Right now, probably more than ever, we are acutely aware of the human need for social capital and connection. The amount we currently have in our lives might be a good indicator for how well each and every one of us is dealing with our current state of affairs. Never in the course of our lifetime has it been harder to nourish our social needs, so it should come as no surprise that according to data from BACtrack, a portable breathalyzer maker, people are drinking considerably more since before the pandemic. I didn’t need a study to tell me this. A scroll through my timeline and a stroll through my neighborhood peeping the neighbors recycling bins told a pretty good story.
Who can blame anybody for wanting to take the edge off right now?
Alcohol is so ingrained in our culture that it resides in everything we do from sporting events, family gatherings and even religious ceremonies. It can be hard to escape and sometimes when you’re looking to cut down or take a break from the sauce, it can be pretty tough. So, I’m here to tell you have you can change the level of exposure you have and breeze through your new booze-free life with relative ease.
Short of expensive high-end rehab facilities, dry desert islands and certain oppressive regimes, your exposure to alcohol can only be controlled so much. This was one the final epiphanies I received when I was nearing the end of my drinking career. Working as a DJ, often times booze is included as part of your gig.
Early on this could be a deciding factor in whether or not to even take a job and I can remember turning down a couple opportunities because there wasn’t a bar tab or a no drinking policy. I mean, come on! Clearly you run the type of establishment that is not concerned with how much fun I should be having. Therefore, I am no longer interested in doing business with you. Good day, sir!
I contemplated changing careers a few times and did a bit of research. What I found was that I was pretty lucky to have turned one of my passions into a career and that I wasn’t quite ready to make the leap into something else I wasn’t sure I’d like for less money. Whether I was working in a club, or corporate event, there was going to be alcohol. As well, I spent some time working in recording studios, and do you think artists like the hooch? Well, of course we do. I can remember being in recording school and the first artist we recorded was a blues musician, and as I mic’d him up he pulled out a flask and took a swig.
“Improves my tone. Gives me that whiskey voice.” He said.
Indeed. He really crushed those vocals.
In some extreme cases completely removing the person from regular society is the only thing that will reboot their system and allow them to live a normal life. These rehab facilities usually suggest their patients to stay for a year, and I know a few people that have managed to stay sober for over ten years (and counting) by going this route. Whatever it takes man, and whether you quit on your own, through a support group, psychotherapy, AA or some rehab facility, it doesn’t matter. Nobody cares what therapy made you better they just care that you ARE better.
I haven’t had a sip of alcohol in over six years. In those half dozen years, I’ve performed at over 1200 events. Do you want to know how many of them were NOT serving alcohol?
I managed to get here coming from a place of absolute desperation. I had been trying to quit or cut down for years, but always ended up in the same place feeling stuck and eventually acquiescing to it just being a part of the job. Until I quit this life I might as well enjoy it. If and when I get into something else, then everything will be much better.
Years previously, I did just that, and still managed to work some DJ gigs while I worked a 9 to 5 office job at a production company. Unfortunately, I became painfully aware of the seriousness of my condition when put in an environment that was alcohol-free. I never was a daily drinker, I much preferred to white-knuckle it through the week and make up for lost time as soon as the clock hit 5pm on Friday. I’d grab a case on the way home and get ready for some weekend raging.
The plan was always to have fun Friday and Saturday and then cool the jets on Sunday as I prepared for work on Monday. Unfortunately, over time this became harder and harder to do. I often broke the Sunday rule and found myself staring at the alarm clock wishing time would stop. Mondays were hell and that job didn’t last.
It was my first real bottom and where I really felt the profound impact of depression exasperated by addiction. Looking back, I can see another factor in our lives that often lead many people to mental health challenges and self-medication.
Lack of connection.
Moving into that apartment in Vancouver’s West End was first time I had lived on my own. No girlfriend or roommates, just me, my turntables and a head full of thoughts. I had just left my regular DJ gig to try out something a bit different, only to have the work be so sporadic that I couldn’t afford to stay at it. My last relationship had ended horribly and fractured my social circle, so I essentially found myself with not a whole lot of connection in any part of my life. Gigs were all over the place, so I failed to make any lasting connections when I was working.
According to former Surgeon General of the United States, Vivek Murphy, “loneliness is often one of the root contributors to substance abuse and addiction.” In his book Together: The Healing Power of Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World, he points out how researchers have identified 3 dimensions of social connection that are necessary for humans to thrive.
1) Intimate & Emotional
2) Relational & Social
3) Collective & Community
This can explain why some people in healthy marriages (Intimate & Emotional) can sometimes feel incredibly lonely when they are lacking friendships (Relational & Social) or belonging to a collective like those found in sporting communities, shared hobbies or religious affiliations (Collective & Community). And vice versa if you have community connections and a decent social circle, but no spouse, family or close friends you can confide in (Intimate & Emotional).
Now, when I look back, I realize there was a point where things started to turn around. I gave up drinking for a bit and was hit with a huge burst of creative energy that culminated in an idea and concept for a music project. Around the same time one of my friends from the Vancouver hip hop scene, who I had collaborated with a number of times, moved into the area with his girlfriend just around the corner. We would often meet up after working at different nightclubs around town and regale highlights from our evenings. Then we would brainstorm ideas for this new concept and laugh about the absurdity of an interplanetary militarized hip hop duo that hunted aliens. While we were acquaintances who shared a love of the same kind of music before, after that summer we were homeboys and are still good friends to this day.
