What is Substance Abuse and Addiction About?

A junkie. Someone, who lives for doing drugs. Indifferent. Uncontrollable and reckless. Steals, lies, cheats. Scary, aggressive, dangerous. Pathetic, miserable. Dirty. Hopeless.

These are images that may pop up, when we think of a junkie. How does someone become a junkie? When I was a teenager, in the 90’s, a police officer visited our school to give us a lecture about drug abuse. He showed us what hasch looked like and his main message was: don’t try drugs, because if you do, you’ll get hooked. As many of us experienced during the upcoming years, for ourselves or through friends and family, this isn’t necessarily how it works.

Why is it, that some are capable of occasional substance use, while others develop an addiction? I saw an interesting TedTalk by journalist Johann Hari; Everything you know about addiction is wrong. He asks, what causes addiction? Why do we carry on punishing addicts, since it doesn’t work? And is there a better way instead? According to him, the notion of getting addicted to drugs as a result of being exposed to chemical hooks derives from a series of experiments, that were conducted in the early twentieth century. The experiments included placing a rat in a cage and providing it with two sets of bottles; the other one had water in it and the other one had water added with heroin or cocaine. In almost every case, the rat chose the bottle with drugs and killed itself quite quickly. Bruce Alexander, a professor of psychology in Vancouver, made another experiment in the 1970’s, known as the Rat Park experiment. In rat park, the rats weren’t excluded, but had the company of other rats. They had the two bottles to choose from, water and water added with drugs, and they almost never used the bottle of drugged water. None of them used it compulsively and none of them overdosed.

Hari raises an interesting question: what if addiction is an adaption to our environment? Humans have a natural need to bond and in a healthy environment, we bond with each other. If we are traumatized or don’t possess significant emotional bonds to others, we’ll bond with something else, that gives us relief. As Hari expresses it: a core part of addiction is not to bear to be present in your life.

Why do we use substances?

It seems to me, that humans are naturally intrigued by substances, since they’ve always been used, in different cultures, in various forms. When we think of substances, we often think about drugs, alcohol and nicotine, but also milder substances, such as coffee and tea can be included to this category, because we use them for their stimulating effects. Even sugar can be addictive. Occasional use is often moderate and related to social occasions; a glass of wine with friends, a cup of coffee with family. I believe, that constant and excessive use of substances is almost always a sign of deeper issues, unrelated to the use itself.

According to Kimmo Takanen, a nonfiction writer and trainer of schema therapy and mindfulness methods, we develop various methods in order to cope with difficult emotions during our childhood and youth. These are called life traps. We can avoid or flee from our emotions, surrender to them or attack against them. Our behaviour corresponds with the coping mechanisms we use. These methods were important when we were children, since they helped us to adapt to our environment and circumstances, that we had no control over. As adults, our life traps are activated in similar situations as they did when we were children, but instead of supporting us, they might now control our behaviour (Takanen. 2017).

Substance abuse and various addictions are typical means to avoid and flee emotions. Every child has a natural desire to express emotions. Unfortunately, sometimes expressing emotions isn’t the best way to survive in a situation. A child, that receives spankings, learns to avoid expressing anger. A child with indifferent parents, learns not to seek support by expressing sadness. When a child isn’t allowed to express emotions, he represses them, and starts to avoid them (Takanen. 2017).

As adults, addictions and obsessions help us to prevent life traps and traumas from our childhood from being activated. We can avoid feeling those repressed emotions, or if these emotions arise, we can try to flee from them through our addiction. Although, damaging in the long run, substance abuse and addiction can provide momentary relief and make life more bearable (Takanen. 2017). This is why, condemnation or punishment doesn’t work when dealing with drug issues. The behaviour can’t be changed, if the issues behind it aren’t resolved.

We all have life traps, do you know which ones are influencing Your life? This test might help you find out. https://www.tunnelukkosi.fi/en/lifetrap-test-eng.php

A junky might not be what we want to see when we step outside of our homes in the morning and drug use might awaken very mixed emotions in us. Nevertheless, it’s good to remember, that behind that destructive behaviour is a person with a past, present and hopefully a future. That person has a life story to tell, filled with experiences and memories. He has experienced connections and loss of connections with others. He has the same needs of love and acceptance, as the rest of us. As social workers, we can’t save anyone. But we can learn to see the person behind addiction and offer help and support to re-build that connection to society and the community.


Photo: Flickr. Accessed 27.9.2019. https://www.flickr.com/photos/findrehabcenters/42300583272/sizes/o/

Video: Hari, J. 2015 Accessed 27.9.2019. https://www.ted.com/talks/johann_hari_everything_you_think_you_know_about_addiction_is_wrong?language=mr

Takanen, K. 2017. Murra tunnelukkosi. First edition. Helsinki.

Suurin osa Showcasen blogeista on toteutettu osana Laurean opintojaksoja. Koko koulutustarjontaamme voi tutustua nettisivuillamme. Tarjoamme kymmenien tutkintoon johtavien koulutuksien lisäksi myös paljon täydennys- ja erikoistumiskoulutuksia sekä yksittäisiä opintojaksoja avoimen AMK:n kautta!