Photo credit: Banksy
About a year ago, I was listening to a Ted Talk by Johann Hari where he posits that addiction is not merely some chemical attachment to a drug. It is a reaction to feeling disconnected and alone. He offers up the metaphor of studies that show the square footage of our homes has increased while the number of people in our close social circle has decreased. “We’ve traded stuff for connection,” he says, “and the result is we’re one of the loneliest societies that has ever been.” The opposite of addiction, therefore, is not sobriety. It’s connection.
I’ve thought about this idea a lot as it relates to my own life and my own struggles with alcohol abuse.
There is a very deep rabbit hole that I will try to avoid diving down regarding my personal history and how I became disconnected. (I can be a bit wordy.) In order to be as succinct as possible, I will say that I wasn’t always this way. When I was young, I was bubbly and enjoyed interacting with other people, a budding extrovert if ever there was one. When I hit my middle and high school years, there were a few factors that contributed to a shift in my personality. These laid the foundation for many problems well into my twenties and early thirties.
- I was relentlessly bullied by aspiring white supremacists in my high school from freshman year until graduation.
- I began to develop mental health problems: namely recurring bouts of depression and cripplingly low self esteem.
- I became overly obsessed with making romantic connections.
I am learning/starting to take responsibility for the part I’ve played in my own isolation. Historically, I’ve been a shitty friend. I can admit that. Because I was always so determined to be in a relationship and “feel loved”, I’ve ruined many perfectly good friendships that would have offered me just as much security and companionship. For whatever reason, those connections (with some exceptions) never felt like a priority for me. I always felt replaceable by the people I’d met and mostly treated them the same.
By the time I reached my twenties, I was still searching for any positive relationship with the opposite sex I could find (with very little standards) and bouncing from one friendship circle to the next. My pattern was fairly predictable. Drink. Meet new people and be charming. Form instant friendships or romantic connections. Fizzle. Repeat. As far as the romantic connections go, the fizzle was often mixed with unnecessary drama. I attached myself too quickly to men I barely knew and created connections with them in my own mind that were rarely reciprocated. It was an injurious cycle that I could not seem to break. As a result, I remained single for all of my twenties with few close friendships. I mostly hanged on the periphery of different social groups.
By the time I reached thirty, I started to retreat into myself. Going to bars and happy hour was expensive and there was always the risk of making a total ass of myself in public (which I had done plenty of times). I no longer wanted to be bothered with dressing up or the train ride getting there. For the first time, I began drinking alone and soon preferred this activity to pretty much anything else.
When you drink alone in the age of social media, it is very easy to pretend that you’re connected. You can hop online and message people you haven’t spoken to in a while, carry on “deep” conversations with folks who are probably just being kind and obliging your late night rant. You can even work up the courage to blindside family members, exes, and friends with your drunken need to emotionally unload. You can do all these things until you’re exhausted or throwing up or both, and even though you will wake up regretful in the morning with a hangover, it is likely to happen again. It satisfies the part of your brain that needs to feel connected to others without any risk that comes with face-to-face interactions. Eventually, you will prefer the company of your bottle of whiskey and smart phone to actual human interaction and people will stop inviting you to go places because you always flake or make excuses for why you can’t go or they just don’t want to hear your non-relationship relationship drama anymore, and you’ve nothing else to talk about really. Because you are self-medicating your depression with alcohol, your moods can drastically swing from high to low so it’s better for everyone if you remain in your safe space.
I suppose this happens because we get broken down from so many failed relationships and friendships that we stop trying. It is easier. We want close bonds, but the thought of starting over with new people and putting in the time is too daunting. Getting drunk is just easier. We don’t apologize or try to mend the things we break. We ‘ghost’ and hope that time takes care of the rest.
I stayed in this drunken, anti-social state for the better part of three years. My husband (yes I did manage to get married during this time) would go out to bars and hang with new people he had met after we moved abroad, but I preferred to stay home. It was cheaper and I had become wary of new faces. It was easy to hop on social media and see friends back home hanging out with each other, forming deeper bonds, and carrying on without me. I was used to seeing this and I no longer knew how to keep those friendships in tact. Sure, I would force check-ins on people to remind them that I was still alive and they would act excited to hear from me, but these conversations only happened if I initiated them so I eventually stopped. Around this time I became painfully depressed and started having regular anxiety attacks. My poor husband was often the target of dramatic, emotional swings and at some point, I broke down and realized that something was very, very wrong with me. It was a wonder I could function and maintain my work responsibilities. I needed help.
Six months ago (after a failed attempt one year prior), I stopped drinking and smoking for an entire four months. I broke that sobriety when my father-in-law died and have had alcohol three times since. I know that is a slippery slope and my focus now is on reconnecting with the reasons I decided to stop drinking in the first place. In my sobriety I have been able to form a clearer picture of my relationships, both past and present. I got some help for my depression and anxiety and I’ve allowed myself the room to be alone in a more productive way. There a few key things I’ve realized (and am working on) as I explore the idea of connection now.
- I have to stop forcing friendships on people. I don’t have to be close friends with everyone I meet and like. Some people will remain acquaintances and it’s not because there’s anything wrong with me (or them).
- It’s more important for me now to seek out connections with people who have similar interests and goals. “Partying” can’t be the tie that binds.
- At some point, I have to start asking forgiveness of people with whom I’ve damaged relationships in the past. Then I have to let that go and stop beating myself up over it.
- My self worth cannot be predicated on the number of people occupying my inner circle. This is gonna take time to rebuild.
- Just as importantly, I need to reconnect with myself. Who am I really? What are my interests and passions? What am I going to do with my life now that I’m alert for it?
I realize in my sobriety that depression and anxiety are fickle creatures. On the one hand, I’ve become increasingly introverted and don’t like social settings with a bunch of new faces. On the other, I get anxious when I feel uninvited or left out of something, even when I know that I probably wouldn’t have gone anyway. The battle for connection is constantly waging in my brain and I’ve still not found the right balance of pushing myself to get out there again and not forcing myself to go places I don’t want to be (i.e. the club or bar).
Reconnecting after years of anti-social behavior and drinking is challenging. It feels particularly difficult at thirty-five because I have notions of what it means to be an adult and ‘finding friends’ seems like something I should’ve mastered by now. I should be focused on starting a new career and a family. Still, as much as I don’t relish worrying about these kind of things, I welcome this kind of problem over the ones I brought on myself during my days of heavy drinking. That in of itself feels like progress. This is the phase of life I’ll refer to as “finding my tribe” and I’m happy to take it on, even if I’m a little late.
If you’re interested in hearing Johann Hari’s Ted Talk, here is a link to the video.