Matt Noffs is the co-founder of early intervention service Street Universities and chief executive of the Noffs Foundation, Australia’s largest drug and alcohol treatment service provider for people under 25. His grandparents, Reverend Ted Noffs and Margaret Noffs, established Sydney’s The Wayside Chapel, set up the first drug referral centre in Sydney and co-founded Lifeline with Alan Walker in 1963.
Up until recently I had a black and white view of what addiction was. It was the junkie in the back alley with a needle hanging out of their arm. The ice addict in the emergency room raving about the bugs under her skin. That relative who has their first drink at 9am. The footy star caught with a bag of coke in their boot. The staff member who ducks out every 30 minutes for a smoke. And while we all know someone with a drug and alcohol problem, it certainly wasn’t you and me.
I thought I knew from all of my family’s work, going back to my grandfather Ted Noffs, co-founding programs like Lifeline and the Wayside Chapel. I thought I knew from our current work building Street Universities around Australia – working with kids and their drug problems.
I thought I knew what addiction was. Addiction was one thing and one thing only – devastating. But despite what we’ve been told – from headlines or own experience – addiction, it turns out, is not a malady but rather a necessary function of being human. It is part of our evolution. It is how you and I turn up to work and do what we do. It is how we obsess over things and strive to perfect our craft – whatever that profession may be. Addiction is as natural as falling in love.
The latest research suggests that when we fall for someone, our brain reacts in the same way as someone who has a love affair with a drug like heroin or ice. We obsess over the person – breakfast, lunch and dinner. However, we recalibrate after a few weeks. Our friends who have been temporarily sidelined find their way back into the picture. We have a beer with John, see a movie with Kate. They ask where we have been and we share the details of our fireside romance. We recalibrate. And while our love may remain the primary part of our lives, we are able to flourish – to get on. To succeed.
Addiction is how we form connections or bonds – bonds to people, bonds to drugs, bonds to success. Instead of seeing addiction as a disease, Canadian psychologist Bruce K. Alexander says that he sees it as part of our “adaptive toolkit” as a species.
Indeed, the latest research estimates that addiction turned up as a function in humans around 4 million years ago. That not only is it natural – it has helped us thrive. It has helped us excel at what we do. It helps us get up and go to work in the morning. It helps us to raise families. Addiction is a tool that has helped us achieve tasks that require us to endure challenges in the pursuit of a goal.
In my new book, Addicted?, Alexander uses the example of his two-year-old grandson’s obsession with excavators as a normal and healthy example of how addiction occurs when we are very young:
“He sits on my shoulders at construction sites. He can sit there for hours. He doesn’t get hungry. He doesn’t get cold. He doesn’t have to go potty. He just sits there on my shoulders and watches the excavators. After a while, the guy driving the excavator just feels these two little eyes burning into him. He’s addicted to excavators.
“This is just normal and perfectly healthy. Kids do this just by way of growing up. Kids go through phases of childish addiction to dinosaurs or excavators or dollies or whatever the hell it is.
“There’s such a thing as addiction. It’s just a totally normal process, but the reason we’re talking about it right now in this pathological context is that sometimes it goes off the rails to the point where it may even become fatal.”
How then, does addiction go off the rails? At Ted Noffs Foundation, most of the young people we see are not only struggling with debilitating addictions – they are fighting off the demons of the past. And as far as demons go – aside from poverty and mental health issues such as anxiety and depression – trauma rears its head more than any other demon in our services.
The kid who falls in love with a drug was more than likely abused. And normally by someone they trusted – that’s also a common theme in adolescent drug treatment. While some of us have experienced trauma at some stage of our lives, we had resources around us to help us battle those demons. But for the young Australians we see, most of them missed out in life’s lottery very early on.
Sense of purpose
How is it that some of us are able to bounce back and others find ourselves in the line at Centrelink
A study conducted in over 50 countries searched for what were described as “protective factors” against drug addiction, mental health issues and suicide. This is what came up: A strong connection to family, to friends, to role models, to education – but for me in my work, this is the one that pops up more often than the others – a sense of purpose.
