The Church as a therapeutic community
In my blog about Gabor Maté and Adverse Childhood Experiences, he commented on some reasons for addiction as follows, "We like to think of addiction as a choice that people make. If they make that choice then you punish them for it. The addiction actually serves a purpose. It temporarily relieves stress, or it distracts you from emotional pain that you're experiencing, or it gives you pleasure that otherwise is not available to you. What I'm saying to you is that the addiction is never the primary problem. The addiction is always an attempt on an individual's part to solve a problem.”
There are a some experiments that throw further light on this.
In the first experiment, a rat is put in a cage, alone, with two water bottles. One is just water. The other is water laced with heroin or cocaine. Almost every time you run this experiment, the rat will become obsessed with the drugged water, and keep coming back for more and more, until it kills itself.
However, in the 1970's, Bruce Alexander, Professor of Psychology in Vancouver noticed something odd about this experiment. The rat is put in the cage all alone. It has nothing to do but take the drugs. What would happen, he wondered, if we tried this differently? So Prof. Alexander built Rat Park. It is a lush cage where the rats would have coloured balls and the best rat-food and tunnels to scamper down and plenty of friends: everything a rat about town could want. What will happen then?
In Rat Park, all the rats obviously tried both water bottles, because they didn’t know what was in them. But what happened next was startling. The rats with good lives didn’t like the drugged water. They mostly shunned it, consuming less than a quarter of the drugs the isolated rats used. None of them died. While all the rats who were alone, unhappy, stressed became heavy users, none of the rats who had a happy environment did.
Prof. Alexander argues then that addiction is the person reacting to 'their cage' whatever that might be.
After the first phase of Rat Park, Prof. Alexander then took this test further. He reran the first experiment, where the rats were left alone, and became compulsive users of the drug. He let them use for fifty-seven days. They were hooked. Then he took them out of isolation, and placed them in Rat Park. He wanted to know, if you fall into that state of addiction, is your brain hijacked so you can’t recover? What happened is — again — striking. The rats seemed to have a few twitches of withdrawal, but they soon stopped their heavy use, and went back to having a normal life. The 'good cage' saved them.
Does this just apply to rats? No. Let’s take the example of the Vietnam war. Some 20% of U.S. soldiers became addicted to heroin there, according to a study published in the US Archives of General Psychiatry. Was America about to be faced with a huge addiction problem once the war ended? In fact, some 95 percent of the addicted soldiers — according to the same study — simply stopped. Very few had rehab. They shifted from a terrifying cage back to a pleasant one, so didn’t want the drug any more.
If you believe Prof. Alexander’s theory, the street-addict is isolated, alone, with only one source of solace to turn to. However, if a person is going home to a life where he or she is surrounded by people he or she relates to and loves, the outcome is different. The drug is the same, but the environment and the bonding is different.
As Dr Joss Bray, founder of Competent Compassion says, “People who are recovering will always say they need "good" people around them - people who don’t use. Overcoming social isolation is really important to help people recover. Therapeutic communities are very powerful because of the interactions between people.”
The Church is essentially a unique community of people with a common hope and a common purpose. To love one another is a central tenet of Jesus’s teaching – and to be a real family for people who may not have much family is one of the ways in which the Church demonstrates this. So many people with addictions have lost that love and commitment from other people - or they may never have had it - and the local church is really well placed to provide it and prayer for the underlying issues. In fact, when churches do this, they are themselves enriched by the people who become part of the family of God – and who are then enabled and equipped to help and love others with the same help and love that they have received. The Church operating as a therapeutic community.
What do you feel you need to be equipped to become a therapeutic community? Please let me know via the contact page and I'll pass on to contacts who are interested.
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Geoff Knott, 12/09/2017