Addiction doesn’t just happen.
Addiction doesn’t come out of nowhere and blindside us.
Addiction is something that takes root and begins to grow long before we know it, strengthened through life experience, and breaking through the surface when we least expect it.
For many of us, addictive behaviors are a byproduct of our past pain and trauma—the unintended consequence of something that happened in our world that was beyond our control. In this moment, feeling a sense of fear, we seek out something to make us feel better. Something to bring us comfort. Something that makes us feel more in control of our world. This “something” becomes our go-to when life feels scary and out of control.
This creates a vicious cycle. The more our life feels out of control, the more we seek comfort—not recognizing how our threshold for uncomfortable or uncontrollable situations is weakened by our compulsive desire to escape the fear we face.
What makes this cycle worse are the various behaviors that accompany addiction, like loneliness and depression.
A recent survey exploring the impact of loneliness in the United States revealed some alarming results. While it’s true that loneliness can stem from various reasons—such as grief, divorce, separation, job loss, relocation, and more—researchers have discovered that loneliness is on the rise.
Here’s a snapshot of the results:
Nearly half of Americans report sometimes or always feeling alone (46%) or left out (47%).
Two in five Americans sometimes or always feel that their relationships are not meaningful (43%) and that they are isolated from others (43%).
Americans who live with others are less likely to be lonely (average loneliness score of 43.5) compared to those who live alone (46.4). However, this does not apply to single parents/guardians (average loneliness score of 48.2)—even though they live with children, they are more likely to be lonely.
Only around half of Americans (53%) have meaningful in-person social interactions, such as having an extended conversation with a friend or spending quality time with family, on a daily basis.
Generation Z (adults ages 18-22) is the loneliest generation and claims to be in worse health than older generations.
This is eyeopening. We live in a country with more than 327 million people and almost half of our population is struggling with loneliness. It’s amazing how many of us are surrounded by people and still feel so lonely.
When we feel lonely, we self-medicate—we turn to our “something” behaviors for comfort. Whatever it is that we seek out for comfort—food, sex, shopping, pornography, gaming, social media—has a tendency to keep us in isolation.
Addiction often creates an illusion for the addict that no one else struggles the way they do: “No one knows and understands the pain I feel.” This illusion—this distorted belief—pulls us away from relationship with God and others.
It should be no surprise that loneliness and depression often go hand-in-hand. The more isolated we become in our addiction, feeling withdrawn and unworthy of relationship, the more we feel depressed.
This emotional cycle becomes relentless. Our comforting, self-medicating behaviors create so much shame, we pull away from the significant relationships in our lives. We fear judgment and rejection, so we isolate. Now we feel lonely and sad. And guess what? This causes us to isolate more.
At times, when we feel depressed, our comfort behaviors don’t work as well as they used to; so we have to increase our behaviors—do something more risky, more taboo, watch something more violent—to even feel the normal hit. At this point, even our more extreme comfort behaviors are losing their effect more quickly. We find ourselves spiraling into unknown territory.
Our distorted thoughts take a dark turn. We feel disconnected, miserable, and hopeless. Our negative thought life is taking over. We can’t seem to escape the prison in our mind. We feel trapped with no foreseeable way out.
Suicide is a delicate subject, one that brings great sorrow to loved-ones, family, and friends—the survivors who try to understand, make sense of, and live after someone they love takes their own life. By far, one of the greatest tragedies of the human experience.
So often, when we lose a loved-one to suicide, we question:
Were there signs?
Was there something I could have done to help them?
Why did this happen? I didn’t even know they were struggling.
We may never know the answer to these questions, but many people who have lost a loved-one will live the rest of their lives wondering.
I’m not saying loneliness and depression lead to suicide or that everyone who commits suicide is lonely and depressed. There is no single cause or explanation for suicide. However, research suggests that there is a strong correlation between addiction, loneliness, depression, and suicide.
So if we know there is a connection between these emotional states and behaviors, what can we do? How can we help and possibly make a difference in someone’s life?
It can feel overwhelming and stressful when someone we love struggles with addictive behaviors and the emotional side effects. Many times, we feel as though there is nothing we can do to help them, but there is.
