Discover How to Overcome Isolation in Addiction Recovery

For most people, addiction is a very lonely place to be. In some ways, isolation is a state that happens to you in addiction, when your addiction behavior pushes people away. In other ways, you choose to enter a state of isolation by fighting to be left alone with drugs or alcohol. Even in addiction recovery, the loneliness created during active addiction will continue if you don’t take steps to create a positive social network of friends and family to sustain you. Repairing damaged relationships, and making new friends at 12-step meetings, local clubs, or drug rehab aftercare programs will allow you to avoid isolation in addiction recovery, and get the social support you need to stay substance free.

Isolation and Addiction

In a popular TED Talk by Johann Hari on addiction, he states that the opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety; it’s connection. The ability to make healthy connections with other human beings is probably the most important skill that you need to develop in addiction recovery.

Loneliness is counterproductive for addiction recovery, and a healthy support network is crucial for it. Scientific research has demonstrated that social stressors like isolation literally limit how well the parts of the brain you need for recovery are able to function. Unfortunately, addiction can be a very isolating disease, and it is often born out of loneliness.

Many people begin misusing substances because they feel out of place and lonely, and have a hard time in social situations. Using substances can temporarily help with social anxiety, and chronic drug and alcohol use can often put someone into a new social circle that revolves around addictive substance use. The only problem is that these friendships are rarely based in anything real, and often dissolve as soon as someone decides to get help for their addiction. Sometimes these friendships dissolve even before recovery begins, because the drive to use drugs and alcohol becomes an obsession that crowds out everything and everyone else until all that is left is the individual and their addiction. Addiction and isolation feed on each other.

If isolation is a part of the disease of addiction, then you need to work just as hard at changing the isolating habits that made you lonely as you do on the drug-seeking habits that kept you in active addiction. Human connections make you stronger, and on a practical level, they also give you fun, comforting, and distracting interactions and activities to fill up the time you once spent on substance use.

What “The Rat Park” Means for Addiction Recovery

isolation in addiction recovery

Meaningful social connections are important for addiction recovery.

In the 1970s and 80s, a psychologist named Bruce Alexander considered the studies that put rats alone in cages with one drinking bottle of water and one of water infused with heroin. The rats quickly became hooked on heroin and eventually overdosed. Alexander thought that these studies were unfairly designed, because isolating the rats made them especially vulnerable to addiction. He believed that addiction is very strongly influenced by social and environmental factors, which is why so many Vietnam vets used drugs during the war, but did not resume using again after they’d detoxed when the war was over.

One of the ways that Alexander tested this idea about addiction was by creating “the rat park,” a giant cage where 20 rats of both genders could play with colored balls, run on hamster wheels, eat yummy food, and hang out with each other—fighting, playing, mating, and raising families. He also put a bottle of heroin-infused water in the cage, but unlike the studies with isolated rats, the rats in “the rat park” did not become obsessed with heroin. They ignored the heroin water in favor of interacting with the other rats. Even the rats who had gotten hooked on heroin in the isolating studies gave it up after they were moved into “the rat park.”

Rats and humans are both social creatures, which is why rats are useful for psychological experiments. However, rats are simpler than human beings, and can very easily and instinctively get what they need from one another as soon as they are given access to each other. Humans think too much to connect quite this easily. We have baggage, and we doubt ourselves, and we need to feel safe in order to open up to other humans. We won’t automatically drop heroin just because you move us into a house full of video games, books, good food, and other people. We can, however, create a more fulfilling life that includes social connections and use those connections to help us overcome addiction if we make the effort required to form and maintain healthy relationships with other human beings.

How to Overcome Isolation in Addiction Recovery

1. Call a Recovery Hotline

If you haven’t yet sought professional help for addiction, or if you are still early on in your addiction recovery, you will likely have times when you need social interaction and support right away, but don’t yet have anyone in your life to reach out to. This is the perfect time to turn to a recovery hotline for help. Call in anytime, day or night, to speak to someone who understands addiction recovery and can guide you through your present crisis. Getting through a tough time like this without using substances will allow you to keep moving forward and work on building up the strength and self-confidence to create friendships that will provide you with face to face support in the future.

