Loneliness in Recovery

“I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure in the landscape — the loneliness of it — the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it; the whole story doesn’t show.” Andrew Wyeth; 1945, Washington Post; American Painter

Recently, I pulled together a few thoughts and resources for my dear friend John D, who was at the time experiencing a state of loneliness, a separation from the the recovery fellowship even while he was enjoying the first peak of what is certain to be a mountain range of career successes. While I was writing, I realized that many of us struggle with the same thing: the crushing sense of isolation that so often accompanies a period of new growth.

Perhaps those ideas have a wider audience. Here are my recollections, memories of how I’ve wrestled with loneliness — both in and out of the Rooms — collected and annotated.

It is my prayer that all who consider such things reach out to their neighbors — near or far.

Loneliness in recovery, though a frequent event, is never a requirement.

The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, peculiar to myself and to a few other solitary men, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence. – Tom Wolfe

Almost without exception, alcoholics are tortured by loneliness.
Even before our drinking got bad and people began to cut us off, nearly all of us suffered the feeling that we didn’t quite belong. Either we were shy, and dared not draw near others, or we were apt to be noisy good fellows craving attention and companion- ship, but never getting it—at least to our way of thinking. There was always that mysterious barrier we could neither surmount nor understand. It was as if we were actors on a stage, suddenly realizing that we did not know a single line of our parts. That’s one reason we loved alcohol too well. It did let us act extemporaneously. But even Bacchus boomeranged on us; we were finally struck down and left in terrified loneliness.

(12/12, 57)

While reading Bill’s story in the Big Book or listening to speaker tapes, we often discount how universal the phenomenon of feeling different, alone, unique in our pain, separate and isolated really is. Here’s the same tale, told by a man who never had the resources we enjoy today:

“I have absolutely no pleasure in the stimulants in which I sometimes so madly indulge. It has not been in the pursuit of pleasure that I have periled life and reputation and reason. It has been the desperate attempt to escape from torturing memories, from a sense of insupportable loneliness and a dread of some strange impending doom.”
―Edgar Allen Poe

Sounds familiar, right?

AA and NA’s immediate solution for the new member experiencing such painful loneliness is active participation with the group.

Life will take on new meaning. To watch people recover, to see them help others, to watch loneliness vanish, to see a fellowship grow up about you, to have a host of friends—this is an experience you must not miss. We know you will not want to miss it. Frequent contact with newcomers and with each other is the bright spot of our lives.

(BB, 89)

What should young people do with their lives today? Many things, obviously. But the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured. — Kurt Vonnegut

We have shown how we got out from under. You say, “Yes, I’m willing. But am I to be consigned to a life where I shall be stupid, boring and glum, like some righteous people I see? I know I must get along without liquor, but how can I? Have you a sufficient substitute?”

Yes, there is a substitute and it is vastly more than that.  It is a fellowship in Alcoholics Anonymous. There you will find release from care, boredom and worry. Your imagination will be fired. Life will mean something at last.

The most satisfactory years of your existence lie ahead. Thus we find the fellowship, and so will you.

(BB, 151-152)

But it is not only drinking that causes loneliness or is caused BY loneliness. “Success” in the recovery fellowship can be just as great a factor. When we attain a sort of superior recovery to our fellows, when we are doing it better, when we pride ourselves on how very authentic and “like the founders” our step work is, when we look upon the other mere mortals who are trying to work the program with pity or disdain or with “friendly advice to correct the crap your sponsor told you…” We are setting ourselves apart.

Arrogance is a great divider.


Sometimes, though, it is not pride separating me from my fellows, but growth.

This is inevitable, for someone with ten years has a very different experience of going to an AA or NA meeting than someone with two. It is inevitable for not all of us have an equal devotion to sobriety; not possessing the same drive, the same level of willingness, we find our former recovery buddies hanging out playing poker when we’d like to talk about the challenge with a sponsee.

We are set apart by how hard we are trying to grow spiritually or how many people we are helping/sponsoring or how much service we are providing. We don’t wish to be set apart — others do the separating for us.

This is an uncomfortable truth.

Kathy S, a woman with 42 years told me:

No one asks me out for coffee anymore. No one invites me over for game nights or movie marathons or just to sit and chat. It’s as if I’ve been relegated to the position of ancient fount of wisdom, only approached during dire need, left behind as quickly as possible.

I hate it and don’t know what to do to change their attitudes.

For the first time since I got sober, I’m lonely.

This is not ONLY a phenomenon that occurs in AA.

“My loneliness was born when men praised my talkative faults and blamed my silent virtues.”  ―Kahlil Gibran, Sand and Foam

It needn’t happen.

We can reach out to our elder statesmen, recognizing that their many years sober doesn’t equate to them no longer requiring human contact, love, or support. After all, our primary purpose is to reach out to the alcoholic/addict who is still suffering (not necessarily the alcoholic/addict who is brand new).

James Park, in his remarkable work  Interpersonal Loneliness & Spiritual Loneliness wrote that:

Loneliness is an aching void in the center of our being,
a deep longing to love and to be loved,
to be fully known and accepted by at least one other person.
It is a hollow, haunting sound sweeping thru our depths,
chilling our bones and causing us to shiver.

