Addiction and loneliness are closely intertwined, exacerbating one another, creating a dangerous cycle. Often, addiction begins as a type of self-medication, sometimes to medicate the loneliness one might be feeling. Indeed, a lack of meaningful relationships or social support can leave someone feeling pretty down, with nowhere else to turn when things go wrong. Further, drugs may be used as a way to mask loneliness, or a coping mechanism in certain social situations. A landmark study in addiction showed that rats exposed to stimulating social situations were unlikely to become addicted to a readily available drug, whereas those rats living alone, in an isolated cage, almost always became addicted to the drug provided. The same occurs in humans. Although there are many causes of addiction, including genetics and life experiences, addiction is frequently preceded by loneliness.
Many aspects of addiction lead to the user to become isolated. While in the throes of addiction, obtaining and using the drug becomes the number one priority. Social activities one once engaged in taper, and responsibilities that allow for interpersonal engagement, such as work or volunteering, are pushed to the wayside. As a result, time spent with others is reduced.
Furthermore, as the brain becomes hijacked and rewired by addiction, behaviours change dramatically. Actions which may have seemed unimaginable before, like stealing and lying, become the norm. And although science has advanced, stigma remains and these are not yet seen as symptoms of the disease of addiction, but rather moral failings and indications of poor character. Thus, relationships may become permanently damaged, increasing isolation.
Finally, in a misguided attempt to help a loved one, the “tough love” approach is often employed. Unfortunately, the approach of kicking kids out of the home or cutting off resources, often exacerbates the feelings of loneliness already present during drug addiction.
As mentioned, addiction works to dismantle relationships and isolate individuals. Ironically, it may be meaningful social connection that plays a crucial role in addiction treatment. Although the knee-jerk reaction to having someone lie to you or steal from you may be to cut them off, that may not be the answer for addiction. Specifically, for those cases which resulted from loneliness. Ultimately, when an individual is ostracized as a result of their addiction, the drug abuse is perpetuated in an attempt to self-medicate. Compassion, not rejection, should be practiced when dealing with the disease of addiction. After all, as Johann Hari says, the opposite of addiction is connection.