I have a friend who tells a story about the final days of his isolation and active addiction. He says he was smoking then, and he was not allowed to light up in the house. So, he would take a bottle of Jack Daniels to the unheated garage behind his house, sit on a wooden crate in isolation, smoke an endless chain of cigarettes and drink.
The Epitome of Isolation and Addiction…
That mental picture is so vivid to me, I can almost smell the rusted power tools and the greasy rags. It is the epitome of addiction: bleak, banished and somehow unrepentant.
Addiction and isolation go hand in hand. People with substance use disorders (SUD) want to be alone with their addiction. It doesn’t have to be in a dirty barn or locked in a dark basement either. A person with an SUD can be isolated in a crowded room or at a festive party. There is a disconnect, a hands-off quality to addiction that separates the addicted person from the rest of the world. Cue the COVID-19 pandemic, and isolation is a way of life for everyone. Even more reason to talk about why isolation is bad for recovery. And how to self-advocate during this uncertain time.
Who’s Your “Friend”?
Addiction and isolation make life sad and lonely, because as the disease progresses the only “friend” a person with an SUD has is the object of their affection. The object, whether it be alcohol, sex, gambling, or drugs, becomes their primary emotional relationship. There is a distancing that takes place from people. Because when people are involved (especially those who are emotionally invested), they become threats to the unchecked, forward march of the addiction.
The disease of addiction is a vicious cycle, right?
Why Do Isolation and Addiction Go Hand-in-Hand?
1. To Avoid Conflict
Social isolation and addiction are a power couple. Why do you think my friend went to the garage like a pouting adolescent when he wasn’t allowed to indulge his addictive behavior in the house? I think it’s because it was the devil he knew. Quiet, predictable and after a few tokes and swallows, the cigarettes and Jack went a long way toward deadening his pain.
And it was a lot easier to avoid the argument he knew he would have with his family members or significant other if he forced the issue. The problem is, that over time the person with an addiction starts to depend on the addiction for a sense of well-being. The substance use takes on a higher importance. It’s like a jealous lover. And more normal, socially acceptable relationships with self, other people and community fall by the wayside.
2. To Hide the Shame
In active addiction, there is a kid-in-a-candy-shop aspect. I WANT IT NOW! When one takes the time to think about it, it’s embarrassing. Your daughter finds a half filled wine bottle in your winter boot. The spouse asks the dreaded question, “What happened to the bottle of brandy?” A woman at book club says a little too nicely, “Sweetie, you’re slurring.” It’s mortifying. It is much easier to disconnect from the outside world and social interaction, narrow the scope of activity and hole up.
3. Because Addiction is Running the Show
Isolation and addiction is a progressive process. It can take months or years to develop. At first, the use of a substance might be experimental or opportunistic.
But as the disease progresses, the user may seek out the substance because it feels like it satisfies the basic human need for fulfillment, comfort and happiness. Of course this is an illusion. Addiction leads to isolation and loneliness. We all know a bottle of chardonnay can’t love us back.
Soon the person with an SUD begins to depend on the addictive process for a sense of distorted comfort. They kill social connection by pushing away others or treating them as objects. Finally the person in active addiction builds a defense system – shutting everybody out in an attempt to protect their addiction.
No Longer Any Choices – Isolation and Addiction …
With the progression of addiction, there comes a time where there are no longer any choices. The reliance on alcohol or drug addiction is destroying mental and physical health. At this point, the consequences kick in. There are relationship issues (how many nights will a spouse put up with the hegira in the garage?); job problems; physical complaints; money problems; depression and anxiety. The addicted person may also be under the delusion they could quit if they wanted to. They just don’t want to quite yet.
In The Addictive Personality – Understanding the Addictive Process and Compulsive Behavior, Craig Nakken says, “These normal ways of achieving intimacy involve reaching out to life. We nurture ourselves by reaching out to others and then inward, to ourselves. In addiction, this reaching motion is almost totally inward to the point of withdrawing. Addiction exists within a person, and whenever addicts become preoccupied or act in addictive ways, this forces them to withdraw, to isolate themselves from others. The longer an addictive illness progresses, the less a person feels the ability to have meaningful relationships with others.”
Embracing relationships and community …
How incredibly sad. Addiction is an experience that changes people forever, and long term recovery from addiction is a trying process. Old habits die hard. Key to success in addiction recovery is the opening of doors and the embracing of relationships and community. The bond of isolation and addiction must be broken. There is no place for isolation or untruth. Mr. Nakken says, “Recovery is the continued acceptance of addiction and the continuous monitoring of the addictive personality in whatever form it may take.”
During the COVID-19 lock down and its aftermath, those in recovery must self-advocate and reach out to telehealth and virtual communities. There is a wealth of options available until the inevitable reopening occurs. For a list of available options click the link below: