In an ongoing quest to find the secret to happiness, scientists have come back to the same answer time and again: relationships with other people. In a 2012 Australian study, researchers found that the quality of a child’s relationships with family and friends has a greater effect on their happiness as adults than intelligence, wealth or academic success. The U.K.’s National Child Development Study showed that middle-age adults who regularly meet up with 10 or more friends have better mental health than those with five or fewer friends.
Given the connection between social ties and mental health, it comes as no surprise that people who feel socially isolated are more likely to struggle with substance abuse. New research shows the reverse is also true: Drug abuse may be the cause, not just an effect, of social isolation. According to a 2012 study in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, teens who drink are more likely to feel like social outcasts than students who avoid alcohol.
Thus, an important part of addiction recovery is restoring close ties with other people. After bidding farewell to their drug-abusing associates as well as many of the healthy relationships they once had, most addicts in early recovery are faced with building a social network from the ground up.
Beating isolation boils down to getting out and living life. But for most addicts, “just living” is uncharted territory. Here are 10 ways to break through the isolation and get connected:
#1 Grieve the Loss. When you give up drugs, you lose your best friend. Even though it was a one-sided, winner-takes-all friendship, the loss must be grieved. You’re likely to experience a wide range of emotions including shock, loneliness, anger and sadness in early recovery.
#2 Join a Support Group. Recovering addicts often feel that they’re on the fringe of society, that as an outsider no one will understand them. That’s why it’s important to spend time with others in recovery who share similar struggles and can provide a listening ear and honest feedback. If you don’t feel adequately supported in a particular group, try another or reach out individually to one or two members who seem like a closer match for you. Also reach out for guidance from a sponsor or therapist who can help you work through your feelings and suggest additional resources.
#3 Make Amends Where Possible. In the course of your addiction, you may have disconnected from the people closest to you. Loved ones, hurt and confused by your destructive behavior, may have cut ties. Perhaps you offended your closest friend or lied to or stole from someone you cared about. In early recovery, you may have the opportunity to make amends. Doing what you say you’ll do and showing them your commitment to recovery may help restore these connections. In some cases, the relationship may be damaged beyond repair. This is a good time to practice accepting the things you cannot change and focusing instead on those you can.
#4 Cut Out Negative Influences. Not all social connections are healthy. For example, drug-abusing friends and those who aren’t supportive of your recovery have no place in your life. Although dating may seem like a great way to connect with people on a deeper level, romantic relationships can be distracting and volatile and, at least within the first year of recovery, are strongly associated with relapse.
#5 Go Online. In the age of social networking and smartphones, there are dozens of sober support outlets you can look to without leaving home. It’s quick and easy to talk to people in online recovery forums and there are a number of free recovery apps available that offer suggestions, daily affirmations and information about local support groups. Of course, online connections shouldn’t be your only social channel, but they can combat loneliness, particularly in the early stages of recovery.
#6 Diversify. Loneliness can be a signal that you need a change of pace. In addition to picking up interests you had pre-addiction, consider joining a club, taking a class or trying something you’ve always wanted to do. Even if it feels uncomfortable at first, be proactive about getting out and meeting people.
#7 Get Comfortable with Yourself. The real work of building a support network isn’t finding people to talk to, but rather being someone with whom other people actually want to interact. This requires building self-confidence, developing appropriate social skills, setting healthy boundaries and being a good friend in return. It’s also healthy to be alone sometimes. After all, being alone doesn’t necessarily mean you’re lonely, and if you don’t enjoy your own company who else will?
#8 Give Back. Being a good friend requires give and take. Make sure you listen actively when someone else speaks and consider their needs as well as your own. On a broader scale, volunteering can be a productive way to build a greater sense of connection to others.
#9 Stay Balanced. Until it is firmly established, your social life won’t run itself. You must make friends and family a priority. Work, school and other responsibilities are important but if they monopolize your life, your recovery will suffer.
#10 Sit with Your Emotions. Everyone feels sad or lonely from time to time even if they have a support system in place. Unpleasant emotions are a normal and healthy part of life. Beyond merely tolerating them, you may also be able to learn from them by recognizing feelings as signals that something is not working in your life.
Loneliness is a prime relapse trigger. If you recognize a longing for the company of others and take action early on, you can not only preserve your sobriety but also invite back into your life the joy that only relationships can bring.
David Sack, M.D., is board certified in addiction medicine and addiction psychiatry. He is the CEO of Elements Behavioral Health and oversees such treatment centers as Promises, The Ranch, The Recovery Place, The Sexual Recovery Institute, and Right Step. David is a sought-after expert who often appears in the major media.
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Last reviewed: 8 Oct 2013