When Basic Human Needs are Missing – Addiction Fills the Gap

Those who have experienced it, will understand the restorative effect of surviving serious danger. When we are seriously threatened all of our priorities suddenly come into focus. During these emergencies we stop taking things for granted and come back to basics with a bump. This is because safety and security are fundamental human needs, something the psychologist Abraham Maslow pointed out in his Theory of Human Motivation. (See my first article on the subject here).

Maslow’s theory of human motivation describes an ancient pattern of primate behaviour which drives humans to seek out certain basic needs like safety, before they seek out higher order needs such as status and meaning. Because we are built this way, whenever any immediate threat recedes, we go back to scrabbling up the pyramid with no sense of gratitude whatsoever. Wouldn’t it be great if we could seek those higher order needs, while still remaining grateful for the basic ones which have already been satiated, like being fed and having a roof over our heads. But this is not human nature, we are strivers. No sooner has the imminent danger retreated, then we are back to obsessing about how popular we are, or how much resources (i.e. money, drugs, cattle) we have at our disposal.

People often ask me — if addictions are just fake substitutes for basic human needs, then what about drugs? Where do they fit in? They are not a natural primate behaviour? The answer to this seems obvious. Some drugs provide us with meaning, and some with energy. But the best way of answering it is to say that drugs are a resource — an inner resource to be precise. My theory of addiction is an evolutionary one. I believe that addictions are substitutes for basic human needs which have not been met by the modern environment.

Drugs imbue people who don’t have any resources (internal or external) with feelings of confidence and security. They deliver what evolutionary psychologists would call, “a falsified sense of increased fitness”. “Fitness”, in this context refers to evolutionary fitness. Drugs reduce anxiety and give us a feeling of power, a feeling like we have the strength to get up and go out into the world. Feelings which are essential if we are to proliferate our genetic heritage, which, whether we like it or not (or even whether we are aware of it or not) is our very reason for being. So drugs provide us with feelings of esteem when we don’t have any. They make us feel like we belong — even when we don’t. They’re a form of existential cheating.

And what happens when even our basic needs aren’t met? What happens when danger does not recede, but instead pushes forwards and crushes us? What happens when our sense of security is permanently taken away from us and we are ripped apart by the forces of the universe? At this moment we are at heightened risk of addiction, because one of the essential bricks in the human pyramid of needs is missing. This is the gap where post-traumatic stress lives. The place where the use of drugs as a fake source of safety come into play. The place where the opportunity for a piece of inferior software to be used presents itself. All addictions are like ‘fake software’. They can be used on the same hardware that evolved over millennia to meet our survival needs. But eventually — they crash.

So let’s give an example of how this works.

Self-Medicating the Absence of Basic Needs Like Safety

Imagine you are living in a war-torn developing country. You and your friend are both soldiers — rebels. He is a heroin addict as are many of the rebels, but you are not. (Not yet anyway!). Heroin is mass produced in the area, and as everybody knows, it is this ease of availability that makes the drug so widely abused by the local populace (at least, that’s what they think).

One day you are caught behind enemy lines and taken by government forces to a barracks where you are tortured. Here, you are denied the ability to breathe properly for several minutes at a time as they drown you slowly in a bathtub and put duck tape over your face. Another aspect of this torture is that you are denied the ability to shit (by means of which I will leave your imagination to conceive). Remarkably, your friend is totally cured of his heroin addiction during these turbulent days as he has other basic needs which are concerning him rather more urgently.

The rebel forces drive their way through the city and you are freed, but unfortunately the damage is already done. Your nervous system is shot to pieces and your consciousness itself has been mangled. Parts of your mammalian brain regions have been scarred by the experience and would display shocking changes if they were subject to imaging. Your very physiology has changed. Your memory system has got its gears stuck and you can’t process or store your experiences away. Your near-death experience is still present moment … in this moment … and always shall be. In short, you have a malfunctioning, hyper-aroused nervous system which is flooding your mind’s eye with intrusive flashbacks, making you pathologically vigilant and unable to ‘turn off’. But don’t worry, all this is about to be ‘cured’.

Your friend is using heroin again with increased vigour and you feel compelled to do the same. The evidence is there in all the people around you that this is a potent source of relief. You experience mother nature’s warning as the first toke of foul-tasting smoke makes you vomit, and then — the surge of relief experienced as reward. The next day, without heroin, you feel like superman. All the warnings must be lies. You are not instantly addicted. In fact, you feel stronger and more well than you ever have done. You take this as a green light to use with impunity, and you are gone.

A year later the war has ended and you are at home in bed next to your wife. All your troubles are over. But in that half sleep that the drug will only allow, you have a sudden feeling of alarm which is so profound that it is felt even through the emotionally flattening effects of the opiate. You will never be free. You know this to the core of your soul. You are trapped on a treadmill like a rat in a lab. Not only is your post-traumatic stress alive and well, but now you are also addicted beyond recognition. Like a real wound the pain is still there because the opiate has not removed the pain itself, but only the emotional content of it. In terms of the human ‘hierarchy of needs’, you cannot feel safe (despite the fact that you actually are) and so you achieve the semblance of safety through the intrinsically rewarding properties of heroin. Properties which mimic, though in reality do not provide, safety.

And so it is that every addiction, whether to a substance or a behaviour, is nothing more than a substitutes or perversions of those basic human primate needs which have evolved over countless millenia; calories, sex, shelter, safety, esteem, status and meaning.