A majority of us who struggle with drug addiction or alcoholism know what isolation is. It seems to be a part of the natural progression as our addiction takes over more and more of our lives. We separate from our friends and family so we can take drugs or drink alcohol when we want. After a while, isolation becomes a way of life. Emotional connections become more difficult to make, leaving us lonely, disheartened, and turning even more often to alcohol and drugs for comfort.
“I lived in two rooms at the end of my alcoholic drinking. I drank and I worked at home. I couldn’t string two sentences together. I felt like I was from another planet. I just couldn’t connect with people.”
Isolation is often something we carry with us. Many recount how they could be in a room with many people and feel completely disconnected and alone. That is what addiction does to us. It builds a wall around us so we cannot relate with other people. Addiction takes everything from us: our self worth, our health, our jobs and homes, our freedom, and most importantly, our friends and family.
Why do addicts isolate?
The reasons can vary depending on each person’s history. But many of us isolate for these reasons:
We want to hide our addiction to drugs or alcoholism.
When we descend into true addiction we are using drugs or drinking alcohol in a way that our friends and families don’t understand. Normal people can have one drink. Normal people don’t do drugs. At all. With addicts, once we have the smallest taste, we cannot stop. Every addict can recall the look of disappointment and horror on a loved one’s face when we are high or drunk. If we cut these people out, we can drink and use the way we want. There is no nagging, no broken hearts (that we can see, anyway) and no disappointed loved ones, no disapproval. What starts out as simple avoidance becomes avoidance because we feel guilt and shame. Our behaviors are unacceptable and we do sad and tragic things while drinking or taking drugs. We cannot face the shame and remorse.
We are in fear
If our drinking or drug use has gotten to a point where there is conflict, we often just stay away from others to “keep the peace.” Or we may fear that our behavior while on drugs is going to embarrass us so we just stay away. “It got to where I just didn’t drink at social gatherings because I would act like an idiot after a few drinks. I just white-knuckled it until I could run home and drink alone,” relates one long-time drinker. “I used to think it was funny when I told people that I ‘just drink at home, alone’. Usually people didn’t think it was that amusing.”
The effects of drug addiction and alcoholism on the brain could account for the crippling sense of fear that many addicts feel. The amygdala in the brain becomes stuck in an over-reactive fight or flight mode. Signals from the amygdala make the pulse race, we hyperventilate, and are in a constant state of panic, even if outer circumstances are peaceful. This perennial state of anxiety makes us stay away from any outside situation to avoid “dangers”. Our minds are constantly asking us “what if?” Chris recounts, “Just a trip to the grocery store was exhausting. What if my car broke down? What if there’s no money in my account? I knew these were not normal thoughts, but I could not turn them off!”
Negative Self Esteem
Many addicts struggle with a negative self-image. These destructive thought patterns may be acquired during a difficult childhood or the result of peer pressure, skewed media influences or a host of other reasons. When we think that we are “not enough” we tend to stay away from social situations where we are compared to others.
Paranoia is a delusion based on erroneous thought patterns. We think that others are acting against us or are watching us. Everyday occurrences can be construed as suspicious actions or proof that the paranoia is based in fact. Intoxication from marijuana, methamphetamine, cocaine and LSD can cause paranoia. Withdrawal from drugs and especially alcohol can cause hallucinations and paranoid thoughts. We think people are against us so we ”protect ourselves” by staying alone and in a familiar environment.
The Comfort Zone
Addiction is a progressive and deadly disease. Over time it ALWAYS gets worse. In the last stages of addiction our minds are controlled by drugs or alcohol. The obsession to get high is paramount to all other thoughts. Our lives are absolutely unmanageable and filled with chaos. The only comfort we feel is when we are alone….and high. Leaving the house, going to work, interacting with family and friends seem impossible. We seek the only respite we can find…in isolation. Many of us have to get to this hopeless stage before we try to get help.
