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Staying Connected: Avoid the Slippery Slope to Isolation, Loneliness & Relapse

When you’re doing the hard work of recovery, February can be a tough time of year. For some, it is tempting to isolate from the Hallmark parade of chocolates, roses and romance. For others, February is a reminder of past relationships gone wrong or friendships that suffered at the hands of an all-consuming drug or alcohol habit.

This year, use the “month of love” as a chance to assess your outlook on relationships, human connection and “alone time.” Are you isolating too much? If you’re not careful, isolation can push you down a slippery slope toward depression—or even relapse.

“But there are other words for privacy and independence. They are isolation and loneliness.” –Author Megan Whalen Turner

The famous actress Greta Garbo quit show business in 1941 after making 27 movies in 13 years. She was only 36 years old. For years, news media and comedians reported and mocked her statement, “I want to be alone.” But in a 1955 interview with Life magazine, she explained, “I never said, ‘I want to be alone,’ I only said, ‘I want to be let alone!’ There is all the difference.”

Garbo said that made a difference, but really, it didn’t. Based on letters sold by Sotheby’s in 2017, she felt profoundly dissatisfied in Hollywood—but new discoveries indicate that isolating herself for 48 years didn’t create happiness, either. Garbo felt lonely and perpetually mourned the loss of a sweetheart. [1]

We’re Wired for Connection

When working on addiction recovery, it tempting to “do a Garbo” and isolate yourself. This may occur when:

● You think recovery is hard enough without complicating it with people’s opinions or judgments about your sobriety.

● It feels safer to stay home than face the temptations “out there.”

● You reach a plateau in your therapy, or it feels too painful or sluggish.

● Recovery meetings sometimes feel like “the same old thing.”

Though these reasons for detaching might make sense in your head, too much time alone can be destructive to your sobriety and your mental health.

According to scientist Matthew Lieberman, we’re wired to connect with other people. In his book, Social (Penguin Random House, 2014), he explains his scientific findings on our innate need for sociability. In an interview with Scientific American, Lieberman says, “Across many studies of mammals, from the smallest rodents all the way to us humans, the data suggests that we are profoundly shaped by our social environment and that we suffer greatly when our social bonds are threatened or severed. … We may not like the fact that we are wired such that our well-being depends on our connections with others, but the facts are the facts.”

Lieberman believes the Western world buys into the myth that independence from others is an admirable strength, but it’s actually detrimental. “In the West, we like to think of ourselves as relatively immune to the sway of those around us while we each pursue our personal destiny. But I think this is a story we like to tell ourselves rather than what really happens.” [2] And that story can prove damaging.

Aside from feeling lonely, social isolation can ruin your health.

Isolation Endangers Life & Recovery

Current research claims socially isolated people who lack connection with others reap a mortality risk similar to someone who daily smokes a pack of cigarettes—and more risk than an obese person. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a Brigham Young University psychology professor, presented these warnings and said isolation and loneliness should be treated as a public health issue.[3]

As a recovering addict, it’s dangerous to disengage from others. Even without scientific research, observation and experience expose what happens when you spend too much time alone. It’s too easy to get inside your head and fall into downhill patterns like obsessing about the past, worrying about the future, dwelling on shortcomings or giving in to the temptation to use again.

It’s not always bad to be alone, though. Time with yourself can refresh and settle you, especially if you work in a busy office or live with several roommates or family members. Still, too much solitude—especially for the addict—may unravel the good work of recovery. For good health and stability, you need a balance of social interaction and personal reflection.

Activities to Beat Loneliness

So how can you avoid isolation and ward off loneliness? How do you balance aloneness with sociability? Try these activities and invent more of your own.

1. Plan a night out with friends or loved ones. Meet up with a brother or sister. Check out activities in your community. Keep things lighthearted; don’t discuss heavy family issues. Catch up on your lives and recall why you love one another.
2. Spend one-on-one time with someone you trust. Tell stories and laugh or share secrets, concerns and joys. Mark this on your schedule as a regular appointment.
3. Enroll in lessons, maybe something you’ve put off for a season. Choose an activity or learning that relaxes and engages you with other people: art, crafts, dance, a foreign language, meditation, music lessons, sports, etc.
4. Find a community event. Check the paper or internet for activities in your community. Grab a friend and try art exhibits, charity events, games, marathons, nature walks or theater performances.
5. Join a sober group. Is there a church group you could attend? A book group? A gathering of collectors? Choose a meet-up that incorporates your hobbies or personal interests.
6. Exercise at a gym. Solitary walks have their place, but don’t make that your only form of movement. Attend a group exercise class or find a new workout buddy that shares your goals.
7. Work on a project. Is there a hobby you can pursue with a friend? Can you build, cook, paint, repair or quilt together? You don’t need a big group to garner the benefits of companionship during a creative endeavor.
8. Volunteer with a charity. Your community offers many ways to serve. Scoop up meals for the hungry. Schedule time to work at a thrift shop. Fix cars for single mothers and widows. Help build a house for a low-income family. It’s a great feeling to help others who need your skills while connecting with others in the process.
9. Call a friend or your sponsor. This advice may sound obvious, but isolation can freeze you from picking up the phone. Get ahead of the loneliness. If you feel isolated, call someone who will offer sound advice and lift your spirits with conversation.
10. Stick with your recovery meetings, even when you don’t feel like attending. It’s fortifying to engage with people who understand your struggles, and it holds you accountable to your rehab.

This February, create a balance between productive alone-time and positive sociability. You’ll be a better, more clear-thinking person—and that enhances recovery.

Get Connected With Vista Taos

Need help for drug or alcohol misuse? You can’t do it alone. Settled in the beautiful southernmost Rocky Mountains, Vista Taos offers a recovery continuum that includes intervention and detox, primary residential treatment and extended care programs. Call now to begin the admissions process or request help for a family member: 575.613.4810.

1. “The Profound Loneliness of Greta Garbo.” Brigit Katz. Smithsonian.com. December 8, 2017. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/profound-loneliness-greta-garbo-180967417/#Zc7QbG9vzkjQzekE.99.
2. “Why We Are Wired to Connect.” Gareth Cook, ScientificAmerican.com. October 22, 2013. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-we-are-wired-to-connect.
3. “How Being Lonely Can Be as Bad for Your Health as Smoking.” Jenn Gidman. Newser.com. August 7, 2017. www.newser.com/story/246823/loneliness-may-create-as-much-risk-of-dying-early-as-smoking.html. (Also see, “So Lonely I Could Die,” No author stated. American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2017/08/lonely-die.)

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