long, his drinking and drug use transitioned beyond fun – it became fun with problems, and eventually, just problems.

Addiction is Loneliness
Addiction is a party of one. This occurred to me as Sam became more and more reliant on drugs and alcohol to unwind and he began to withdraw and isolate. That was just fine, because nobody wanted Sam around anymore. He was no longer a good friend. He had become a liar. A thief. A cheat. He was unwelcome.

Sam sort of faded away; we lost touch, and I took off for medical school at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. And Ireland is the perfect place to get first-hand experience with addiction – especially alcoholism. There’s a pub on every corner and, as Jonathan Swift put it, “Madness is sold by the bottle.”

Living in a culture where “work is the curse of the drinking class,” I have to admit that my own stereotyped image of addicts was solidified.

Over time, as my training in psychiatry progressed, I thought a lot about Sam. In many ways, he wasn’t “the typical addict” – for instance, there had been no identifiable biological or psychological predispositions for him to develop an addictive illness. Misinformed assumptions often lead to indifference and the imposition of shame on those who suffer. In the hospital, I witnessed the effects of shame and stigma. That is often what keeps people from reaching out for help – consider alcoholics who commonly evade medical attention until gripped by a paralyzing depression, suicidal thoughts, or physical problems like a mottled liver or an inflamed pancreas.

Some dismiss addicts as moral failures. Working with them everyday has shown me who they are. They are our parents, friends, co-workers, children, sisters and brothers. They hold down jobs, have friends, go to social functions and enjoy their weekends. Some of them are our teachers, even our lawyers, our doctors, and the leaders of our government. In short, they are more than their disease. Some fail to manage their addiction and do degenerate into the chaos that stereotypes embody, but many do not.

The Opposite of Addiction is Connection
The opposite of addiction is not sobriety, as I once naively thought. It is connection.

About a year ago, I met Sam again. He reached out to me, after years of silence, via Facebook. He asked if we could meet; over coffee he told me that he had been in AA for two years and was working on Step 9 – making amends wherever possible. I found him to be everything I remembered – honest, warm, compassionate, and driven. Sam had started a new job, was married and had an eight-month old baby. To this day, Sam and I have kept in touch. He is happy. He is sober. He is more than an addict. He is connected.

Throughout my career as a psychiatrist, two primary factors have led me to the conclusion that the opposite of addiction is connection:

  • Hitting rock bottom is a futile concept. It is negative and places focus on the wrong thing. Rather than finding the bottom, it’s more important to focus on connecting those with addictions to their paths to hope. People need reasons to focus on better connections than alcohol and drugs can provide. Then they need to build and maintain those connections.
  • It is my impression that addictions fill a need and become the primary relationship for the afflicted person. If we can help people identify that their addiction often serves this role, then we can give them hope that there is another healthier partner for them to connect their lives to. I have been humbled to learn that addiction treatment does not depend on professionals, like me. Sure, there are many programs that offer fellowship to men and women grappling with addiction and sometimes the thoughtful use of medication can help. But in the end, it is truly the effort and investment made by those afflicted that creates the path to healing and engagement in life.

The Optimistic Side of Recovery
The concept of connection inspired me this summer as I spoke at addiction and recovery events. There I witnessed the fellowship of men and women, coming together and celebrating how they had struggled, overcome and succeeded in regaining control of their lives and motivating others to do the same.

And I’ve encountered inspiration in the most unlikely of places – at addiction and recovery centers. I discovered that the story of addiction is not always sad – it is optimistic!

At my most recent event, for example, I met a man who told me about his business. In his forties, he developed a start-up and he now employs a dozen other people. He told me about how proud he felt to have created something – a successful something – out of nothing. He also told me about the great pride he takes in knowing that he is helping his staff earn good wages, provide for their families and engage in a collegial and supportive environment where every member has a purpose and a voice.

I met others who excitedly introduced me to their families, reminisced with me about shared experiences – like my running half-marathons and their competing in full marathons and triathlons.

During these weekend jaunts, nobody once told me about their addictive past or how long they’ve been sober. I continue to be inspired to think about addiction in new and completely different ways.

Helen M. Farrell, M.D., is a physician, expert witness, keynote speaker and writer. She is an award-winning Harvard Medical School Instructor in psychiatry. Dr. Farrell is a medical graduate of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, where she was moved by the sensitive prose of literary geniuses who gave mental illness an acceptable voice.

Dr. Farrell enjoys traveling back to Ireland and agrees with George Bernard Shaw who said, “Life isn’t about finding yourself…Life is about creating yourself.” Dr. Farrell helps busy professionals achieve their goals via medication management and psychotherapy in her private practice located in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood. She is optimistic about the progress of mental health and believes that everyone can create his or her own bright future, and many can also use a little help along the way.

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