Human beings are social creatures. Our closest animal counterparts by behavior are apes and group predators like wolves, both heavily interdependent societal animals. We grow up by learning from our parents and peers, form close-knit, more-or-less permanent family groups, and make deep, satisfying, long-lasting friendships.
Addiction and other mental disorders disturb and endanger our relationships, leaving many with problems feeling completely alone. Mental health problems are threatening not just to the sufferer but to friends and family as well. Some people notice the problems immediately and begin to drift away, for others it will take time – as they watch a friend slowly falling to pieces despite all the support they offer, they will feel powerless to salvage the relationship. Being abandoned in this way leaves the addicted or mentally ill feeling resentment and shame, powerful triggering emotions for further self-destructive behavior, causing a cycle of anger, indignity, and loneliness.
Family relationships give us a sense of the past and where we came from. Friendships keep us interested and focused on the present. Romance gives hope for the future. Working relationships help us to feel like productive members of a society. Without the contextual ties from these different relationships, already unstable individuals are cast adrift, unable to find their place in the world or to connect with a larger society. Loneliness is dangerous not just because it is unpleasant and unhealthy in itself, but because it leads to a feeling of emptiness, of living a life without meaning. There are certainly individuals who can live life alone and still feel okay with themselves, but for myself, and I suspect for most people, being without important relationships kills all sense of self.
Some relationships are worse than loneliness. Toxic, unhealthy relationships consist of one person taking advantage of another, and the abuser suffers as well as the victim. Both feel worthless and afraid of what will happen if they lose the other. Those stuck in these kinds of relationships will feel lost and without a sense of self as much as if they were completely alone; they will often withdraw from other social ties with friends and family and end up devoting all their energy and time to the twisted relationship that consumes them. Being in an abusive relationship is very similar to being completely alone.
Loneliness reinforces the feelings that lead to debilitating mental health problems, which in turn cause strain on relationships, friendships, and family ties, reinforcing the loneliness. It’s a brutal cycle that makes it so difficult for people with problems to seek help. This is one of the advantages of treatments like group therapy and AA. They are social in nature and help provide the ties and connections that, in addition to individual reflection, are necessary to recover from mental illness.
Rebuilding ties once you lose them can be difficult, provoking anxiety and shame. It’s best to start in a safe environment, one where each individual has their own struggles and where external judgment is not an issue. It takes dedication and a willingness to suffer through pain to build relationships from a place of deep depression and loneliness, but the rewards are stability and a sense of internal strength.