Addiction is a lonely place. Many substance abusers often feel that drugs and alcohol are their only friends. Loneliness and addiction go hand in hand. In some cases, substance abusers already felt isolated, and that is why they began using, and why their casual use advanced into addiction. On the other hand, some people became isolated after they began using. Many people who become addicted to drugs or alcohol are using in an attempt to cope with depression, anxiety, and stress. Also, addiction is often caused by, or creates, feelings of fear and guilt. When people use drugs and alcohol to cover up those feelings, they may become emotionally, verbally, and physically abusive, and they often end up driving away the people who care about them, leaving them feeling abandoned and even more lonely and isolated. Whether the addiction was caused by isolation, or the isolation fueled the addiction, or some combination of the two, being addicted to drugs and alcohol can be a very lonely place to be.
But for many, even after getting help and getting clean and sober, the feelings of isolation may continue. Now, in addition to feeling isolated from other people, the user has said goodbye to drugs and alcohol, too – substances that some users saw as their only support system. This is a dangerous situation, as loneliness can undoubtedly be a strong trigger for relapse. It’s important for people in recovery to do all they can to break their isolation – but certainly, that often seems easier said than done.
Feelings of Isolation
Loneliness is a normal human emotion and everyone knows what it feels like. Some research suggests that loneliness affects as many as one third of American adults. For most, it comes and goes. However, if you are feeling many of the following feelings a large percent of the time, you need to take steps to change the situation to protect your happiness, your mental health, and your sobriety.
Symptoms of intense isolation may include:
- Feeling that you are unable to connect with others
- Being sad that there is no one around to talk to
- Feeling that no one understands you
- Thinking that no one cares about you
- Feeling abandoned
- Thinking that no one wants you around
- Regularly feeling left out
- Feelings of general discontent or hopelessness
- Fearing that you will always feel this way
When you were an active substance abuser, you broke your isolation to get help, and congratulations for making that brave decision. However, now that you are clean and sober and are working on your recovery, if you still feel lonely, it is time to reach out and make an effort to connect with others, even if it feels difficult for you.
Risks of Staying Isolated in Recovery
Loneliness is a major enemy of recovery for many reasons. First of all, it is one of the four letters in the acronym HALT which outlines four emotions to avoid to fight relapse – hunger, anger, loneliness, and tiredness. Each of these feelings will put you in a bad place emotionally, and may lead you to make unwise decisions about using. Further, if you are socially isolated, the inner voice of your addiction gets no challenge; you are not accountable to anyone other than yourself, and that is a recipe for disaster. Social connection in general makes life easier and helps to strengthen our feelings of self-worth, too. And, people who are lonely often have difficulty sleeping, and may be at higher risk for depression.
Sadly, lonely people are more likely to commit suicide, and even those who don’t take their own lives have an increased risk of death simply due to their feelings of isolation. Believe it or not, loneliness can affect one’s health to nearly the same extent as issues such as smoking or obesity. According to one study published in March of 2015, feeling alone increases the risk of death by 26%, while social isolation and living alone increases mortality risk by 29% to 32% , respectively.
It’s clear that feeling lonely and isolated is not simply uncomfortable, painful, and upsetting, but it can present a real risk to your health, and to your recovery.
How to Break Isolation
There are many things you can do to feel less isolated and to start moving away from a place of loneliness. Not all of these tips will be right for everyone, but it’s likely if you try several that you will hit on one or more that works for you. The key is to keep putting yourself out there; although this will seem daunting or even scary at first, it will get easier with time, and soon, you will build lasting relationships and habits that help you to feel less alone.
- Put yourself out there. Although it’s really hard to break out of your shell and dig yourself out of a rut, you simply must. Start small. Reach out to people via text or phone for starters, and try to make plans at least once a week.
- Make amends. It’s likely you destroyed or at least strained some of your relationships with friends or family members when you were actively using, but it doesn’t have to be the end. Reach out to people, apologize, and try to move forward from there. Not everyone will be receptive, but it’s certainly worth a shot.
- End unhealthy relationships. If you are still hanging out with the people you used with, it is probably time to find a new group of friends. Spending time with people who don’t care about or don’t support your sobriety can only make you feel lonelier.
- Go to support groups. Connecting with others who are also working on their recovery can be a big support to you. Since you have been through similar struggles, you will likely be able to quickly form a relationship with them due to your parallel experiences.
- Connect with others online. If actually going out in the world and meeting people face to face seems overwhelming to you, you can bond with others online. There are countless online support groups for people in recovery, and many real, long-term relationships can be built there.
- Spend time with family. Not everyone has a great family, but most people have at least a few relatives with whom they feel very close. Reach out them, and explain how you are feeling, and ask to be included in their plans often.
- Adopt a pet. Animals are the best. They do not judge you, and their love is unconditional. You can talk to them when you need to, and they will greet you at the door with great joy whenever you return. A lonely pet is waiting for you at the shelter right now – go out and meet him!
- Volunteer. Volunteering gives us an opportunity to give back to others in need, and reminds us how fortunate we really are. Further, volunteer opportunities give participants a chance to meet other likeminded people who are donating their time and energy too.
- Build your self-confidence. Your confidence may be at an all time low when you dwell upon the mistakes you made while you were using. However, you are now on the right path and you should focus on that. Daily affirmations, practiced upon waking and before going to sleep, can be of great help to you, and can remind you that you are an amazing, wonderful, and complex person, and that everyone makes mistakes.
- Ask for help when you need it. When you are struggling, reach out. If you have relapsed, it is not the end. Addiction recovery is not an event, it is an ongoing process, and you will likely encounter many obstacles on your journey. If you are having a difficult time, say so. There are people who love you and care about you, and they will often surprise you in positive ways if you just say the word.
Again, loneliness is an emotion that everyone feels at one time or another. However, there is a cure – you simply have to connect with others. It is part of the human experience. As scary as it may be though, you have to reach out. Be brave, get motivated, and take small steps to end your isolation. Your happiness, and your recovery, depends on it.
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