Friday, May 5, 2017

Addiction: It's a Mindset

On Monday, I was talking about how providing free housing to homeless people reduces healthcare expenditures on those people and mentioned an experiment with providing free housing for homeless people, an experiment which has been duplicated with positive results in several different cities, by the way. Well, this experiment yielded a separate, unlooked for result. It showed that providing housing to homeless people also "cured" the majority of them of their addictions and/or addiction behaviors.


Yeah, you heard me.

This shouldn't have been as surprising as it was because we've known for a long time that one of the drivers of addiction is hopelessness and despair. It should be obvious that people with nowhere to live instead dwell with hopelessness and live in despair. Take those things away -- yes, I know; it's not always that easy -- and suddenly the impetus to "drown your sorrows" is gone.

But it's about more than that. It's about purpose.

So let's take a step back a moment.

When this experiment, the one about providing free housing to homeless people, was first proposed, many of the critics said it would never work because all of the drug addicts (including those addicted to alcohol) -- and face it, a majority of those who are homeless suffer from some kind of substance abuse issue -- would just sell off all of  the furnishings (which are also provided) to buy drugs and end up living in what amounted to no more than a flop house or a drug den. While it was acknowledged that that was a distinct possibility, enough people wanted to see what would happen to go through with it. After all, it was an experiment.

I don't think what happened was what anyone really expected to happen but it is, nevertheless, what happened, and that's that people cleaned up. Not gradually, either, but almost immediately. Sure, there were some people who did sell off all of the furniture for drugs or whatnot, but those cases were relatively few and, when they did, the furniture was replaced -- yes, even over and over again -- and many of those people also cleaned up, as soon as they realized that what was happening was real.

The consensus was that it was about more than hope; it was about purpose. These people, these people who had been living on the streets, some for years and years, had had no purpose. They had simply been existing but, given a place they could call home, they suddenly found purpose in their lives and the need for the drugs (including alcohol) dissipated. They had something to live for, even if it was just caring for their new living space, which the vast majority took great pride in.

So now let's get a little philosophical.

For a long, long time we've know that our current method of trying to break people from drug addiction doesn't work. That method amounts to taking the drugs away from them and telling them "no!" Most people who go through rehabilitation programs relapse because the programs, though they get they drugs out of the addict's system, don't do anything to address the causes of the abuse. What we really expect is for people to just "power through it" and through an effort of willpower to say "no" to the drug everyday. Even when that's not what they want to do.

I use that term "want" in the same way someone who is overweight might say, "I want to lose weight," while never taking any actual action to accomplish that. Or someone might say, "I want to have a clean house," while never actually cleaning up. Or, "I want to write a book," while never putting pen to paper. What these statements really mean is, "I want to have done it," but the people saying them don't really want to expend the necessary energy to accomplish their "goals."

Most addicts who go through programs "want" to be clean in that same kind of way. Generally, they are not there by choice but because someone they care about has somehow coerced them into it. So, sure, they "want" to have never gotten hooked to begin with but they don't really want to quit.

And they don't really want to quit because they have no reason to quit.

Look, when you talk to any addict who has cleaned up his/her life, you'll find it's because the person found something else to live for, even if that something else is actually being sober. That can be the purpose; it's just usually not.

Oh, by the way, another big contributor to everything that happened in these free housing experiments was community. Suddenly, the homeless didn't feel alone. They lived in communities with each other, and that helped with... everything. Loneliness and alone-ness are big factors in addiction. And, even when you love someone, even when you believe that person is not alone, that may not be how the addict feels.

So what is it I'm saying? I'm saying two things:
1. As with healthcare costs, we can cut addiction among the homeless population (which also affects healthcare costs) by doing the simple thing of providing them living spaces. For free. No strings.

2. We can cut addiction in the rest of the population by striving to help these people find purpose. It's not so simple as just taking away the drugs and saying "no." And, yes, I realize this is not an easy thing I'm saying here. It's not an easy fix with a one-step solution like taking away the drugs and saying "no." It's a solution that would take some work, but it's a better solution.

And it's why I said, "Let's get philosophical," because the solution will be different for every person. What is "purpose" for one person is not necessarily so for another. Maybe I should have said, "Let's get psychological."

Look, I'm not saying that addiction is all in the mind and that you can just think your way out of it. If that were true, addiction wouldn't be a problem at all. However, we can do much more to approach addiction in a mentally appropriate way, and that starts with getting to reasons why addiction happens in the first place.


  1. I read a study about mice. They gave them all the drugs they wanted. The ones who turned down the drugs lived in mouse Disneyland. The ones who didn't lived in dismal cages. Same idea.

    I agree. But people want to punish what they see as shortcomings in others, so it'll be a hard sell.

    1. Liz: Yeah, I read that study. Pretty fascinating stuff.

  2. The way people treat the homeless around here, especially in Denver where it's more prevalent, is pretty disgusting.

    I know just last week there was a local news story about a nameless body being found in the water beneath an overpass that's popular for being a small homeless encampment, and about 90% of the Facebook comments were just people saying, "Oh, this is just another homeless heroin addict that OD'd. Who cares? Why is this news?"

    When Brandon and I went to the Denver Rescue Mission once upon a time ago to do research for our Slim Dyson novel, I think the thing that resonated with us most was that on average, homeless people were WAY happier just to be humanized and treated like regular people than they were to be given food and water. I think that says a lot.

    As for addiction, purpose does go a long way. Brandon and I have been friends since elementary school. We hang out with the same friends that we've known since back then. One of them, a dorky little Asian mathlete with rich white adoptive parents, became a heroin addict. I guess it shows that it really can happen to anyone.

    He relapsed as recently as 6 months ago, after his girlfriend broke up with him, because I think he thought that was his purpose. But it wasn't.

    He got his sh*t together, opened his own shop in a local mini mall, and now he's very happy. He even said those words, having a purpose means everything. And he said that the drugs still call to him, but it's easier to resist when he weighs that against how important it is to see his business thrive.

    1. ABftS: You know, you can thank Ronald Reagan for the surge in homelessness over the past few decades. Maybe I'll post about that sometime.

      Homelessness is pretty bad out here, too, especially in San Francisco. Even out here, it's a constant fight to do constructive things to help rather than just try to hide the problem.

  3. I'd love for something like this to be implemented. But we'd have to have a president that wasn't evil and a congress that wasn't also evil. The whole mindset of the country seems to be one of anger and retribution. We don't want to help anyone. We want to punish them for being addicted and then tell ourselves that they didn't succeed because they didn't try hard enough, not because they didn't have anywhere to go or any reason to try.

    1. Jeanne: Well, you know, if they were "good" people, they wouldn't -be- addicted, so we know they are "bad"people since they are and, since they are "bad," they deserve whatever they bring on themselves. That'll teach 'em.