Once there was a boy who was difficult. That was the kindest way to put it. He fused and bit and hit and as he grew older his biting and hitting became a problem. He hurt people. He lived alone with his father, who, in the way of men of his village, was kind but stern. Desperate for his son to change, and not knowing what else to do, the father told the boy he must stop hitting and biting or he would no longer be welcome in his home.
The boy thought that was fine. Without a word to his father, he went into the forest with other boys like him and lived under a lean-to near a sparkling stream. It was spring and there was fruit on the trees and the water in the stream was clear and clean. His friends showed him how to chew the leaves of a special plant that made him feel happy and lazy, and he spent the spring and summer that way, lost in the sensuality of his freedom and the plant’s relief from his anger.
Winter came. His friends began drifting away. He went home. His clothes and hair were ragged and dirty and his skin was dark from being outside. He walked into the village and no one knew him. When he came to his home, his father ran to him and held him and cried. He took him inside and bathed him and cut his hair and fed him.
When his son was clean and fed, the father told him that he wanted him to come back home but he must change, and he must ask forgiveness from all those he had hurt and make amends to them. He said that is the way a man behaves.
The night, while his father slept, the boy went back into the forrest.
The man asked his friends to help him search for his son. Some came with him. Others said it was up to the boy to find himself.
He could not find the boy, and when he got home after days of looking he went to the the council of village elders and asked them what he should do.
One of the elders said the boy should be punished, that that was the way to show him how to behave. Another said he must renounce the boys who had befriended him and given him the plant that took away his will. The wisest of the elders said simply that the boy was a man now and must make his own way. No one could decide for him.
But he will die, the father said. He has the years of a man, but he is still a boy. I see it in his eyes. I see the fear. He will not say it, but I see it.
One of the elders was a shaman. He suggested that the boy might be ill. He recommended leeches to draw out the ill humors that possessed him.
He will not submit to leeches, the father said.
Well, then, the shaman said, there is nothing more we can do. His life is up to him.
The father left home that afternoon and went again in search of his son. It is not recorded whether he found him or whether the boy stopped hurting people or whether he hurt his father again, for he had done so before. Neither one of them was ever seen again.
A few years later the village moved to a new valley. The story of the boy would have been forgotten if it had not been written down by the shaman. He had thought the leeches might work, and even though he had not been permitted to try them, he recorded the story so that over time others might learn from it what they could.
Two hundred years later a modern shaman, Maia Szalavitz, has written in The New York Times about new ways to help boys and girls like the young boy from the village. Boys and girls who are self destructive and angry, who are abusing drugs or alcohol, who have exhausted the patience of their family and friends and become isolated. Boys and girls who are in danger of disappearing into the forest.
Surveying emerging understanding of the brain chemistry of addiction, Ms. Szalavitz hypothesizes that addiction is a hijacking of normal brain circuitry for unintended uses. Like OCD, which amplifies fears so that mundane concerns become matters of life and death, addiction corrupts the pleasure-reward paths of love.
This is especially tough on adolescents, whose cognitive moderators of their intense desires have not yet fully matured. Think of the passions and deaths of Romeo and Juliette. Half of adolescent addicts will grow out of their addictions by age thirty. But the other half will not. And even for those who do, there are lost opportunities and derailed lives. One day you’re graduating from high school, on your way to college, the next you’re thirty, a single parent with no advanced education and ten years of wasted life.
Like those village elders of two hundred years ago, we have not advanced much beyond chastising and punishing bad behavior and insisting that the addict find it within himself to change. We do have AA now, and programs like it. But taking the twelve steps doesn’t help most people.
“Addiction is a learning disorder,” Ms. Szalavitz suggests, “shaped by genetic and environmental influences over the course of development.”
Addicts have learned to love the wrong thing.
“The implications for treatment are profound,” she says.
She sites a meta-analysis of dozens of studies over four decades that found that “empowering, empathetic treatments like cognitive behavior therapy and motivational enhancement therapy, which nurture an internal willingness to change, work far better than the more traditional rehab approach of confronting denial and telling patients they are powerless over their addiction.”
“If addiction is like misguided love, then compassion is a far better approach than punishment,” Ms. Szalavitz concludes. “This makes sense, because the circuitry that normally connects us to one another socially has been channeled instead into drug seeking. To return our brains to normal then, we need more love, not more pain.”