2. Reach Out to Family

Numerous studies have shown that family support (even if the “family members” aren’t blood relations) can greatly improve addiction treatment outcomes. If your relationships with loved ones were damaged while you were in active addiction, getting sober will allow you to rebuild trust and repair the connections you once shared. In some cases, family counseling sessions may be needed to facilitate this healing, and to improve communication skills so that you can all express yourselves more effectively and really receive the messages being expressed. Enjoy the returning closeness with family by reviving old traditions, or by creating new ones. Even something as simple as getting together to watch a favorite show once a week or baking a cake together on family birthdays can show and grow your love and appreciation for each other. Including your family in celebrations of recovery milestones such as one month drug-free, or your first sober New Year’s Eve, are also a great way to strengthen and enjoy the relationship.

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3. Enter Rehab

Professional addiction treatment at a rehab facility is not just about giving up drugs and alcohol, it is about being introduced to the world of addiction recovery, and to other people in that world. Rehab is a great way to experience being accepted and understood for who you are, with no one judging you for your past addiction behavior or your present vulnerabilities. It is also the perfect place to experience sober friendships that support your growth and healing while encouraging you to avoid isolation in addiction recovery. You may form lifelong friendships in rehab, but even people who you aren’t able to stay in touch with can change your life for the better by simply showing you how powerful an honest, accepting, human connection can be.

4. Consider Drug Rehab Aftercare Programs

Drug rehab aftercare programs are a great way to protect and maintain your addiction recovery. They can assist you in practical ways, such as with vocational training and housing or job placement, but they can also be a good social outlet. Many aftercare programs have regularly scheduled sober events like picnics and dances where you can enjoy time with sober friends in an environment that is guaranteed to be drug and alcohol free. Furthermore, you’ll know that the people you meet through these programs are actively committed to addiction recovery, and will naturally be the kind of supportive, sober friends that you need.

5. Join a Support Group

Attending the meetings of peer support and 12-step groups such as Narcotics Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous is a proven way to support long-term addiction recovery success, but these groups are also great places for you to connect to welcoming, understanding, safe, sober, and supportive people with the potential to become your good friends. These people have an intimate understanding of what you are going through, and together, you can provide each other with a form of mutual support that can only be shared between people in addiction recovery.

Peer support groups also give you the opportunity to work on your listening skills. Truly listening to someone else by just taking in what they have to say, and not expecting anything, and not planning what you are going to say next, makes that person feel seen and heard and appreciated, and allows you to connect with them on a deeper level. This kind of active listening is a strong foundation for any friendship, in or outside of the addiction recovery community.

6. Explore Community Activities

Overcoming isolation in addiction recovery doesn’t have to just involve friendships with other people in recovery. There are lots of great people out in the world who don’t need drugs or alcohol to have fun, and will be understanding and supportive of your desire to stay sober. One of the key elements to any lasting friendship is having things in common, so it makes sense that you’ll be more likely to make friends by meeting people who share similar interests. You can do this by taking classes, joining clubs, going to local events, or participating in your gym’s morning boot camp, or a community sports team or theater. Doing something active with other people allows you to comfortably enjoy each other’s company even before you know each other well. It also gives you something to talk about so that you can more easily get to know each other better and start to build a friendship based on mutual interests.

7. Volunteer

Volunteering is one of the best ways to form new, healthy friendships, not only because it’s a great way to meet likeminded people, but because the act of giving back also boosts self-esteem, increases feelings of happiness, and supports addiction recovery. You can help other people who are struggling with addiction, or you can help people struggling with something different by building houses or feeding the homeless. Volunteering with cultural institutions such as museums or the ballet can be fulfilling, as you help artistic expression to remain alive and accessible to the public. You could also get involved in political protests, environmental awareness, or in efforts to clean up litter in your city’s parks. The most important thing is that you get involved and make a difference in something that matters to you.

Staying busy is key for addiction recovery, and meaningful activity is a very powerful way to fill your time. Furthermore, the people that you meet while volunteering are likely to be empathetic and compassionate people who will accept you for who you are and support you in your journey to grow and improve, and your friendship will be stronger because it is based in a cause that you both care about.

Making Connections in Addiction Recovery

Even if you’ve struggled to make and keep friends in the past, those problems do not have to be a part of your future. Addiction recovery is an opportunity to create a brand-new life and adopt a new perspective on living. It is the perfect time to work on your communication skills, your openness and honesty, and on being a good friend. You’ll be able to connect more deeply with others now that you are no longer altered by drugs or alcohol, and to form the kinds of friendships that will allow you to express yourself in fun and healthy ways, building a secure foundation of support for a stronger, happier future.

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