Purpose for some could come from their belief system, it could be as simple as religion, but for many others it’s a sense that they have worth. That their life means something.
Strong bonds to family, to friends, to role models, education, work and purpose, these are elements that most of us share.
Troubling addictions – the ones that end up hurting those around us and ourselves – develop when there is a lack of these protective factors.
Missing or losing these factors also increases the risk of mental health and suicide. Therefore it’s not addiction itself that is the nasty part – it’s the missing bonds. If we recognise that addiction is a tool that we all use, it bears the question, how likely are you and I to succumb to an addiction that could derail our lives?
Alexander believes that those derailing addictions, whether it’s heroin or a gambling problem, are products of modern life.
“What happens when you gut-check and you think, ‘Well, what do I know how to do? I’m too old for excavators, and nobody loves me. What can I get addicted to? I can get addicted to the social media, or I can get addicted to pornography, or I can get addicted to gambling machines.’ But it’s not going to work.
“That’s when it goes wrong. It’s when it’s all you’ve got and it’s not enough. What can you do? You just keep trying. You haven’t got an alternative. That’s the people that I work with as a psychologist.
“I’ve been working with gambling addicts, slot-machine addicts. These guys, they’ve got so little going for them. They have these love affairs with the slot machines. They zone out, and they become part of a man-machine system, and they’re working away. They’ve got nothing. They’ve got no alternative.
“That’s when I think addiction becomes dangerous, and I think it is dangerous now at this stage in history for us, because you’ve got so many people who don’t really have adequate lives, and they’re grabbing on to the best addiction they can find, and they’re working it for all it’s worth, but it’s not working.
“On the other hand, we’ve got people who are still falling in love with each other, children falling in love with excavators, or whatever it is, and people like you writing books. In that sense, addiction is still essential. We can’t do without it.”
Ironically, when we stop to consider it, those protective factors that most of us gain, are gained through the process of natural addiction.
The kid who is using all their money – ill-gotten or not – to score ice, is both addicted to the drug but also addicted to the job of getting the drug. Alexander believes that there are other reasons why drug addiction helps people besides the pleasure they derive from the drug use itself.
“Addictions can be truly adaptive in a fragmented world because – in psychological terms – they can provide severely dislocated people with a sense of attachment, belonging, identity, meaning, and purpose, at least in the short term,” he says. “Without their addictions, many people would have terrifyingly little engagement with life, and would risk succumbing to incapacitating anxiety, depression, or suicide.
“For example, when impoverished heroin addicts wake up, they at least know who they are and what they must accomplish that day. Rather than being overwhelmed by unbearable emptiness, they keep frantically busy chasing drugs, and interacting with other drug chasers.”
Despite the darkness in their ‘business’, the drug chaser, as Alexander explains, is simply following the same pattern as the child in love with excavators. It’s the primary driver in that person’s life.
When you and I find addictions like love, sex, business, alcohol, cocaine, chances are we are unlikely to end up in a back alley. Why? Because of our friends. Because of our family. And perhaps above all else, because we have a sense of purpose. The addictions, drugs or otherwise, will never be the primary driver, they’ll always be secondary in a flourishing life.
I thought I knew what addiction was but it now no longer resembles a malady. It’s a function of our brain that has helped us get from A to B. It’s something we can harness, but it’s also something that can derail us. When does it derail us? When we are missing those vital bonds, the makings of a flourishing life.
None of us are immune to that derailment when those bonds that had previously protected us fall away. In that case, whether our addiction is heroin, ice, alcohol, or simply work – if it results in poor mental health or worse, death – the harms are equal.
A deeper understanding of what addiction is and how it affects us is critical. However, it still leaves us with the costly and very real issue of debilitating addictions.
Understanding the root cause of destructive addiction, treating the trauma and building the bonds that can protect people from being derailed will make Australia the safest place on earth when it comes to drugs.
Addicted? by Matt Noffs and Kieran Palmer (HarperCollins).