It is common wisdom within the recovery community (and perhaps elsewhere as well) that addiction is a disorder of isolation. In fact, one of the tenets of recovery, as discussed in the AA publication Living Sober, addresses “fending off loneliness.” If there is a single factor that has contributed to loneliness over the past year—and very likely until well into 2021—it is the isolation that the pandemic has created.
I’ve spoken with men and women who have not visited face to face with friends for months, and those who have foregone travel for social contact due to the need to quarantine for weeks on arrival (not to mention the fear of contracting the virus en route). Perhaps you know, as I do, grandparents who haven’t held a new grandchild since he or she was born.
Isolation, Substance Abuse, and Mental Health
The effects of social isolation are well documented. It is considered, for example, cruel punishment bordering on torture within correctional facilities, and has largely been banned. And researchers have long documented the correlation between isolation, loneliness, and both mental health and substance abuse problems.[i].
The current pandemic may also be worsening another widespread social problem, as found in a survey sponsored by the U.S. Congress: U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee. “An Invisible Tsunami: ‘Aging Alone” and Its Effect on Older Americans, Families, and Taxpayers,” Jan 24, 2019. This survey documents the issue of increasing social and familial isolation that it rightly describes as a “tsunami.”[ii]
Telling someone that isolation and loneliness are harmful is one thing—helping that person to fight it is another thing entirely. Since the focus of this post is on substance abuse and its increased prevalence as a result of the pandemic along with social changes, it can be very useful for people to re-think support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, SMART Recovery, and Women for Sobriety. Although all of these fellowships advocate abstinence from alcohol and drug use as their goal, it is safe to say that not everyone who walks into such a meeting is equally committed to that goal. In fact, it is a common misconception that every man and woman at an AA meeting (especially those that are listed as “open” meetings) is equally and totally resolved that abstinence should be their goal. This has been the case since the inception of AA, which has always recognized ambivalence about abstinence as a reality.
The truth is that fellowships like AA, SMART, and WFS exist to fulfill not one but three functions: as a means of support for sobriety, as vehicles for overcoming social isolation and its consequences, and as a way to build a healthier social network. Many who turn to these fellowships are in fact ambivalent about whether they have a problem, or wish to either quit or at least limit their substance use, yet don’t know where else to turn. Some may eventually decide that abstinence and a sober life style is indeed their best choice.
Readers who are willing to take a clear-eyed look at their alcohol or substance use, and to contemplate trying out a fellowship to achieve one or more of the above stated goals, would do well to consider the following questions regarding their lifestyles and substance use:
· Looking back, would you say that your use of alcohol or cannabis has gradually increased over time?
· Looking back again, would you say that your social connections (to family, friends, co-workers, etc.) has steadily decreased over time, such that you find yourself more and more isolated?
· Has the thought ever occurred that maybe you should cut down on your drinking or cannabis use, or even quit?
It’s no secret that people have turned to alcohol (and more recently cannabis) for generations as a means of comforting themselves. Loneliness is a powerful emotion, and it can easily drive a person to seek comfort and relief in these ways. This writer is old enough to recall Vietnam, and the many friends who told him that the only way they could cope with a deep sense of isolation and its associated anxiety was to get high every day. Then there are those who must cope today with widowhood or divorce, geographical separation from children and family, retirement or relocation, single parenthood, and so on. All of these situations typically lead to isolation and growing loneliness. But the current pandemic has extended this insidious phenomenon to a much broader share of the population. Little wonder it sows the seeds for loneliness and a desire for relief.
If you relate to the material presented here, and especially if you honestly think that your substance abuse may be a problem or is bordering on one, consider turning to the Internet. One of the ironic side effects of the COVID pandemic has been the proliferation of on-line means of social contact like Zoom. All of the fellowships mentioned above offer such opportunities through their web sites. One does not have to commit to the idea of being an addict in order to try them out, especially those that are described as “open,” meaning that even those who are either just curious or else ambivalent about their substance use are welcome. Trying them out can accomplish two goals: deciding what if anything to do moving forward about your substance use, and taking advantage of an opportunity to break free from the dangers of isolation and loneliness.
Joseph Nowinski, PhD is a clinical psychologist and author. For more information visit www.josephnowinski.com.
[i] https://www.psychiatrist.com/JCP/article/Pages/association-between-socia…, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0033350617302731, https://www.apa.org/monitor/2019/05/ce-corner-isolation