Isolating and avoiding human contact is quite common for sober people working a recovery program. It usually happens in the early stages of sobriety. However, a recovering person is at risk for slipping into isolation at any time, no matter how long they have been sober.
Let’s talk about isolation and explain why it can be so detrimental to someone’s sobriety. We will also discuss how to combat isolation in recovery and stay connected.
How is Isolation Defined?
Let’s turn to the authority on definitions – Webster’s Dictionary – to explain how isolation is defined. To isolate means to set oneself apart from others. Its synonyms include quarantine, which is to isolate from normal relations or communication. Insulate is another synonym, which means to place in a detached situation. Solitude, cut off, separate, hermit, and recluse are also words that help us better understand what isolation is.
Basically, to isolate in sobriety means to stay away from other recovering people. Isolation is an intentional withdrawal from fellowship, meetings, sponsorship, and other human beings in general.
There is a saying in recovery – an addict or alcoholic alone is in bad company. This may sound extreme. But, the truth is, you were the last person you got drunk or high with. Remember, sobriety is a “we thing,” not a “me thing.” Together, we maintain freedom from active addiction. Alone, we relapse.
Addiction Isolates People And Makes Them Socially Awkward
Drugs and alcohol negatively affect the way the human brain works, which includes emotional regulation and social skills. It doesn’t matter whether you were smoking marijuana or shooting heroin. Prolonged, excessive use of drugs or alcohol change the way the brain works.
A substance use disorder causes people in active addiction to become socially awkward, overwhelmed by human contact and connection, and unsure of how to interact with others. In early sobriety, the natural instinct is shy away from social situations and stay comfortable. This usually leads to isolation.
Getting sober and letting people in can feel almost impossible in the beginning. Addiction is an isolating disease. Many people used drugs or alcohol alone for years before they decided to get clean. Others may have hung out with drinking or drug buddies, but they felt alone and isolated, nonetheless.
In either case, the thought of having sober conversations about feelings with recovering people can feel terrifying. To avoid this discomfort, people will often isolate.
Why Do People Isolate in Recovery?
There are a number of reasons why people choose to isolate in recovery. Usually, at least one of these experiences motivates a person to stay locked inside their house or apartment rather than participate in relationships:
- It takes a considerable amount of time and inner work before a recovering alcoholic or addict becomes comfortable in their own skin. Until this happens, being around other people can feel overwhelming and undesirable.
- People are afraid to be judged. They think no one will understand. The awesome thing about recovery is that people who are working a program have been there and they understand what a newcomer is going through. Newly sober people don’t realize this and they fear that their own perceived “weirdness” will drive people away.
- It is more comfortable to be alone and stay home. It takes work to get up and go to meetings, work with a sponsor, and fellowship with other recovering people. Sometimes, this feels like too much. Staying in feels like the better option.
- Mental health issues can cause someone to isolate. Many people in recovery have a dual-diagnosis. This means they have a substance use disorder AND some kind of mental illness – PTSD, bipolar, or schizophrenia – for example. Dually diagnosed people need to address both aspects of their illness to sustain ongoing recovery. Depression, anxiety, and panic attacks are just a few of the many reasons people may choose to isolate.
- Human interaction can be difficult. When you are not right with yourself, it is almost impossible to get right with another person. In other words, connecting and being authentic might feel out of the question. Without trust and a sense of safety, isolation seems to be the solution to the discomfort felt in the presence of other humans.
These are just a few of the MANY reasons why people isolate.
Note: we do not choose to have the disease of addiction. But, we do have the power to choose recovery. This choice must be made over and over, one day at a time, every single day.
Isolation IS a choice. It is a decision. And for people like us, it is usually very dangerous to our recovery.
We Were Made for Connection
Human beings were engineered to enjoy connections with other human beings. In fact, multiple studies have shown the effects of people who stay in isolation – and it’s not good. People who isolate are at greater risk for mental health issues, increased stress, physical ailments and disease, and even a shortened life span.
Furthermore, those of us in early recovery are “not right in the head.” We have been under the influence of powerful substances that have altered our perception and affected our ability to make rational decisions. We simply must rely on other people to help us get our lives back on track. We cannot trust our own thinking.
By connecting with other recovering people, we feel a sense of brotherly (or for us, sisterly) love. We have a strong support network we can count on in order to effectively navigate life. We experience an authentic spiritual connection, which lets us know we are not alone in this thing called life.
Plus, sharing life with friends, laughing, experiencing new things, and having someone to lean on is far more inviting than sitting at home, lonely, and feeling the weight of the world on your shoulders.
Recovery is the Antidote to Isolation
If you want to stay sober and learn how to live and enjoy life without the use of drugs or alcohol, you have to overcome any fear you might have of 12-Step Meetings or other types of self-help meetings. You need to connect with a sponsor, or someone that can help you on their journey based on their own experiences. You also MUST connect with other recovering people. They will bring joy to your life, a sense of belonging, and a shoulder to cry on when you need it.
Even when you feel like isolating, do the next right thing anyway. Go to a meeting. Call your sponsor. Call someone you have met in recovery – even if you don’t know them well. You can tell them you feel weird and awkward about calling, but you are putting forth the effort to stop isolating. You will be pleasantly surprised at the response you get.
Recovery is the antidote to isolation. You don’t have to make the choice to stay to yourself and try to fight this battle on your own. Instead, decide that you are going to take a risk, be uncomfortable, and connect with others – despite your desire to isolate. You will be amazed at how much your life changes for the positive when you do this for yourself.
Stop isolating! We do recover!