The Myth of the Geographical Cure

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We were looking to begin this article with a picture of someplace beautiful, somewhere a person might go to seek a geographical cure. It is by sheer coincidence that we landed on a picture from the country with the highest surveyed number of at-risk drinkers. Still, the Aran Islands are quite a sobering sight when viewed from this angle. (Tourism Ireland)
We were looking to begin this article with a picture of someplace beautiful, somewhere a person might go to seek a geographical cure. It is by sheer coincidence that we landed on a picture from the country with the highest surveyed number of at-risk drinkers. The Aran Islands are quite stunning, but they also go a long way toward demonstrating our point. (Tourism Ireland)

The myth of the geographical cure is a particularly interesting one. It is not necessarily a myth that was passed down to us by anyone in particular. In fact, many of us develop the idea without having heard a single mention of it in passing. And yet, at one point or another, we will get it into our heads that we can cure our addiction to drugs and alcohol by simply changing locations. We may try moving to a place where we have always been happy. We may try moving to a place where we have simply never used before. But most of us will find, some sooner than others, that this method seldom works.

Of course, like many myths, the concept of the geographical cure is not without a grain of truth. After all, it is certainly better for the addict or alcoholic to leave their current using environment and go into sober living. Note, however, that this is a bit different than simply trying to move and hoping that a new environment will be enough to take away the physical cravings and mental obsession that account for one’s addictive tendencies.

The goal of this article will be to discuss the geographical cure in a bit more detail. We will begin by talking about why people believe that the geographical cure should work, followed by the many reasons that it often fails. We will then discuss how addicts and alcoholics can use this information as they move forward through their journey of recovery.

Benefits of the Geographical Cure

While geographical cures are far from infallible, it can be quite healthy to leave certain environments. This is especially true when the environment in question has been the scene of frequent substance abuse. (Gary Leonard/Los Angeles Downtown News)
While geographical cures are far from infallible, it can be quite healthy to leave certain environments. This is especially true when the environment in question has been the scene of frequent substance abuse. (Gary Leonard/Los Angeles Downtown News)

Have you ever heard of Herman and Katnip? These two cartoon characters of the mid-twentieth century didn’t necessarily achieve the same renowned longevity as Tom and Jerry, but they still exemplified the average toon-lover’s proclivity for watching an uppity mouse torture a humble feline who wanted nothing more than a midday snack. But when Katnip wasn’t being beaten and bamboozled by Herman, he was suffering the agony inflicted upon him by a clever crow named Buzzy.

Aside from epitomizing the radically immodest racism that was apparently deemed acceptable in children’s cartoons back then, Buzzy served one major purpose: to use Katnip’s own stunted reasoning skills against him. A prime example is the 1951 classic As The Crow Lies. Katnip is suffering from a major case of the hiccups, and he will do anything to get rid of them. He reads in a book that the answer is to eat fresh crow meat. His response? “Hmm, that sounds logical.” But when he tries to eat Buzzy, the crow tells him to try breathing into a paper bag. Katnip’s response? “That sounds logical.” When that doesn’t work, Buzzy tells him to take ten deep breaths and drink ten glasses of water. “Hmm, that sounds logical.” Again, it doesn’t work. So Buzzy, who at this point clearly does not have Katnip’s best interests in mind, suggests shock treatment. Surely, Katnip will catch on? Nope. His response? “Hmm, shock treatment. That sounds logical.” Needless to say, things don’t really go Katnip’s way in the end. He loses all nine lives, and his nine ghosts still have the hiccups.

The reason we bring up this semi-obscure 1950s cartoon is because Katnip frequently embodies the line of reasoning employed by those who are convinced that the geographical cure will work. The myth of the geographical cure is based around the fact that it sounds logical. Rod Dreher of The American Conservative writes that the myth of the geographical cure is “mostly untrue,” with a couple of exceptions. He notes that, while you may be the same person in most places, there are some locations that will make you feel as if you are “more alive and open to beauty and grace and possibility,” with “more clear sky and solid ground on which to stand against the things that threaten and discourage you.”

Dreher also writes about the opposite of the geographical cure. “I have been in places that made me feel awful,” he writes, “like nothing would ever be right as long as I stayed there.” In this sense, he is describing what we can only refer to as a geographical illness. This is the evil twin of the geographical cure, and one can hardly be blamed for wishing to escape it. Psychology Today writes about the tendency to run away from things and places that make us feel shame, things that we associate with a past that has caused us a great deal of negative emotion. It stands to reason that the environments we associate most with our periods of active addiction would create precisely this type of shame.

Psychology Today also writes about the manner in which culture shapes learning. The effects of culture and geography on the subconscious mind can be so powerful that Easterners and Westerners can learn completely different lessons when given the exact same teachings. When speaking of the geographical cure, we might apply this information to those who have grown up in homes where they were exposed to substance abuse at an early age. If our societal culture hardwires our brains to receive data in a certain way, then it certainly sounds logical to assume that a culture of alcohol and drug abuse in the home will wire a person to believe that these things are normal. The next logical conclusion to reach is that such environments must be escaped.

