Rosie Dawson-Hewes: Real-life connections save us

By Rosie Dawson-Hewes

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I have a confession to make. One that, up until now, I've only revealed to a few close friends and my husband. For the past few weeks I've been collecting cats.

No, not real ones. You don't need to call the SPCA just yet. I've become addicted to a quirky Japanese app, Neko Atsume.

Rosie Dawson-Hewes.
Rosie Dawson-Hewes.

Loosely translated to Kitty Collector, the premise is pretty much that. You have a yard which you fill with toys and food in an attempt to lure cats to it.

Yes, I do realise how creepy it sounds when you describe it like that, but before you whip off to order the straitjacket, I'm not alone.

As of last December the game had 10 million downloads. It's obviously doing something right. For me, it's a great antidote to the busyness of life.

When I want to tune out everything around me, I check on my kitties. It's an escape.

While it's all fun and games (literally) I've had to consciously keep a careful eye on how much I use it. I have an addictive personality, so I'm wary of those cute cats taking the place of real-life interactions.

Loosely translated to Kitty Collector, the premise is pretty much that. You have a yard which you fill with toys and food in an attempt to lure cats to it.
Rosie Dawson-Hewes

I've always been one of those people who gets completely immersed in whatever thing I'm focused on at that time, often for days or weeks, whether it's a relationship, a TV show or a collection of digital cats. When that happens, everything else falls by the wayside.

About 10 years ago, my work, flat and relationship simultaneously fell apart. My life was imploding and my solution was to escape. My escape mechanism of choice was large quantities of wine. I wasn't knocking myself out, but it was enough that my best friend, who'd just started dating her now-husband, sat me down and pointed out that her new man had met me 10 times and I'd been drunk or drinking nine of those.

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Alcoholism runs in my family so it was a harsh, but much-needed reality check. Her taking an interest and pulling me out of my hole, back into a life where I felt supported, saved me before things got worse.

In the late 1970s Canadian Bruce K Alexander conducted some important research into addiction. Strangely, I studied this experiment at uni not long before my life imploded but it didn't ring any bells.

Alexander put a rat in a cage, alone, with two bottles, one of plain water and one of water laced with opiates. The rat quickly took to the morphine, eventually overdosing on it.

However, Alexander was out to prove that addiction is attributable to living conditions.

Enter Rat Park. Rat Park was a giant community for rats, with as many toys and mates and as much food as they liked. It also had the two bottles of water.

When the rats had all their rat buddies around them and good living conditions, they didn't overdose. They would occasionally taste the morphine water, but generally stick to the plain water. None used the drugged water compulsively and none overdosed.

Now, I know that's rats and not people, but a similar thing occurred after the Vietnam War.

During the war, 20 per cent of American troops were using heroin. Now you'd think that sort of addiction would result in loads of junkies roaming the streets when they got home.

But a study followed the soldiers' journey and they didn't.

They didn't go to rehab and many didn't even go into withdrawal. The war conditions were like their lonely cage and home was Rat Park, where the soldiers were well-supported and had loved ones around them. Ninety-five per cent of the veterans just stopped using when they got home.

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Alexander was right, addiction isn't about the drugs themselves. It's about the bonds you have with people around you. When I was drinking heavily, that was certainly the case. I'd inadvertently isolated myself from everyone around me, so I bonded with the bottle instead.

The UN General Assembly will soon hold a special session on the world's drug problem, where governments, including New Zealand, and NGOs will discuss the way forward.

Just last month Sanho Tree, the director of the Drug Policy Project for the Institute of Policy Studies in Washington DC, told Radio New Zealand that drug problems will not be solved until poverty and alienation are addressed.

I couldn't agree more.

The way I see it, humans are wired to live in communities, to be surrounded by other humans.

We crave those bonds, that emotional interaction. So the key to helping those battling addiction, mental illness, or any of those horrible things life throws at us, getting us all out of kilter, is connection.

Locking people away, or turning them into outcasts, marginalised and labelled, is never the solution. It should be about surrounding those struggling with a solid support system of people who care.

If we focus on creating healthy human connections, we become less reliant on whatever else we were bonding with instead, whether it's alcohol, or our cellphones, or adorable animated cats. It's not about individual recovery, it's about social recovery. That's how we solve the greater issues of life - together.

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