The Vicious Cycle of Addiction and Isolation
Isolation is a common thread in the story of addiction. Whether we are born with a natural tendency to isolate because of “anxious apartness” or we become less and less social as our addiction progresses, the end is always the same. The vicious cycle of isolation and addiction has us in its grips.
“I started to isolate so that I could drink like I wanted to. Nobody can disapprove if they don’t see me drinking. I can’t embarrass myself if there is no one else there. What I didn’t realize is that as I spent more and more time by myself, I forgot how to relate with other people. On the few occasions I would go into the world, for a family event or just dinner out, I felt more and more awkward. I couldn’t talk with people. I would obsess over what I said or didn’t say. It was painful, so I just isolated more. I wanted to avoid any confrontation or embarrassment,” relates one alcoholic.
The vicious cycle of isolation to drink or take drugs lead to deeper isolation as our ability to relate to the outside world diminishes.
The Path Out of Addiction and Isolation
The vicious cycle of isolation and addiction can be broken. It all starts with one thing…..asking for help.
Any person who deals with addiction to drugs or alcohol will tell you the same thing: They couldn’t do it themselves. Someone may need to go to drug rehab treatment or to twelve step meetings to find the help they need, but the basic concept is the same: reach out to someone who has been through what you are going through and you will get the help you need. With some dedication and faith, anyone can recover from alcoholism or drug addiction. And, along the way, find relief from the horrible isolation that comes with addiction.
“Recovery can take place only within then context of relationships; it cannot occur in isolation.”
-Judith Lewis Herman
Emerging from Isolation in Sobriety
The First Stages Of Recovery
As with any big change in life, the path to healing will take some adjustment. Someone who has been alone for prolonged periods of time may have a period of awkwardness as they spend more time sober and in social situations.
Isolation can make us very sensitive and fearful of rejection.“Walking into those first AA meetings was like walking through fire. All those people in one room. Having to sit so close to strangers. Being called on to talk in front of the group….all of these things were very, very difficult for me,” recounts one alcoholic. With practice, social interactions become much easier. “When I spent all my time alone, any interaction with other human beings was a big deal. If I said something out of turn or forgot someone’s name, I was mortified. I would replay the incident over and over in my head and beat up on myself. After getting back into the practice of being around people, I was able to more accurately gauge what was a big deal and what wasn’t. I didn’t take everything so seriously anymore. I could relax and be myself with people.”
After the first stage of awkwardness, many of us settle in to a new way of life. While in treatment we make new friends. We forge strong bonds with people in the Twelve Step Meetings. Our common peril and common solution make us all a part of a big family. With sobriety and inner work through therapy and/or working the 12 Steps, we become better versions of ourselves.
Chris remembers, “I can’t believe I was that person that never left the house. My life was so small. What a pitiful life I was living. All because of alcohol. Now I have a new feeling of self worth. I have friends. I feel comfortable in my own skin. I can go anywhere and feel relaxed. Sobriety has been nothing short of a miracle for me.”
With the clear mind that comes from sobriety, we can see the world as it is, not as our addiction makes us see it. When we realize that we have overcome addiction, we have a new courage to face life and make new connections with other human beings.
Stay Connected, Stay Sober
With new sobriety, new friends and a new way of life, there is no way we will go back to our old ways, right? Well, some people, unfortunately, do. The pull of isolation can be strong if our mindset is negative.
One addict relates, “I relapsed because I saw differences. Someone would share at a meeting and I would say ‘I’m not THAT bad,’ or ‘that guys can’t be telling the truth.’ When I went into drug treatment I had a closed mind. I would focus on the things I didn’t agree with instead of our similarities. Eventually, that little voice in my head took over and I had to get high. That lead me back to living in one room by myself. The whole cycle started right back up.”
This is a common story among addicts. The bottom line is this: We need connection with other people. We need to be with others to get sober and we need others to stay sober. If we focus on the fact that we all have the same problem and are working on the same solution, we can keep each other sober. The pitiful demoralization of drug addiction and alcoholism can remain in the past if we continue to reach out, ask for, and give help.