Yes, it certainly sounds logical. But is it? If one’s environment has proven unhealthy, then to leave it would certainly not be the worst idea in the world. And if certain environments make a person happier, more harmonious, and more empowered to deal with the stresses of life, then such an environment could not hurt them. The problem lies in the unspoken assumption that this will be enough in and of itself to cure the addict of their grief. There is no shame in such naivety. Especially when it sounds so, so logical. But to give into this inherently flawed belief may ultimately lead us to suffer a fate worse than that of poor Katnip. Because while the geographical cure may have its benefits, many of us have found them to be quite short-lived. And much like poor Katnip, we eventually have to admit our failure and resign ourselves to eating crow.

Why Geographical Cures Don’t Work

Depending upon where you seek your geographical cure, there’s a stark likelihood that you’ll still be able to find alcohol. It’s your thinking that needs to be realigned, not your position on the globe. (Bryan Mullennix/BigStockPhoto)
Depending upon where you seek your geographical cure, there’s a stark likelihood that you’ll still be able to find alcohol. It’s your thinking that needs to be realigned, not your position on the globe. (Bryan Mullennix/BigStockPhoto)

As stated above, geographical cures may work for a time. But eventually, they are all too likely to fail. Eighteenth-century essayist Samuel Johnson wrote a series of short papers entitled The Rambler. In the sixth such essay, he writes: “The general remedy of those, who are uneasy without knowing the cause, is change of place; they are willing to imagine that their pain is the consequence of some local inconvenience, and endeavour to fly from it, as children from their shadows; always hoping for some more satisfactory delight from every new scene, and always returning home with disappointment and complaints.”

This is similar to the message of a previously linked Psychology Today article about running away from shame; we always seem to come back to it. Johnson notes that those who have undergone such trials “have been soon convinced, that the fountain of content must spring up in the mind: and that he who has so little knowledge of human nature, as to seek happiness by changing any thing but his own dispositions, will waste his life in fruitless efforts, and multiply the griefs which he purposes to remove.” An article on Addiction.com shares this belief, noting that those who have tried and failed to reinvent themselves abroad have often succumbed to worse substance abuse than they had experienced before. In other words, their guilt and shame over the failure of their geographical cure had multiplied their griefs.

The AA Big Book mentions the illusion of the geographical cure at least twice. The first is in the third chapter (“More About Alcoholism”), which refers to “taking a trip” as one of dozens of methods that alcoholics have tried in order to control their drinking. Some of us have attempted to use the geographical cure because we believed that it could cure our substance abuse altogether. Others of us have attempted to use the geographical cure because we felt that a new environment would enable us to drink in moderation. And maybe we even succeeded in this goal. But the addict’s mindset is very little if not obsessive. As we learned that we were suddenly able to drink or use drugs in moderation, we began to test the limits of this newfound ability. We had scoffed at the Big Book when it suggested that those of us who did not believe ourselves to be alcoholics should try some controlled drinking. We had tried controlled drinking, and we had mastered it. With that checked off the list, it was time to try a controlled blackout. When we awoke with little memory of the night before, we wondered where it all went wrong. Our plan had sounded so logical in our heads.

The second Big Book reference to the geographical cure is in the seventh chapter (“Working With Others”). In reference to the alcoholic who is unable to see alcohol in movies or at social functions without experiencing cravings, AA founder Bill Wilson writes: “We meet these conditions every day. An alcoholic who cannot meet them, still has an alcoholic mind: there is something the matter with his spiritual status. His only chance for sobriety would be some place like the Greenland Ice Cap, and even there an Eskimo might turn up with a bottle of scotch and ruin everything! Ask any woman who has sent her husband to distant places on the theory he would escape the alcohol problem.” This last sentence is especially telling. It is not just the addict or alcoholic who often believes the geographical cure to sound logical—those close to us have fallen prey to this same flawed logic. We all have a bit of Katnip inside of us.

If we cannot outrun the alcohol problem, then we must give in to Samuel Johnson’s belief that the fountain of content should spring from the mind. Bill Wilson, writing nearly 100 years after Johnson, mentioned this same idea in the chapter excerpt quoted above. But it is difficult to request this type of lucidity from the addict or alcoholic, as we are often steeped in denial. Those of us who are steadfast believers in the geographical cure will not be easily swayed to abandon hope in it. Once we have set our minds on it, we are often destined to give it a try at one point or another. The true test begins after our almost inevitable failure, when we are given the opportunity to exercise willingness and open-mindedness by ceasing our travels and attempting a mental and spiritual approach.

