Chasing the Scream: Seeing Addiction through a Clearer Lens

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Chasing the Scream by British journalist Johann Hari deepens our understanding of the causes of and remedies for addiction.   The book, published in January of 2015, helps readers to understand why the ‘war on drugs has failed and will continue to fail because resources are focused on punishment of what are essentially health and social justice issues.  A pivotal study of rats (more about this later)  helps to tell the multi-layered story of addiction’s causes and prompts readers to re-examine why people use drugs.  Some believe bad character causes addiction, others that drug addiction is a matter of chemical predisposition.  Hari’s findings refute these causes and suggest a radical alternative to punishment, one that includes community, purpose, and a deeper understanding of the needs of the self

An anecdote at the beginning of Hari’s study explains the book’s title;  the reputed initiator of the war on drugs 100 years ago was a man whose memory of being sent to buy drug-store opiates for a heroin-addicted neighbour influenced his adult determination to capture and confine addicts because of that neighbour’s screams.  Rather than asking himself the underlying causes of her terrible pain, he focused on silencing screamers by locking them away.  In the one hundred years since, we have become a nation of incarcerated drug users.  Our prisons are massive, punitive breeding grounds for crime and yet we continue to support the incarceration practice that is the heart and soul of every police state and militarized nation.

Because tapping is the most powerful somatic tool for developing optimism and supporting resilience, I tapped my way through the horrors of this work, for there are horrors in its pages, of law-and-order policies gone horribly wrong, of gang warfare, and of individual and community losses.  Central to these horrors is our punitive prison system.  In their privatized form, American prisons have become economic bottom feeders and community destroyers, robbing us of our our boys and men, with emphasis on our African American, Native, and Hispanic boys and men, and a growing number of our girls and women of all races and religions.  These new mega-prisons are comparable to the Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) that are the source of hideous animal cruelty, highly toxic “meat”, and environmental degradation of unimaginable proportions.  Warehousing people who are addicted makes money for prison owners and shareholders as it makes misery for our communities, and each one of us can become involved in positive activism to raise awareness regarding alternatives to punishment and imprisonment.

The positive take-away from Chasing the Scream is what the scream chasers Hari researches learn over time.  Criminalizing drug users fails to make positive change possible, escalating family and community trauma and promoting the social destabilization that leads to more drug selling and more drug use.  So what does work?

Many years ago, I learned of the alternative to our punitive prison system from studies on Australian Aborigines who developed Family Conferencing protocols to resolve the wrongs that occur during non-violent crimes and even some violent crimes.  Creating a circle that includes law enforcement officers, the person(s) directly affected by the crime along with family supporters, the person(s) who committed the crime also with family supporters, Elders, and other citizens respected in the community changes the outcomes of crimes in positive ways.  The person traumatized by the crime gets to speak of how the act has changed his or her life while the person who committed the crime hears first-hand how his or her actions caused very specific loss of trust, fear, anger, and economic hardship.

This profoundly important first step ensures the traumatized person is not forgotten in the rush to emphasize safety and punishment.   Sometimes called the Victim Impact Statement, this voicing of the harm done activates a process where all present contribute to outcomes that reweave both individuals (in research literature called the Perpetrator and the Victim) into the community.  Non-toxic shame, that is, the healthy shame neutralized by specific acts correcting a wrong, arises when the person who commits the crime assumes responsibility for the act; making the reparation requested by the traumatized person and agreed upon by the family members, Elders, and law enforcement officers, releases this shame.

Perhaps the most destructive consequence of punishment is the toxic shame it produces because the wrong doer does not have the opportunity to make amends.  Toxic shame is something John Bradshaw writes about eloquently when he explores the legacy of alcoholism in the lives of children of alcoholics.  It is not a shame that leads to corrective action, but a shame that leads to isolation, addiction, and even suicide.   In a toxic-shame situation, the shamed person feels worthless and begins to behave in ways that make this lack of worth clear.  By offering both the traumatized person – the victim – and the person who committed the act – the perpetrator – a place to name and hear the harm done in a safe and supportive circle whose members collectively decide how to remedy this harm, family conferences prevent toxic shaming and emphasize community healing.

What does the family conference process have to do with addiction?  Everything.  Creating a safe, loving, respectful circle in which addicted persons are held in a community of caring supporters is the first step to ending addiction.  Revisiting the rat study mentioned in the first paragraph is useful here.  Hari documents two studies that help us to see why addiction is so prevalent today.  In the first study, rats are confined in a bare cage, a prison, with a nutritional food source and two sources of water, one plain, one with added heroin.  The rats consistently drank the heroin water, refused their food, and ultimately died.  A second group of researchers examined this study and observed that rats don’t live in bare prison-like cages but in smelly, diverse environments where every day challenges like food and safety require their attention and invention.  With this in mind, the second group designed a “rat heaven” with all kinds of mazes and interesting home possibilities along with a nutritional food source, plain water, and heroin water.  The second group of rats chose the plain water and thrived in their home-like situation.

These studies confirm what we know intuitively. People experiment with drugs for a variety of reasons; they become addicted when they believe their choices for an escape from mental, emotional, or physical pain are restricted.  In other words, they believe they are living without choices, in a harsh, non-supportive prison situation.  To take the pain of perceived imprisonment away, they use.

Living a joyful, productive life requires resources we learn from our families, our mentors, our communities, our spiritual guides, and our educational opportunities.  If we are alone, without family and community support, and if we are in economic, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual poverty, then any substance can be used to diminish our pain and isolation.  “If I feel too threatened by my loneliness, my lack of purpose, my fear, my rage . . . ,” the inner voice assures, ” . . . I can always use,”

Providing opportunities for everyone to develop inner resources, interpersonal skills, and a variety of perspectives through informal and formal educational opportunities, will remove people from the prison of limitation where drugs appear to be the only means of escape.  Every community can participate in skills exchanges, mentoring programs, economic development programs and the like.  Every community can learn about family conferencing and fight to keep its men, women, and children at home, where restorative justice flourishes. Every community can rid its members of toxic shame and tighten the weave of its fabric by treating all its members with respect and loving kindness.  And, as always, tapping daily can help all community members foster resilience.

To paraphrase a famous quote, Life isn’t for sissies.  To discover our courage and use it to meet all the wondrous opportunities life requires we face, we need each other and a shared vision of how things may be rather than the distorted view of how things must be.  Tapping supports personal insight and resilience as well as community strength and innovation.  Seeing the challenges our communities face as opportunities, and tapping for inclusive, healing remedies for these challenges, can shift our vision of drug use and end our compliance with militarized actions that punish human suffering and prevent healing.

We can begin this process by expanding our knowledge of how other cultures meet crime with skill and optimism rather than brute force and punishment.  For an overview of Australian Family Conferences, visit any of the many Australian websites profiling Australian Restorative Justice policies and procedures including:

And, for an introduction to Johann Hari and his Chasing the Scream studies, visit

Tapping for skill, for resourcefulness, and for resilience as we hold very specific challenges in our hearts and minds will bring insight and energy to our resolve to be agents of positive change.  Making a positive difference in someone’s life creates a reservoir of gratitude for everyone involved.  Choosing skill and resourcefulness over incarceration may appear to be a small beginning, but it is the beginning of social change on a massive scale.

Until next week



Jane Buchan, MA, AAMET Advanced Practitioner,, 802-533-9277

Jane is a Life Coach specializing in neutralizing trauma and cultural constructs to support positive life choices and activism at every age.