Is there a person who has never felt the stab of loneliness,
who has never known the eerie distance of isolation and separation,
who has never suffered the pain of rejection or the loss of love?

But another kind of ‘loneliness’ is deeper than love.
Spiritual loneliness is not longing for a specific person
or the general urge to have more contact with others.
Rather, it is an incompleteness of being, an emptiness,
which we mistakenly believe can be overcome by better relationships.
Being together with other people—even people we love intensely—
does not overcome this deep incompleteness in our beings.

 Interpersonal Loneliness & Spiritual Loneliness By James Park

It is exactly this brand of Spiritual Loneliness that Bill W addresses so beautifully in his treatment of the twelfth step:

After we come into A.A., if we go on growing, our attitudes and actions toward security—emotional security and financial security—commence to change profoundly. Our demand for emotional security, for our own way, had constantly thrown us into unworkable relations with other people. Though we were sometimes quite unconscious of this, the result always had been the same. Either we had tried to play God and dominate those about us, or we had insisted on being overdependent upon them. Where people had temporarily let us run their lives as though they were still children, we had felt very happy and secure ourselves. But when they finally resisted or ran away, we were bitterly hurt and disappointed. We blamed them, being quite unable to see that our unreasonable demands had been the cause.

When we had taken the opposite tack and had insisted, like infants ourselves, that people protect and take care of us or that the world owed us a living, then the result had been equally unfortunate. This often caused the people we had loved most to push us aside or perhaps desert us entirely. Our disillusionment had been hard to bear. We couldn’t imagine people acting that way toward us. We had failed to see that though adult in years we were still behaving childishly, trying to turn everybody—friends, wives, husbands, even the world itself—into protective parents. We had refused to learn the very hard lesson that overdependence upon people is unsuccessful because all people are fallible, and even the best of them will sometimes let us down, especially when our demands for attention become unreasonable.

As we made spiritual progress, we saw through these fallacies.

It became clear that if we ever were to feel emotionally secure among grown-up people, we would have to put our lives on a give-and-take basis; we would have to develop the sense of being in partnership or brotherhood with all those around us. We saw that we would need to give constantly of ourselves without demands for repayment. When we persistently did this we gradually found that people were attracted to us as never before. And even if they failed us, we could be understanding and not too seriously affected.

(12/12, 115)

“Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.” ― Arthur C. Clarke

It is THIS IDEA, that our dependence and emotional stability comes from a right relationship with a God of our understanding (or non-understanding as the case may be)… This is the bedrock of further development, further growth, of a diminished sense of being isolated, different, “alone at the top.”

When we developed still more, we discovered the best possible source of emotional stability to be God Himself. We found that dependence upon His perfect justice, forgive- ness, and love was healthy, and that it would work where nothing else would. If we really depended upon God, we couldn’t very well play God to our fellows nor would we feel the urge wholly to rely on human protection and care. These were the new attitudes that finally brought many of us an inner strength and peace that could not be deeply shaken by the shortcomings of others or by any calamity not of our own making.

This new outlook was, we learned, something especially necessary to us alcoholics. For alcoholism had been a lonely business, even though we had been surrounded by people who loved us. But when self-will had driven ev- erybody away and our isolation had become complete, it caused us to play the big shot in cheap barrooms and then fare forth alone on the street to depend upon the charity of passersby. We were still trying to find emotional security by being dominating or dependent upon others. Even when our fortunes had not ebbed that much and we nevertheless found ourselves alone in the world, we still vainly tried to be secure by some unhealthy kind of domination or dependence. For those of us who were like that, A.A. had a very special meaning. Through it we begin to learn right relations with people who understand us; we don’t have to be alone any more.

(12/12, 116)

 But please, please, please notice this: our connection with the fellowship of recovering and recovered is absolutely CENTRAL to our way of living, regardless of circumstances or time clean or numbers of professional successes.

And what can be said of many A.A. members who, for a variety of reasons, cannot have a family life? At first many of these feel lonely, hurt, and left out as they wit- ness so much domestic happiness about them. If they cannot have this kind of happiness, can A.A. offer them satisfactions of similar worth and durability? Yes—when- ever they try hard to seek them out. Surrounded by so many A.A. friends, these so-called loners tell us they no longer feel alone. In partnership with others—women and men—they can devote themselves to any number of ideas, people, and constructive projects. Free of marital responsibilities, they can participate in enterprises which would be denied to family men and women. We daily see such members render prodigies of service, and receive great joys in return.

(12/12, 120)

At the end, we see that loneliness is not a bogeyman, not a monster, not a demon stealing into our rooms at night. Often it is a choice. A poor choice, but still a choice.

A final thought: Solitude is the decision to withdraw for a time for a period of intensive spiritual development. This is NEVER the same thing as isolating and must be carefully distinguished, otherwise we may never engage in one of the richest activities available to us.

Language… has created the word ‘loneliness’ to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word ‘solitude’ to express the glory of being alone. — Paul Tillich

Yet it is in this loneliness that the deepest activities begin. It is here that you discover act without motion, labor that is profound repose, vision in obscurity, and, beyond all desire, a fulfillment whose limits extend to infinity. –Thomas Merton

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s