Whether the isolation or the addiction comes first, many people with substance use and eating disorders keep to themselves. They stay away from friends and family, which starts a vicious cycle. “Addiction leads to isolation as people are locked in a prison of self,” says Harold Jonas, PhD, addiction treatment professional in West Palm Beach, Florida, and founder of Flexdek.net. “They are listening to their own thoughts and either automatically or consciously choose to block others out.” Many experts feel that the tendency toward addictive behavior often starts to be evident in early adolescence. “This is when self-consciousness is already a part of development, plus add low self-esteem — and not feeling like part of a peer group — and the feelings of isolation begin,” says Jonas. “If we add other numerous variables that may be present, i.e., abuse in the home, family instability, divorce — that can further entrench the feeling of isolation and being alone.” One single feeling is often the same with substance abusers of all sorts. “When I worked at a methadone clinic, I can’t tell you how many times I heard people say, ‘I do drugs so that I can feel normal. Ever since I was a kid, I never felt normal,’” says Karen R. Koenig, M.Ed., LCSW. When you think about isolation and addiction problems, the question is: Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Of course everyone is different, but Koenig believes it is often the isolation and feeling of differentness that make a person abuse drugs, food, alcohol or pornography. “These people often feel tired, lonely, and depressed, so they self-medicate. Then it becomes a vicious cycle — they feel ashamed and feel bad about themselves, then use more, then isolate more.” Because addiction carries a lot of stigma, most addicts find secretive use and isolation is essential to protect and prolong, according to Jay Reid, MS, a clinical counselor with Well Clinic, a mental health facility in San Francisco. “This question always becomes a central theme in treatment,” Reid said. “When someone becomes addicted to a substance they, in essence, are making the drug their primary relationship — so relationships with other people tend to fade into the addict’s background.” And Jonas points out, “Not all people who are isolated are addicts. Grizzly Adams comes to mind or today’s example of Bear Grylls. Liking to be alone does not make someone ‘isolated.’ There is a difference that exists between comfort with oneself and isolation in a crowd.” It is the feeling that you really can’t reach out to other people that makes this such a devastating condition for many people who are addicted. “Most of us are lucky enough to learn that the best way to feel better is through connection to other people,” says Reid. “Some people have the misfortune to learn that getting close to people results in feeling worse. The allure of a substance that consistently and predictably makes them feel better is extremely powerful.”
What Can You Do If a Loved One Is Isolating?
“Pay attention to overt and covert changes,” says Jonas. “If your someone is spending an inordinate amount of time in their room — red flag. We are social creatures and interaction is required to gain the benefit of being alive. It is not just an added bonus.” It is hard to know what to do to help someone we love who is suffering. Sometimes it is easier to think of things not to do that might make things worse. Here are some of the major ones, according to Koenig:
- Don’t shame them. Saying something like, “If you were a man, you could do it,” or, “I have been through this and was able to cope,” only makes a person feel worse.
- Don’t be overly enthusiastic. The “hail-fellow-well-met” approach, in which you put your arm around the person and act chummy, will be seen for what it is. You have to be real in your dealings with this person.
- Don’t nag. The first time you say something it is new information, and the next time it is nagging. If someone isn’t listening, the more you say it, the less they will listen.
- Don’t be passive-aggressive. Saying something like, “If you aren’t going to listen to me, then never mind,” really doesn’t help. This makes people feel abandoned.
And here are some do’s from Koenig as well:
- Be compassionate. Tell the person you love them and are there for them.
- Share your experience. If you want to help a person get into therapy or a 12-step program, share that you have done it and it has helped you.
- Remind the person of better times. If they have stopped their substance abuse in the past, remind them of what it was like.
- Be proactive. If your loved one is isolating to the degree that he or she isn’t getting out of bed, showering, going to work, going out at all, letting plants die (that is a giveaway), you need to get them help. These are signs of severe depression.
“It comes down to helping a person see that their situation isn’t insurmountable. When you are in a dark spot, it is hard to remember that there is any light out there,” Koenig said.