At a recent Volte Face/DDN event in London, Johann Hari interviewed Maia Szalavitz about her newly published thoughts on addiction. This is an extract from their conversation
First Szalavitz described her own experiences, experimenting with psychedelics, then becoming addicted to cocaine and heroin.
Johann Hari: ‘Usually when someone tells this publicly, they say “Society tells me what a disgusting wicked person I was – and then I discovered in fact I had a disease.” But part of the movement we’re part of is arguing that actually, there’s a third option, which is that you’re neither evil nor diseased. Can you talk about what the third option is?’
Maia Szalavitz: ‘When I got into recovery, the disease model was the only thing that was presented as the alternative to the sin model. And so I grabbed onto it. But one of the things that always bothered me was, everybody tells me it’s a chronic, progressive disease, and it’s destroying your brain. That makes me think of something like Alzheimer’s – and you can’t get into recovery from Alzheimer’s, sadly. Also it’s the case that research shows that people are more likely to get into recovery the older they get. So if it was a chronic, progressive disease, that should be the opposite. If you look at gambling addiction, and you look at sex addiction, there’s no chemical involved. There is no chemical changing your brain, and causing you to behave this way.
And if this can happen with no chemical, then the brain damage that people are talking about with chemical addiction must not be necessary to addiction happening. And so I began to realise that – and this is not original to me; the scientists have been saying this forever – that addiction’s a learning disorder. It’s defined as compulsive behaviour that occurs, despite negative consequences.
So that’s also what happens in these other processes. And it also means that when you are trying to kick addiction, it’s more like trying to get over the worst break up of your life than it is like having a serious disease – although in some instances, you can certainly have severe physical withdrawals and those kinds of things.
But those things aren’t the essence of a problem. I hear so many people talking about opioid addiction these days, and everybody’s like, “Oh well, they just are avoiding withdrawal – you just can’t bear withdrawal, it’s the worst thing ever.” I went through it like six times. It does suck. But it is not bad, like if anybody’s ever had any kind of serious illness. It is not anything compared to some of those things.
And it also isn’t the problem. Because every time I stopped using long enough to lose my physical dependence, I was fine for a couple of weeks – and it wasn’t that I was sick that made me want to get high. I wanted to get high, because I thought, “Oh, I can just do this on weekends now.” So it was the psychology that was driving the problem, and not the physiology.’
Unbroken Brain by Maia Szalavitz, published 13 October, St Martin’s Press.
Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari, published January 2016, Bloomsbury.