Conor, New Years Day, Revelstoke, BC, 2017. Taken by brother Braden.
Folks new to the blog may not be familiar with my hypothesis that many addiction problems are likely caused by empathy disruption and lack of connection in people’s lives. I wrote a couple of posts on the issue about the famous Rat Park experiments. They showed that rats in isolated cages would drink cocaine-laced water until they died. But when put in kind of a Rat Happy-Land, with other rats, and rat babies, the rats would not even come close to the narcotics. Bruce Alexander, who ran the original experiments, remains a hero to me because of his courage to buck the v-Meme trend and realize that empathetic context matters. When a brain/neurosystem feels isolated, there is no greater pain, and it’s well documented that people waste away quickly in solitary confinement.
Empathetic cut-offs from trauma and/or loss deliver the same type of punishment. It’s no wonder then that people will seek to self-medicate, if for whatever reason their brains can’t connect to others. One can see how this plays directly into understanding how trauma actually hurts your brain, and how that trauma then, if unprocessed, creates the empathetic inability to connect to others, which then leads to addiction.
A piece recently came across my Medium feed called A Sober Utopia, which delivers further reinforcement for my theory. It’s a lovely piece, written about a facility out east of Pueblo, CO, in the desolate country on the edge of sight of the Front Range. The facility, Ft. Lyon, has a long, tragic history of its own — it was the staging ground for the notorious Sand Creek Massacre, and later was turned into a neuropsychiatric hospital before being shuttered and reborn by the Colorado Legislature as a rehab facility for severe homeless drug addicts.
What makes Ft. Lyon different is its emphasis on self agency and developing avenues for meaning in the people that are treated. Focused first around the arts and crafts, people at Ft. Lyon make things. My experience with students has always been that making things is one of the best avenues for demonstrating performance and mastery, which leads to self empathy. You need to have things you’ve made that show not just to the world that you are a person of value. The act of creation demonstrates to yourself that you are — and that if you want to heal the empathetic disconnect with others that is causing you great pain, the first person you have to connect with is yourself.
“Person-centric, not program-centric,” is how the Director of the facility, James Ginsburg describes it in the article. For my fellow psychonauts, there could be no better statement that re-emphasizes is the self-similar characteristics of a place with its goals and social structure on the right track. When one talks about a certain vibe saturating a given place, that’s what that means.
Another classic anecdote sums up this perspective exactly — one that we might think about applying far more broadly in education. From the same piece:
Ginsburg mentioned a man who came to him with a plan to build kaleidoscopes as part of his recovery. “There’s this tendency with social service programming to go, ‘No, we don’t build kaleidoscopes, that’s not what we do here,’” he said. “Well, of course not! No one builds kaleidoscopes — no one has a kaleidoscope policy.” Instead, the staff at Fort Lyon found a way to get the man the materials he needed to build kaleidoscopes. “That guy was totally out of it when he got here,” Ginsburg said, “and he has blossomed.” His kaleidoscopes are now displayed around campus and for sale at the store.
There’s so much goodness about empathetic timescales, recovery from trauma, and all sorts of neurogenic insight that I could go on and on. But hey — even if you’re not into all the subject this blog is about, the piece is a great read for a snowy winter evening. Go get you some.