When an addiction takes hold often people find other parts of their life fade into the background. They could lose their job, stop studying and lose good family relationships as the addiction becomes more important to them. Many people see these points of loss when using a substance became a problem in their lives. Unfortunately, this leads to social isolation from non-users, further intrenching the addict in addictive behaviours and norms. This is all supported by a lot of research (e.g. Bathish et al, Jan 2017), so what does it mean for those trying to recover from addiction?
It has been shown in the past that going through any transition, (e.g. becoming part of a couple, moving abroad or becoming a parent) the transition is easier if you can find a social group going through the same transition. This explains the needs of: new mothers groups, ex-pat groups and the need for ‘couple friends’ when in a relationship, etc. Similarly, addicts can join groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) to share experiences and become part of a group all hoping for change.
These kinds of groups help people develop a ‘recovering-addict’ identity and rediscover old parts of their identity which have fallen by the wayside. People who can buy into being part of the group are much more likely to succeed in overcoming their addiction... but there's more to it. There needs also to be ties broken from old using social groups, making non-users that majority in the recovering addict's life (Dingle et al, Sep 2014). This is why those who successfully escape addiction sometimes move town, so their old friends cant tempt them and normalise the substance taking and the recovering addict can create new, clean social networks.
All this works for more socially acceptable addictions like smoking and non substance addictions like gambling too. It can all be boiled down to simple steps to change your social environment:
1-Find a group to help you make the change. This doesn’t need to be a formal group it could be other ex-smokers at work you can chat to when you’d normally be having a smoke.
2-When think of yourself, try to label yourself as ‘a recovering addict’ or ‘ex-smoker’ etc. When we label yourself aspirationally (with a label that isn't quite true yet but we’d like it to be) it actually changes the architecture of your brain in a way which helps the aspiration to become reality.
3-Make an effort to find friends in the group. This is an important interim stage where you are moving away from the friendships with addicts towards friendships dominated by non-addicts.
4- Try to identify your own story when your new friends discuss their own experiences. This helps you to bond and feel like you belong in this group which will help to motivate you to keep trying to overthrow the addiction.
5-Avoid friends and situations that lead to you using. We all feel pressure to conform to others behaviours in social situations, so if you can avoid using situations, then this will help you not to use.
6-Try to re-engage with the things you did before addiction. Activities which fell by the wayside but used to be a big part of your life can help you to widen your identity beyond that of ‘an addict’ and help you reconnect with old friends who don’t use and make new ones.
7-Make an effort to find new friends who don’t use substances. Use the rediscovered parts of yourself to help you find new friends who are clean.
Obviously changing behaviour is the goal, but it is made infinitely easier if these social, as well as behavioural changes, are made together. Think of the social changes as the scaffolding that supports the deep changes internally. I would also recommend counselling alongside all of this, to help discover the reasons you needed the addiction to help you deal with them.
If you would like therapy, in person, by phone or over the internet, please contact me.
If you would like to subscribe to this blog please do so on this page.