There’s an epidemic of loneliness. 55,000 people completed a detailed survey in the BBC’s Loneliness Experiment, making it the largest ever loneliness survey in the world. They found that loneliness is most often described as a feeling of being disconnected from the world, of not having anyone you feel really understands you. Young people feel loneliest of all age groups: 40% of 16-24-year-olds feel lonely often or very often, compared to 27% of over 75s. And loneliness can be made even worse by a sense of shame, lack of trust in people and high anxiety levels.
But what role does loneliness play in addiction? How does it feed into addictive patterns developing? In 2018, what structural aspects in society are contributing to isolation, leading in some cases to self-medication with addiction? And how can addicts overcome their loneliness in recovery?
Ironically, many people develop an addiction precisely because they have been seeking a connection. The human need for bonding – with someone or something important – is part of our nature. Whether we know it or not, we need intimacy with ourselves and other people to thrive. We need meaningful experiences too, which build our sense of purpose and self-worth. Often, substances or behaviour patterns can feel like a shortcut to connection or shared meaning. For example, an alcohol addict may have started out drinking in her teens, to feel more confident in social situations and make new friends. A prescription drug addict may have begun taking codeine to reduce disabling pain in his body and experience sensations of contentment or love. A gambler might initially place bets with his football crowd because he enjoys the shared experience.
When addiction sets in, however, typically addicts are chasing those early effects, which seemed so comforting and enjoyable at the time. Even in recovery from addiction, people can still experience euphoric recall. This is where memories of the pleasures and payoffs associated with drugs, alcohol or addictive behaviours supersede memories of the harms. Essentially, this is a disconnection from reality. In trying to replicate or recall highs of the past, at some level we’re trying to escape the present. This may be because current feelings are very painful or hard to understand. In this sense, loneliness can is a deep dissatisfaction or negative reading of life as it really is – and in this state of mind, people can be much more susceptible to the cravings and triggers of addiction.
More people live alone today than ever before. In 2017, 7.7 million people in Great Britain, aged 16 and over, lived by themselves. This statistic includes 1,588,000 women aged 75+, which is partly explained by longer female life expectancy. For men, the 45-64 age group were most likely to live alone – 1,325,000 males aged 45-64 were lone household occupants in 2017. Growing urban populations, where the pavements and buses are packed but people remain, strangers, may be contributing to the breakdown of community support. Busier lifestyles, full up with work and never-ending to-do lists, add to the rush – we intend to relax and meet friends, but we keep putting it off.
In terms of addiction taking hold, physical isolation can feed into destructive addictive patterns. With nobody to question or challenge our most private thoughts or behaviours, the habits that form around substance abuse or addictive processes can embed very deeply. In addiction interventions, people are confronted in safe ways with the truth of their behaviour, as seen through the eyes of their family and friends – this technique helps to break through the denial of active addiction, where faulty reasoning or beliefs are used to justify very harmful patterns.
The digital sphere has also lessened the need to interact with people in the real world – everything from groceries to banking, making a will to catching up with friends, can be done online today. And in terms of pursuing specific addictions, physical isolation and internet access can make addictions worse. Think of the gambler, playing online poker late at night on his laptop; or the gamer, spending hours alone in virtual gaming worlds, not eating properly. Think of the alcoholic, drinking behind drawn curtains. Or the prescription medication addict, taking pills day and night, disconnected from her neighbours and community. Think of the sex addict, using online pornography or webcam sex services. Or the love addict, scanning social media for information to feed a fantasy, but too afraid to make real-life connections. There are smartphone and internet addicts too, who scroll for hours through social media or information online – but cancel meet-ups with friends. The BBC Loneliness Experiment found that loneliness correlates with having greater numbers of Facebook friends, who you don’t actually know well in real life.
Feeling isolated in addiction isn’t just about being physically alone. Statistics show that 16-24-year-olds are the least likely of any age group to live by themselves – and yet, the BBC Loneliness Experiment found that they feel the loneliest. One of the reasons given for this is that younger people haven’t yet developed effective coping strategies for loneliness. Some young people turn to substances or behaviours to cope. Although fewer young people today are drinking alcohol addictively, they are impacted disproportionately by technological addictions including gaming and smartphone addiction. Young people are also particularly susceptible to anorexia, bulimia, self-harm and body image disorders. And according to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, “frequent use of cannabis is about twice as likely amongst young people, and nearly 5.3 million 16-24-year-olds have used it in the last year.”
In fact, some of the loneliest experiences can occur when we’re surrounded by other people but we’re struggling to connect with them. Perhaps we feel unable to say the things that really matter to us or we don’t know whom to trust with a secret fear. Addicts often describe feeling ‘uncomfortable in their own skin’, particularly when not using or acting out in their addiction – it’s a baseline level of personal and social anxiety, which makes every human interaction more difficult, stressful or awkward. This is why some people turn to the artificial prop of addiction. And as the BBC Loneliness Experiment found, you are more likely to feel lonely if you struggle to trust people or you feel very anxious. In these senses, addiction can develop out of a faulty coping strategy, where people try to avoid feelings of inadequacy, fear or discomfort with alcohol, drugs or familiar processes.
In the long term, however, dependency is a very poor coping strategy. Addiction takes increasingly more than it gives back. The damage to health, relationships and self-worth builds up over time. The sense of powerlessness, associated with not being able to stop an addiction, is possibly one of the loneliest experiences of all.
When people come into recovery from addiction, very often they find themselves getting to know a new set of people who are also overcoming their addictive disorder. For people who choose residential addiction treatment, it’s common for them to describe a feeling of joy or relief at discovering they are no longer alone. Finding a peer group with a shared motivation can be incredibly powerful. Beginning to open up about real emotions and difficult experiences can reinforce people’s belief in their natural ability to cope. Peer groups can create a very positive pressure, encouraging people to make better choices for themselves and stick to recovery goals. At addiction recovery groups in the community, people access free support, great ideas and meaningful connections. They discover how to ask for help and also to help others going through difficult times. In all of these ways, people come together in recovery from addiction, where once they may have felt completely isolated.
Of course, getting into recovery from addiction does not guarantee you’ll never feel lonely again. There are bound to be times in life where you feel disconnected or lost. It’s easy to get caught up in the busyness of life and put off social events that nurture us. Losing a close relative or friend in recovery is very likely to bring up difficult feelings, which can make you feel out of touch with other people. However, as your recovery progresses and you develop healthier coping strategies, you’ll find ways to feel all your feelings when they come – rather than needing to escape them at all costs.
In addiction recovery, overcoming loneliness is also about finding ways to be more at peace with solitude. It’s not possible to be in the great company 24 hours a day. Even if we spend all day with our families or we live with good friends, there will always be periods of time on our own. Even with the best of mates in our life, sometimes we can still feel there are things we don’t know how to say. So, in addiction recovery, it’s vital to develop an intimate connection with ourselves. Practices such as meditation, walking, writing or other creative pursuits can help with this. Professional addiction counselling, treatment and recovery support groups are also great for developing self-awareness and self-acceptance, as well as discovering our true identity.
Has loneliness led to addiction in your life? Or has addiction led to loneliness? Do you want a new, meaningful and connected life in recovery? UKAT provides residential and non-residential addiction treatment, to help you overcome the isolation of active addiction. Pick up the phone, email, request a callback or contact us via live chat.
If you successfully complete our 90-day inpatient treatment program, we guarantee you'll stay clean and sober, or you can return for a complimentary 30 days of treatment.