Dependency is not Solely the Substance’s Fault

The scientific community believed for the longest time that dependency to alcohol or to any drug was caused by the substance’s intrinsic addictive properties. Using the Skinner box invented in the early 1930s, scientists observed that rats, who were kept captive and isolated for the experiment, would self-administer drugs. They concluded that addiction was brought on by the drugs, converting those who would take them into drug addicts.





Laboratory rats are often used for testing because their genome closely resembles ours. Human genes associated with disease have an equivalent in the rat’s genome.



The Rat Park Study

Bruce K. Alexander, a Canadian psychologist, led the Rat Park Study in 1978, thereby revolutionizing how addiction was understood. Just like us, rats are a social species, and they crave being in contact and communicating with their peers. And just like rats would, people isolated in a narrow, confined space would show little hesitation in using a narcotic substance freely supplied to them to counter boredom, loneliness, or more broadly, living conditions that are contrary to their well-being.

Alexander and his team built a park big enough to house 16 to 20 male and female rats. It was set up like a play park, a mini rat paradise complete with play wheels and balls, food, and space for mating. Several theories based on the hypothesis that the environment plays a key role in addiction were tested using four groups of rats.


maxresdefault-830x467rat park



All the conclusions from Alexander’s Rat Park Study stated that social interactions play a major role in addiction. And if social life is part of the problem, then it should logically be part of the solution!



A Study Recognized by Drug Addiction Specialists

The study was published in 1981 but was, at first, not favourably received, as it went against previous “evidence” that addiction was brought on by the substance itself. Many other studies confirmed the findings of the Rat Park Study and most psychologists and substance abuse specialists now agree that addiction is psychological as well as physical. Humans don’t need to be physically isolated like lab rats to develop an addiction; emotional isolation (loneliness) will have the same detrimental result. Drugs and alcohol are a way of escaping loneliness, a difficult situation, or any kind of pain. It’s an attempt to feel better.

My own personal journey illustrates this well. In my previous blog entry The Two Faces of Drug Addiction, I wrote that the outside world felt like a prison to me, not an amusement park. I was petrified by life’s uncertainties. Daily medication was necessary just to feel normal and get the simplest things done, like leaving the house, taking the bus, meeting with people, eating (yes, I know, it’s weird, but I suffered from emetophobia, the fear of throwing up), etc. Life was agonizingly frightening, and there was no point trying to go through the day if I couldn’t help myself first to a tiny, crucial, white benzodiazepine pill. It was toxic, but it was legal and doctor prescribed. It’s only once I became addicted to it that I learned that it worked on the same brain receptors as alcohol did. I was basically taking alcohol in a pill format.

The addiction rehabilitation centre where I went to free myself from this living hell welcomed me as I was, without judgment. They explained that recovery starts by not judging oneself so harshly anymore and by acknowledging one’s situation. Admitting to the obvious was indeed liberating: I definitely was in a bad state, and I desperately needed help. A change in my physical and psychological environment had to happen, and it was time I learned how to make this world my very own park.

Portage Already Knew What the Rat Park Study Would Prove a Few Years Later

On February 14, 1973, Portage opened its first centre at Lac Echo, in the Laurentians (province of Quebec). A group of Montreal citizens lead by Portage’s current president Mr. Peter A. Howlett and his mother, Alphonsine Paré Howlett, were deeply troubled by the spreading drug abuse in the city. The Lac Echo centre was to be the solution to this social evil. The name Portage was chosen because it aptly describes the rehabilitation process, which brings all those who engage in it to tap into their personal strength to overcome the obstacles lying on their path.




Located in a forest, near a lake, and set in a wild and peaceful landscape, the centre helps its residents go back to basics, face reality, and be authentic. With the case managers, the residents form a support group, a therapeutic community where they learn to coexist.



1973: first centre of Portage at Lac Echo

Eight years before the Rat Park Study was published, Portage was already setting up a customized and therapeutic environment to welcome drug abusers, positioning itself as an avant-garde drug abuse treatment centre. Making drastic changes in the drug abusers’ environment and integrating them in a therapeutic community was the chosen way to break the cycle of addiction.

Located in a forest, near a lake, and set in a wild and peaceful landscape, the centre helps its residents go back to basics, face reality, and be authentic. With the case managers, the residents form a support group, a therapeutic community where they learn to coexist. Twenty-one competencies (Getting Out of Addiction: Philippe’s Story at Portage ) are taught in six well-defined steps that make up the rehabilitation process. The addicts who complete the Portage program have the tools to learn how to live well and deal with daily life without falling back into drugs and alcohol.


Isabelle Fortin

Blogger for Portage

Lan Vi Pham

Editing and Translation


Read the next article:

Are We All Equal in the Face of Addiction?






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