Raising awareness to the reality of these issues is helpful. People who struggle with addiction, loneliness, and depression typically don’t announce how they’re feeling, but there can be signs in their behavior:
Sleeping more or less than normal
Withdrawing from or loss of interest in usual activities
Increased substance use
Isolating more than normal from family and friends
Increased negative behaviors: anxious, irritable, agitated, aggressive, angry
Giving away their prized possessions
This is not an exhaustive list, but a good place to start. The point of providing this list is not to make us think we need to become a paranoid-stalker of those we love, but having the awareness to recognize when something doesn’t seem right. This will help.
When people are struggling, it’s amazing what comes out of their mouth—as if their subconscious is trying to send a SOS message to those around them.
If someone we love is exhibiting any of the behaviors listed above, it’s important that we listen to what they’re saying. Here’s some of the language we’re listening for—when they talk about:
being a burden to others.
feeling trapped or there is no other option.
having no reason to live.
specific details or a plan to end their life.
Again, this is not by any means an exhaustive list, but a good place to start. If we want to help those we love, we need to listen to these subtle ques.
This is one of my favorite research projects. In the late 1970s, Bruce Alexander, a Canadian psychologist, wanted to uncover why the current treatment approach to addiction had limited success. The common theory was that drugs create addiction and addicts are helpless to change their behaviors.
Prior to Alexander’s research, the approach was basically the same: get a lab rat, a cage, food, water, and an unlimited supply of a drug, such as heroin. In almost every case, the caged rats, who were given food, water, and heroin, would either overdose on heroin or die of starvation—the result of only using the heroin and not eating or drinking.
The most profound realization made by Alexander was about the rat’s cage. It was not part of the rat’s natural environment. He wondered: what if it’s not the heroin causing the addiction, but the rat’s environment?
Alexander modified the experiment and created a large enclosure—allowing the rats to be together with other rats—and added entertainment: treadmills, balls, tunnels, and other rat toys. He called this Rat Park.
Alexander and others ran this experiment for several years and their observations were astounding. In Rat Park, although the rats still had an unlimited supply of heroin, they rarely used it and never used it habitually. What’s more interesting is that many scientists have run this experiment using only a cage, food, and water—using NO heroin or drug—and the rats still develop addictive behaviors.
Based on Alexander’s research, many people were surprised to learn that it wasn’t the heroin that led to the rat’s addiction, but it was the cage: it was isolation.
God created us for connection—not to live in isolation, but to live in community.
Two people are better off than one, for they can help each other succeed. If one person falls, the other can reach out and help. But someone who falls alone is in real trouble. Likewise, two people lying close together can keep each other warm. But how can one be warm alone? A person standing alone can be attacked and defeated, but two can stand back-to-back and conquer. Three are even better, for a triple-braided cord is not easily broken.Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 NLT
This is why community is so important to the healing process. We can’t do this on our own—caged by our pain, shame, and brokenness. We need others.
At Pure Desire, lasting hope and freedom comes from doing the work with others—walking out our healing with a safe, grace-filled group of men and women who know exactly what we’re going through. We don’t have to feel isolated and alone.
Here’s the truth:
The opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection.
We were never intended to live this life on our own. We need others—we need connection. We need encouragement from others and, at times, we need to be a source of encouragement to others.
If someone you love is struggling, and you’re beginning to notice a few warning signs, reach out for help. Contact the Pure Desire Clinical team, a mental health professional in your area, or a pastor or staff member at your church.
We all need connection, especially when we’re struggling with addictive behaviors, loneliness, and depression (any or all of the above). Don’t let fear keep you stuck in isolation.
While it may feel shameful or embarrassing to ask for help, we need to be brave. We need to reach out to a trusted friend, someone in our Pure Desire group, or a mental health professional.
Don’t be afraid. Take a courageous step toward healing today.
1. Cigna (2018). New Cigna Study Reveals Loneliness at Epidemic Levels in America.
2. Doyle, B. (2015). Experiencing and Overcoming Loneliness with Addictions. HealthyPlace.
3. Roberts, B. & Kolb, H. (2018). Digital Natives: Raising An Online Generation. Gresham, OR: Pure Desire Ministeries International. 142.
Heather is the Content Manager and Neuroscience Professional on staff at Pure Desire. She has a Bachelor's in Psychology and a Master's Degree in Criminal Behavior. Heather worked several years as a college professor prior to joining Pure Desire. She is an integral part of our speaking team and is the co-author of Digital Natives: Raising an Online Generation.