At Sanford Behavioral Health, we have a case study of a client in the final days of their isolation and active addiction. They were a smoker but not allowed to light up in the house. So, this individual would take a bottle of Jack Daniels to an unheated garage behind their house, sit on a wooden crate alone, and smoke an endless chain of cigarettes and drink whiskey until their family went to bed.
The Isolation of Addiction
That mental picture is so vivid you can almost smell the rusted power tools and greasy rags. It epitomizes 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. 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 became a way of life for everyone—even more reason, in the aftermath, to talk about why isolation is bad for recovery. Studies show a steady increase in substance use and drug overdoses in the United States since the COVID-19 pandemic.
Why Do Those With SUDs Isolate?
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 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 following are three reasons those in active addiction isolate:
1. To Avoid Conflict
Social isolation and addiction are a power couple. Why did our case study go to the garage like a pouting adolescent when they couldn’t indulge their addictive behavior in the house? Perhaps it’s because it was the devil they knew. Quiet, predictable, and after a few tokes and swallows, the cigarettes and whiskey provided short-term “relief” toward deadening the pain.
It was also easier to avoid the argument this person knew they would have with family members. Over time, the person with an addiction starts to depend on the addictive substance for a sense of well-being. Substance use takes on a higher importance, and 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! And when the person with the SUD 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 the 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. However, as the disease progresses, the user may seek out the substance because 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 whiskey 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 connections by pushing away others or treating them as objects. Finally, the person in active addiction builds a defense system – shutting everybody out to protect their addiction.
No Longer A Choice – The Isolation of Addiction
With the progression of addiction, there comes a time when 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, 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 quit yet.
“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.” The Addictive Personality – Understanding the Addictive Process and Compulsive Behavior, by Craig Nakken.
Embracing Relationships and Community
Addiction is an experience that changes people forever, and long-term recovery from addiction is a trying process. Old habits die hard. One of the keys to successful outcomes in addiction recovery is opening doors and embracing relationships and community. Sanford Behavioral Health combines evidence-based programming with robust excursions, experiential therapy, family education, and real-life recovery. 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.”
If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, eating disorders, or co-occurring mental health conditions, don’t wait to change your life – click the link and get in touch today.