Two Sided Isolation in Addicts

addiction induced emotional isolation

    One of the hallmarks of addiction that can help suffering individuals and their families come to a better understanding of the diagnosis is a clearer understanding of the addicted person’s experienced isolation.  The individual either entering treatment for the first time or early in recovery, may need some time to come to accept the degree of his or her isolation.  Most persons spend great energy in minimizing their consequences, which include isolation.  Moreover, we can understand isolation induced by addiction to be directly related to a person’s sense of self and self-esteem.   Many in recovery find wisdom in the 12 Step slogan that identifies addicted persons as “Egomaniacs with inferiority complexes!”  It becomes like the chicken or the egg, poor self-esteem can be fuel that drives a person farther afield in isolation in attempts to “get numb” and “get away” from themselves, and yet this behavior itself becomes a reason to feel poorly about one’s self.      

Addiction’s isolation can be understood as being two-sided.  The first side is the emotional, where the individual is around familiar people, places and things, but no longer sharing their emotional life with loved ones and friends.  With friends, emotional isolation can trap the suffering individual in feeling all alone even when sitting with others in a bar or social gathering.  It becomes a “living hell,” as the one addicted becomes convinced that his experience is unique and something others can’t understand, especially when it comes to emotional pain.  Negative thoughts dominate the sufferer: “No one cares, I’m alone even here among “supposed friends.”   

Emotional isolation can be very difficult on a family.  Their loved one is in the family home, eating at the supper table, sitting in front of the television, but seemingly unable to respond or interact with others in the home.  Here, emotional isolation leads to poor communication and frustration by all concerned.  Cool headed and thoughtful people become ill-tempered and short in their frustrations.  “How can my son sit in my house, eat my food and ignore every word I speak?”

    Another side of isolation associated with addiction is the more obvious physical isolation.  Families find that their son has literally disappeared in every respect.  The hard part of this isolation is the “not knowing.”  This addictive behavior can be related to an individual’s love and addiction to a “street lifestyle” that pools him away from supportive family and friends.  The addiction seems to take over the personal’s life to the point that shame and self-hatred cause the individual to lose hope that things could ever improve.  This can be to the degree of homelessness and turning to a social environment fueled by illegal activities.  

    In no way, are these forms of isolation mutually exclusive or even required for the disease of addiction to leverage itself into a young person’s life.  However, most individuals who establish long-term sobriety do so mindful of having to overcome their personal experience of isolation.  This address of the isolation can be understood as the single biggest reason for 12 Step Programs being based on group meetings and working with a sponsor.  We can understand that the turning point in recovery is the coming of HOPE that promises an end for isolation and a promise to restore emotional and physical intimacy with loved ones.



MIKE HINKLEY - PH.D., STL, MSW, LADC
Primary Therapist