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If you’ve been following my work, you may have noticed I’ve transitioned from veteran issues to addictions. I thought I should probably elaborate on this shift in focus and share the underlying theme driving all of my work.
After reading a few of my articles, it should be fairly clear that the underlying theme is the power of social connection. It has been the central driving force behind my writing for the last ten years.
Although I usually talk about the research on social connection and its various benefits and impacts on our lives, this article will have a bit of a different tone. I want to share a bit of an autobiographical account of the things I’ve learned since I started writing about these ideas.
My interest in the power of social connection started when I began studying sociology. Initially heading into law enforcement, I was fascinated by how criminal behavior is often the result of social forces such as poverty. I started applying to the RCMP (being Canadian and all) and figured I’d just get a sociology degree because it sounded like the most interesting way to spend four years.
Throughout my education, I began to realize that law enforcement is not the solution to the underlying issues facing society. This complicated my goal, but I rationalized it by believing I would change the system from within!
One day, after instructing an aqua-fitness class (very random), a couple came up to me and asked why I wanted to get into policing.
“Great pay, good benefits, and secure retirement,” I replied, quickly realizing how unfulfilling this answer sounded.
After asking me about my real interests, it became clear I needed to pursue sociology further. It was at that moment I decided to apply for the Master’s degree program.
From that moment on, I became obsessed with sociology. Getting into the program, I didn’t know what to study, but I just held onto my underlying conviction in the power of social forces.
At around that time, about ten years ago, I also started my first blog, mainly directed at critiquing religion. I thought I was against religion, but looking back, I was just against the corrupt aspects of the institution and superficial interpretations of sacred texts. Here is an excerpt from one of my early articles:
The story of the last supper is an example of an occurrence that if taken literally, a person must believe they are consuming the body and blood of Christ that is transformed from bread and wine into a divine substance. To believe this is to miss the point. The bread and wine may be sacred, but it is no more divine than it was before it was blessed. The communion represents the importance of community rather than the literal ingestion of Jesus as many Catholic practitioners still maintain.
This is an early glimpse into my interest in the power of social connection. Mystification around the catholic communion ritual was a common theme in my writing. I had spent too many years watching people at church just go through the motions like zombies enacting supernatural cannibalism.
Although the tone in my writing during these years was a bit reactionary and critical, I stood for improving the quality of religious rituals to bring back a focus on social connection.
Throughout the Master’s program in sociology, I became utterly obsessed with theoretical texts. My quest to understand social theory was fueled by a deep existential need to understand the meaning of life (yes… no small task!).
If you ask my mentors at this time, they would likely say the same. I completely believed I was just one insight away from understanding a grand social theory of everything! I was so lost in the theoretical jargon; almost everything I wrote was unreadable.
Here is a sentence from my Master’s thesis:
“Drawing on Michel Foucault’s late work on Christian technologies of the self, this paper asserts the continuity of ascetic ethical practices in the representation of modern fitness.”
To translate, I critiqued the way fitness is represented in the media. Similar to my critique of religion, I argued that the individualistic weight loss television genre blamed individuals for their moral weaknesses. In short, it fostered shame and division rather than community.
Much of my writing at this time became increasingly abstract and impenetrable. I was talking about social issues, but it was making me increasingly antisocial since I couldn’t communicate the message to anyone outside of a very narrow field of study.
Once I began my doctoral studies, I knew I had to change something. I had four years to study anything I wanted, supported by funding and scholarships derived from public sources.
This was big! I felt like I had to do something publically relevant, something that could potentially help people. I couldn’t go on, further isolating myself in an impenetrable web of intellectual language games.
Luckily, right around this time, I was presented with the opportunity to research Canadian veterans. I had never been interested in the military or veterans’ issues before then. Like many sociology grad students, I was generally against the institution.
I leaped outside my comfort zone, seeing this as an opportunity to do something relevant, meaningful, and potentially helpful. I learned everything I could about veterans’ issues, and it transformed the way I looked at things.
I started the first version of this website around that time, committing to communicate my research in clear and accessible language. I wanted to do justice to the issue, receiving full support from the population I had the privilege to study.
