It’d be obvious to anyone with any experience in addiction, but addicts aren’t a very socially healthy group of people. Some say that addiction is a party of one, where the addiction becomes the center focus of a person’s life, pushing them further away from others and into a state of isolation and social withdrawal.
While this is seen as a symptom of addiction and a part of why it’s such a dangerous phenomenon in societies, others see it as part of the disease’s core. Addicts, many argue, fall into this spiral of using and abusing substances for gratification and stress relief precisely because of this sense of overwhelming loneliness and lack of emotional connection, rather than becoming socially withdrawn after the fact.
Of course, there is a lot of truth to both perspectives. Addiction comes with its own set of risk factors – biological ones, such as genetic predisposition, and social ones. Yet there are many outliers that live perfectly normal lives with no history of addiction in the family, and yet they still fall victim to the cycle of addiction.
In these cases, the reason isn’t as simple as addictiveness, or pure chance. Yes, drugs like heroin, alcohol and nicotine can cause dependence, but less than a tenth of the people who use illicit drugs become addicted. That’s where loneliness plays a role.
Addiction as a Lack of Connection
When we think about addiction from an outsider’s perspective, we’re quick to see it as a disease, or an unfortunate case of affinity, or perhaps as a moral failure. But to those who struggle with addiction, addiction is an outlet. It’s a manifestation, an expression, a means to an end.
Those who struggle with addiction don’t really struggle with the act of being addicted – they struggle with staying sober, because part of them needs the pleasure and the stupor of a drinking session or the contents of a needle in order to function at all, not so much physically, but on an emotional level.
For people who deal with addiction, the addiction itself is often a consequence of pressure, of stress, of major discontent and trauma. Some experienced childhood horrors and do their best to mask their memories and thoughts with certain habits – but it’s not just the clearly troubled and misfortunate who are at a substantial risk for addiction. There’s a reason addiction and fame go hand in hand so often: that’s because success is scary.
Take your typical rock star, childhood actor-turned-rehab regular, or any other common cliché of the famous turned addicted. It’s not that their lives suck – but that they struggle greatly and often silently underneath it all in order to maintain it. The straight-A student with the dashing smile and social entourage might’ve fallen into a life of drugs not out of a personal moral failure, problems at home or a bad breakup, but simply because they were actually alone in their struggles, with no one to turn to out of fear of looking entitled, whiny or weak.
Addiction occurs because a substance is addressing a need – even if just initially. To eliminate that need – to remove the legs upon which an addiction can stand – you have to understand why someone might have gotten addicted in the first place.
A simple little experiment with a rat park showed that among our little rodent friends, heroin addiction goes away when opportunities exist for mating, bonding and general social rat behavior. While we’re not as simple-minded as rats, the gist of a successful recovery isn’t just long-term sobriety and abstinence from drugs, but replacing the itch scratched by an addiction, with healthy behavior and rich social encounters. In essence, the cure to addiction lies in love and friendship.
Battling Addiction With Love & Friendship
Even among those who recover from addiction alone, support is vital. You could have a solid reason for staying sober – such as wanting to be an accountable member of the family – but without the needed support from others to help you through the emotional journey of recovery, realizing that reason can prove impossible.
If addiction is caused by loneliness, and the overwhelming feeling of being crushed by the stress and pressure of dealing with many serious issues alone, then curing that loneliness is important. Sober living homes, group therapy, and the understanding and support of your friends and family can go a long way to helping you achieve the trust and security you need to successfully kick the habit and learn to live again – from going back to school or finding work, to getting back into relationships, establishing yourself in new hobbies and social circles, making new friends and being happy with yourself.
It’s a long road, but it’s a more comprehensive, successful and helpful one than putting addicts in a position of helplessness, hopelessness, and stigma.
Every Case Is Unique
Of course, while addiction feeds on shame and loneliness, that doesn’t mean that just reintroducing people into the lives of someone struggling with their recovery will make things go better. Firstly, in any case of recovery, there has to come a point where the patient wants to recover. It’s not necessary to hit rock bottom for that point to come – that’s a dangerous and painful mindset. It can be as simple as waking up one day and not wanting feel hung over or worthless anymore.
Beyond that, however, the path to recovery is all up to the patient. Some prefer therapy, others want to go through rehab and outpatient treatment, some swear on sober living communities and others yet advocate 12-step programs like AA or NA. While there are similarities between all successful and viable methods of recovery, you have to find one to adopt and make your own.
There are many perspectives on addiction. Some argue that it is a brain disease. Some argue that it is a choice. Some argue that it is a learning disorder, where a series of short-term choices lock a person into a lagging developmental phase.
Others argue that it is a social disorder, where someone deprived of real connection and the feelings of belonging to a healthy, happy family or group of friends slowly succumb to the numbing pleasures of addiction.
The fact that addiction carries with it so many differing and multi-faceted definitions even among trained psychologists goes to show that it’s a complicated problem we have yet to fully understand and study. But we do know that it’s highly treatable – with the right help.