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5 practices I learned from 12-step programs that can help ease loneliness

As the pandemic rages on and loneliness becomes increasingly widespread, these simple practices can help.

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At an online 12-step meeting recently, I heard a former whisky drinker compare Zoom meetings to boxed wine — it’s not anyone’s top pick, but it gets the job done.

Right now, attending 12-step meetings over Zoom is helping me maintain some semblance of sanity and perspective. I’m working full-time from home and taking care of two boys under five while my husband is on disability recovering from a traumatic brain injury. It’s a lot. 

Hearing other people share at meetings reminds me that I’m not alone in my struggle. But so many others are. 

Even before the coronavirus pandemic exacerbated the problem, research from Cigna revealed that 61 percent of Americans say they’re lonely and 58 percent say they always or sometimes feel like no one knows them well. This kind of disconnection is linked to depression and anxiety, which often fuel substance use disorders. 

In 1953, Bill Wilson — the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous — wrote that “almost without exception, alcoholics are tortured by loneliness.” He goes on to say that, once sober, the “old pangs of anxious apartness” must be addressed. 

Here are five ways that 12-step programs eased my loneliness — and can help you, too. 

1. Find a way to share honestly in a group.

I first went to therapy in college, prompted by exhaustion from a years-long struggle with an eating disorder. The therapist gave me some helpful insights, but I always left her office feeling more “terminally unique” than before. 

I didn’t hear that phrase until 13 years later, when I attended my first 12-step meeting. I still remember that room like it was yesterday — the peach walls, framed slogans and mismatched wooden chairs. The little eruptions of laughter sprinkled throughout the leader’s share, letting you know when someone relates. 

Turns out feeling “terminally unique” is a defining characteristic of people who struggle with addiction. As my friend Tommy says, “I felt like I was the only person broken until I started coming to meetings and heard my story come out of everyone else’s mouth.”

Each meeting has a format, rotating roles and responsibility, and some basic rules that help to create a safe space. Like no advice-giving or commenting directly on another person’s share, and understanding the importance of anonymity: “Who you see here, what you hear here, let it stay here.”

If I hadn’t continued attending meetings regularly over the past 10 years, I’m pretty sure I would have convinced myself that — despite all my failed attempts — I could drink and use in moderation. But fear isn’t my reason for continuing to go. Hearing what other people share stills my thoughts and brings me into the present moment. That hit of honesty and that vibration of connection are what I’ve come to crave. 

The pandemic is a perfect time to start a weekly sharing circle over Zoom. There are tons of 12-step meeting formats online you can pull from to create something of your own. Start small. You’ll be giving the people you invite a gift, too. 

2. Look for similarities to bridge differences.

I spent the first 10 years of my career in market research, managing focus groups and online studies aimed at helping large companies understand how to maximize sales. I became skilled at identifying differences, segmenting audiences and creating personas to inform product development and ad campaigns. 

When my first sponsor told me to “look for the similarities instead of the differences,” I thought it was so profound that I posted it as my Facebook status — not realizing I was outing myself as a 12-step program member in doing so. 

Over the years, following this advice has helped me get beyond initial stereotypes and snap judgments to find common ground. It’s allowed me to build friendships with people I share little in common with on the surface. 

Like Conny, my 90-year-old friend who danced until 11pm at my wedding. Before the pandemic, my 4-year-old son would run into her arms whenever she came over for a visit. And Nena, who tells the best stories and always finds a way to make me laugh. She got sober after being arrested for possession of narcotics while living on Skid Row in Los Angeles. My life is richer for having them in it. 

Where can you connect with people of different ages and backgrounds? Perhaps it’s a faith-based community, or an advocacy group working on an issue you care about — like racial justice or common sense gun reform. Or maybe it’s a creative class. Be intentional about mixing it up, and then practice looking for the similarities.  

3. Pick someone safe to help you practice emotional intimacy.

Throughout my life, people have complimented my authenticity. But before sobriety, there was a selfishness and sloppiness to my honesty — less about building intimacy than my hunger for connection, validation or some kind of release. 

I used to scatter my truth across a wide audience, often sharing my darkest secrets with people I could easily avoid or may never see again. I once bummed a smoke off a guy outside a bar and proceeded to recite a poem I’d written about losing my virginity. 

But telling one person everything and continuing to show up for that relationship? That was new. One day, after reading my sponsor my entire fifth step — listing out my resentments and fears and identifying my part in their creation — I half jokingly said, “Okay cool, so thanks and I’ll never see you again.” 

But I kept calling her and allowing myself to be seen. And, unlike a family member or old friend, I didn’t worry about her taking anything I shared personally. The agreement was clearly stated — it was about sharing experience, strength and hope. And giving away what had been freely given. 

Who can you practice emotional intimacy with? Maybe now is the time to begin working with a therapist, coach or couples counselor. An online sharing circle can be another safe place to start. If you’re feeling lonely around the people you love, it’s time to take action. 

4. Build a community of support.

I’ve always been wary of gurus, or anyone who’s “spiritual” with a following. Their egos always seem to get the best of them eventually, and perhaps my ego doesn’t want to be associated with their downfall. I like that in 12-step programs there is no hierarchy. Everyone is equal and, luckily, we aren’t all crazy on the same day. 

The women I’ve met in recovery are largely responsible for teaching me how to become an adult. They help me navigate complicated relationships and situations with something resembling grace. When my husband and I are in an argument, they don’t respond to my complaints by saying, “What a jerk!” Instead, they listen carefully and make suggestions for how I might be able to shift my perspective or make amends for any harm I’ve caused. 

Having friends you can rely on is encouraged in 12-step programs — in large part because isolation and self-reliance have failed us too often. It takes practice to move from relying only on yourself to leaning on others when you need help.

Who can you trust to show up or pick up the phone? To be honest with you and encourage self-reflection, and not just say whatever they think you want to hear? Call those people more. Be there for them. Invest in those relationships.  

5. Find a sense of purpose in helping others.

Shortly before getting sober, I quit my job at Yahoo! and began working toward my MBA at a hippie program in San Francisco dedicated to sustainability. I felt empty and craved a deeper sense of purpose. 

Little did I know that I’d eventually find that purpose in 12-step programs, where there are plenty of opportunities to be of service — greeting people at meetings, sponsoring others, sharing how I overcame a struggle, volunteering to speak at jails or rehab centers, reaching out to newcomers, or simply answering the phone when someone calls. 

All of these small acts get me out of myself, build self-esteem and work against the kind of self-centeredness that creates separation. 

Having a bad day? Call someone and ask how they’re doing. Feeling sorry for yourself? Find a new volunteer opportunity. You may not want to do it in the moment, but — bit by bit — it helps. 

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