The power of social connection became an increasingly evident theme in my writing. I used my articles as brainstorming drafts for my dissertation, growing as I received feedback from readers. If you’re interested in checking out this content, I’ve compiled these articles in the Veterans in Transition section of this site.
Once I finished my dissertation, the power of social bonds couldn’t be more apparent. It was everything. My research helped me learn how veterans struggle with issues beyond PTSD. Rather than merely focusing on mental health issues, I realized we need to focus on social health issues.
Reintegration into a highly individualistic civilian social world can often be its own form of traumatic experience. Going from a tightly bonded military community with a strong sense of purpose to a loosely structured civilian world without a strong sense of urgency can make veterans feel isolated and purposeless. You can see my finished dissertation here.
After studying sociology for nine years, I graduated with my PhD and now needed to make money. I was lucky enough to get offered a part-time teaching position at Eastern Michigan University, but this was not enough. Full-time positions were hard to come by, and being unemployed in the summer was not sustainable, so I began looking for work outside of the university world, something I had almost no experience with since my aquafitness days.
A lucky break came when I got a position doing problem gambling prevention programming. The role consists of being available within the casino to assist people concerned about their gambling, in addition to sharing facts vs. myths of how gambling works. This position was an abrupt reeducation in how to communicate with non-sociologists.
Just like the military, I had never been particularly interested in addiction, nor did I have any experience with it. I decided to enroll in an addiction counseling certificate program at a local college in an attempt to learn how to do front-line work in the field. I soon became obsessed with learning about addiction, just as I had done with sociology (…with a bit less angsty existential fury).
Although I and began building a career in a completely new area, I noticed the same lessons I learned when studying veterans issues applied to addiction. Social connection is a powerful force for recovery and addiction is rooted in isolation. I share this lesson in my article, “The Most Neglected Aspect of Addiction Recovery.”
I recently moved into a treatment focused role within a healthcare setting, focusing on problem gambling as well as internet and gaming addiction. Upon reflection on why I’ve been drawn to this area, I’ve realized it’s because these forms of addiction are especially focused on the “social” theme. My article, “Is Social Media Making Us Less Social?” directly addresses this question. Also, my most recent article, “How to Prevent a Gaming Addiction,” looks at how social isolation contributes to gaming addiction.
Going forward, I plan to continue delving deeper into the same theme that initially sparked my interest in sociology. I’ve focused on many different topics, including religion, fitness, veterans in transition, and addiction. Still, the thread tying it all together is my profound conviction in the power of social connection.
Check out my articles if you share this conviction and want to read more.
Would you still consider yourself a postmodernist?
That’s not a label I would currently apply to myself. It was for sure one I was favorable to during the Masters era, as you can probably tell from the excerpt.
An interesting article. I like the inclusion of your personal journey as it relates to your observations. A study by another Canadian I think you would like to know about, if you don’t already, is “Rat Park”. Here is a link to one telling of it: http://www.stuartmcmillen.com/comic/rat-park/ .
Thanks, Ken! I love the rat park study! Very much in line with my sociological approach to addiction.
That was why I asked. The postmodernists have done considerable damage in a number of sectors, not the least of which is in First nations communities. While I appreciate that the reasons you decided not to go into policing are many and varied, I do hope that you haven’t decided like so many to simply become a self appointed social critic. All to often I find those who like to critique others from the cheap seats, and not lift a finger to really “do justice”. Having worked with addicts since the early ’70s in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Nepal, I would be interested to hear your take on how to deal with the narciissism so common among addicts.
Thank you for the comment, Paul! Around ten years ago, upon taking a strong interest in social theory, I for sure fell into the self-appointed social critic category. This is something I struggled with, since I enjoyed the topics, but felt an internal battles with my values. I needed to find a way to stay true to my interests, while making my work practical, accessible, and helpful for people. My dissertation is a good example of this blend of theory and practice. After graduating, I decided to further develop my practical abilities by going into the addiction field and working in front line positions. Thank you for reminding me of narcissism! This is something I’m planning on writing an article on shortly. Perhaps I’ll do a series of articles, given the depth of this topic. Briefly, my experience is that narcissism combined with addiction is the most stubborn and frustrating situation. I would primarily be concerned with maintaining strong personal boundaries, not falling into the manipulation or attempts to gain validation. I will continue this thought in a future post!