Rat Park Revisited

It is always interesting when research which counters the disease model of alcoholism, or which suggests alternative models that are more in keeping with observation and experience, is suppressed.

With that preamble, let’s revisit the work of psychologist Bruce K. Alexander at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.

Alexander had studied all of the research which said that rats who were isolated, constrained, and impaled with lab equipment, would consume morphine laced water in preference to plain water until they died of “addiction.”

He, probably like you and I, imagined that given the parameters, most of us would decide to dose ourselves to death too, so it was hardly surprising that the rats made the better of the only two choices they had. But what would happen if the rats had other choices?

With that thought in mind, Alexander constructed “Rat Park” where the rats lived in community, had a stimulating and playful environment, raised families, and generally lived an “engaged” life while still having the choice of plain or drugged water.

Guess what?

Over 90% of the rats chose the plain water.

Extending his research, Alexander recreated the original design and when the isolated rats were on the brink of death he transferred them to Rat Park. Want to guess what happened? How about a 90% spontaneous remission rate in drugging themselves.

Well, you might say, but those are rats. That doesn’t necessarily and automatically apply to people.

Fair enough.

But suppose I told you that an unintentional experiment involving hundreds of thousands of people found the exact same outcomes?

That “experiment” was called The War in Viet Nam.

Military personnel trapped in a meaningless, isolated, and dangerous “cage” did what the rats did and self-medicated with heroin and other drugs. Yet when they returned to the U.S. after their tours the vast majority also underwent a spontaneous remission.

If you’d like more current information, give us a call and we’ll happily discuss the results our clients have achieved when they have become re-engaged in life, balanced their relationships, and learned to pay attention to the cues that alert all of us when we are headed back down the wrong road and into the cage.

And if you’d like another take on Rat Park, just click on the video link:

Johann Hari: Everything you think you know about addiction is wrong.

We also like to occasionally revisit our own article entitled “Six Secrets Ex-Drinkers Know and You Don’t, and 12 Step Programs Don’t Want You to Find Out!”
The first of the myths you’ll want to throw overboard is that you are “powerless over alcohol.” This is nonsensical and doesn’t hold up under the slightest scrutiny, but like all AA mythology it’s crept into our cultural consciousness like kudzu.
Second is the equally unsupported proclamation that you have an “incurable and progressive disease.” Again, there is no evidence to support this myth either. Alcohol abuse has high rates of remission, is remarkably stable over time, and, except in extreme cases, doesn’t change your brain any more than Yoga, learning any new skill, language, or adopting a new activity does.
Third, you’re told you “must hit bottom” even though no one seems to be able to define what “hitting bottom” means. Of course common sense (which is uncommon indeed in the 12 Step world) tells us that the sooner the problem is acknowledged and addressed – whether it’s alcohol abuse or a tumor – the easier it is to fix and the more outcomes will be available to you.
Next comes the pervasive business model – you need to go away for 30, 60, or 90 days of rehab. This goes hand in hand with the unsupported belief that rehab “works.” But again, there is no evidence that residential rehab has any efficacy and there is plenty that it’s far less effective than outpatient programs.
As usual, if you think about it, you’ll easily see the problems with that model. First, lock yourself away and you probably won’t drink for as long as you’re confined, though drugs and alcohol are readily available at most programs. But even if you don’t indulge, you will eventually have to go home and all of the same old unresolved issues will be waiting for you and you will revert to the same old liquid solution.
As with most things, if you keep your eye on the money you won’t be surprised. Residential rehab is a business model, not a treatment model.
Fifth, no, Dorothy, you don’t need to be “in recovery” forever. Alcohol abuse can be just another of the activities you’ve moved into your “been there, done that” category. Chances are you, like me, already have many of those. Really, the best way to keep on drinking is to pretend you are “recovering” rather than having “recovered,” while maintaining drinking as the central focus in your life. Remember, being “in recovery” is all about pretendingto be doing something about the problem. Those of us actually recovered don’t need to focus on alcohol – we have better things to do, and so do you.
Finally, if you address the underlying issues which propel your drinking, many of you may, again as the research shows, return to modest social drinking. This is more apt to happen if the problem is recent but we never rule out clients’ options.
All told, you will be well advised to make decisions based on facts, not myths. Remember that alcohol abuse is a symptom, and a habit, and is best addressed by engaging in, managing, and balancing your life.
Need a little help with that? That’s what we offer and ours is, in fact, a research based treatment model. Isn’t that what you want and deserve?