Of course, there is another type of geographical cure which has nothing to do with the quest for sobriety. This occurs in the case of addicts with legal troubles, who attempt to escape prosecution by simply running away from it. This is very different from the type of geographical cure that we are primarily discussing, but it is worthy of mention because it falls under a similar line of reasoning. The addict or alcoholic has been faced with a problem which, much like Katnip’s hiccups, they do not know how to easily fix. So they attempt a drastic (yet seemingly logical) solution that ultimately gets them into more trouble than they were in when they started. When looked at from this perspective, it does not take a startling leap of mind to see how this bears close resemblance to the more traditional form of geographical cure that has been previously discussed.

It is all well and good to say that geographical cures do not seem to work, but this leaves a troubling question. If geographical cures are unreliable, how do we deal with the geographical illnesses? The solution is actually rather simple, and will be discussed in the section below.

How to Utilize This Information

For anyone who thinks that there is no overlap between sober living and the standard notion of the geographical cure, this photo was taken not far from our treatment facility. (Amethyst Recovery)
For anyone who thinks that there is no overlap between sober living and the standard notion of the geographical cure, this photo was taken not far from our treatment facility. (Amethyst Recovery)

So, it has been established that leaving the environment of one’s substance abuse is a positive change, but geographical cures are not enough in and of themselves. How, then, do we utilize any version of the geographical cure that will promise long-term sobriety? Easy—by ensuring that we do not slip in our program of sobriety after we relocate. One of the best ways to do this is by building a strong and sober support network. If we move to a place that has never been home to us, this will take a lot of work. We will have to go out of our way to meet people, and we will have to trust them to hold us accountable. Those who attend 12-step meetings should take down people’s contact information and find a sponsor right away. This will go a long way toward ensuring that we always have someone to call when we feel as if our sobriety is in jeopardy.

This is a bit easier for those who have gone through treatment at Amethyst. Since we have a relatively small and intimate treatment facility, patients will be given a fair amount of time to get to know each other. They can form friendships with people who will have a vested interest in their sobriety, as they will have established a strong bond of trust and fellowship. The camaraderie developed by fellow patients in treatment can be a beautiful thing. While it is not a foolproof means of ensuring long-term sobriety (the patient must do a lot more to keep working their program), it is still beneficial.

Patients who move into our sober living facilities after graduating from treatment will have even more of an opportunity to keep building this support network. They will have a little bit more freedom than they had in treatment, but they will still be in a controlled and sober environment that takes them out of the atmosphere that surrounded them during their substance abuse. This is not the type of geographical cure often dreamed up by the addict who is taking their first run at controlling their substance abuse, but it is certainly a fair compromise.

If it sounds like we’re going out of our way to drive home the importance of the support network, it’s because we are. And believe it or not, this isn’t just for the sake of talking up the benefits of our programs; there is actually a bit of science behind what we’re saying. For evidence that a strong support network of family and social peers can help empower the addict to stay sober, look no further than Rat Park.

The experiment of Rat Park is described at great length in a Huffington Post article by Johann Hari. Once upon a time, addiction studies were performed by allowing rats to drink either regular water or water laced with cocaine. It did not take too many studies full of dead rats to see that they much preferred the cocaine. It was assumed at that point that drugs themselves were the cause of addiction, rather than any sort of personal ailment. This changed when Professor Bruce Alexander, a psychology instructor in Vancouver, realized that the rats used in the studies were always isolated from others of their kind. He decided to construct Rat Park, a much nicer environment with quality rat food, toys for the rats to play with, and most importantly, a community of other rats. Aside from these variables, the test was exactly the same. But this time, the rats did not prefer the cocaine.

Unfortunately, a study on rats is not as convincing as a study on humans. Johann Hari points this out in his article, but goes on to mention the American soldiers who fought in the Vietnam War. These were men exposed to great physical and psychological trauma. Many of them took up heroin to deal with their stresses. And yes, many of them were still addicted when America withdrew and the troops flew back stateside. But upon coming home, about 95% of the soldiers suffering from heroin addiction were able to stop. In light of Rat Park, it might be hypothesized that these soldiers did not recover due to a geographical cure but rather as a result of their return to a safe home with families and friends who loved and supported them. The stories of Vietnam and Rat Park are not perfect science; addiction is caused by much more than one’s environment, and many fall into addiction despite having healthy support groups. But these stories still demonstrate the powers of love and a positive attitude when fighting addiction.

If you find yourself itching to try a geographical cure, then be smart about it. Do not go somewhere that you will be unable to call home. Do not choose a location in which you will not be able to build the support network you need. Because while moving to a better environment will help, it takes more than that to stay sober. The geographical cure is not enough on its own, but a valued support network can increase the addict’s chances of achieving long-term recovery.

As long as you are not in a place that makes you miserable, it doesn’t matter where you put down your roots. Just remember that, through the power of sober living, you don’t have to do it alone. Surround yourself with people who will bring out the best in you and allow you to construct a fountain of contentment within your own mind, and you will be well on your way to the serenity that you seek.

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