That brought me out of my funk at that time and I believe that is one of the keys to anybody’s addiction recovery. You need to connect. Programs of recovery are already fashioned to address this core issue. So is your work family. So are sports teams. So are bands. There’s a reason why these different organizations exist and provide a great benefit to their members. Community, support and connection are things we as humans all need and if you can find more ways to incorporate these into your life, chances are the happier you will be and the more likely you will be able to stay sober.
You need to find your tribe.
One great resource for exploring this further is the Sebastian Junger book of the same name. Here you will find real life examples from Native Americans and War Veterans. Being a combat journalist, Mr. Junger has first-hand experience and paints a compelling picture on the importance of human connection. This is why veterans often feel compelled to redeploy and why war-time survivors will look back on those times fondly because the intimacy and community they experienced in those situations that are now lacking in their current lives.
I was recently watching comedian Gary Gulman’s latest stand-up special, The Great Depresh, and he said something that really hit home. He talks openly and hilariously about his debilitating depression and how it landed him in a psychiatric hospital for several weeks. He realized that sometimes he didn’t want to leave the house but found that when he did and ran errands that had him interacting with other humans, he would feel better. These small little social situations provided small little hits that topped up his feel-good chemicals.
Social connection has well-documented health benefits. According to Psychology Today, social connection decreases depression and anxiety, strengthens the immune system, and helps fight disease. Further, those with higher levels of connection experience increased empathy, higher self-esteem and are subsequently deemed more trustworthy. In turn, people are more likely to confide in these people creating a healthy social feedback loop.
“Humans, because of necessity, evolved into social beings. Dependence on and connection with each other enhanced our ability to survive under harsh environmental circumstances… In our advanced digital age, one of the prevalent concerns regarding the increasing emergence of loneliness is how we have become less caring of others. At one time, our very survival depended on trusting and supportive relationships. Fundamentally, it doesn’t matter how technologically sophisticated we become; emotional connectivity remains a core part of being human. We need each other — maybe not in the ways that characterized us evolutionarily, but for a need that remains essential for psychological survival.” — Psychology Today
In the UK, programs have been implemented to address the issues of loneliness in its population, especially amongst the elderly. The Campaign to End Loneliness aims at addressing the estimated 9 million people within the country who consider themselves lonely by ensuring that:
- People most at risk of loneliness are reached and supported
- Services and activities are more effective at addressing loneliness
- A wider range of loneliness services and activities are developed
This campaign works with over 2500 different organizations to provide front line workers the appropriate knowledge and resources to help those who may be suffering from isolation and loneliness. It’s comforting to know in times like this that there are organizations tackling this core concept.
The Double-Edged Swords
All this talk about connection and its relation to alcohol recovery needs to address one of the reasons drinkers turn to alcohol in the first place.
There’s no doubt that booze is a social lubricant that helps people connect. This is what can make it so hard to stop. There is a certain comradery that comes with drinks out with some friends or while getting to know someone. Once I kicked the habit, I had no idea how to date without my trusty old friend alcohol. Starting the habit at 14 meant that I had learned all these social skills drink in hand. While I did get over the hump eventually after my first year without alcohol, it can still be difficult finding someone who matches your lifestyle.
The other double-edged sword in recovery would be social media. Why do people love it so much? You guessed it.
And just like how alcohol can grease the wheels of your social life, so can Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. Unfortunately, just like alcohol or any other drug you take to deal with the symptoms of what ails you, after a while these things can stop working and, in fact, start working against you. Numerous studies have shown the link between social media, depression, and anxiety. A good part of this can be summed up in the famous Theodore Roosevelt quote.
“Comparison is the thief of joy.”
I’m guilty of spending too much time on the platforms which I justify as a necessary promotional tool, but sometimes when I log off, I feel worse than when I started. It’s not the same as a face-to-face or a good phone conversation. There are things that are inherently inefficient about social media communication, like the inability to read body language or tone of voice, that make it a subpar form of connection. Not to mention all the platforms inclination to skew negatively, with people typing things they would never say to a person’s face. However, at times like this they do offer a sense of connection that if used in moderation can be a great way to stay in touch and plant the seed towards more fulfilling offline connections. They are great and powerful tools, but just like most things in life, too much can be a bad thing.
If you are struggling with addiction or feeling disconnected trust that you are not alone. People everywhere from all walks of life are going through the same thing and you can find some real peace by addressing this core concept. Unfortunately, if you’ve being digging yourself into a hole for a while, you may find that you have eroded away at some of your relationships. Be patient. Trust can take time to rebuild, but I can assure you by taking the proper steps you can thrive and develop an expanded social circle full of connection and support. While social distancing is currently the order of the day, it’s a good idea to be proactive and reach out to nourish the relationships we already have.
In light of the current global health crisis affecting us all, I feel it necessary to say a few additional words. I’ve sat on this piece for a while, waiting for the right time to publish (mid-March didn’t seem like a good time, go figure). Currently, it has never been more difficult to establish those important in-person connections that I’m advocating for in this piece. However, what I have noticed is that while I haven’t been seeing as many people socially, I have felt a deeper connection to those who I’m lucky enough to have in my inner circle through lengthy phone calls, conversations and reluctantly adopting FaceTime, Skype and Zoom. Quality over quantity seems to be the order of the day and once the dust settles just might be a silver lining. For now, I’ll take it.
JT James is a DJ, producer and writer based out of Vancouver, Canada.