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Science Suggests Loneliness Is Tied To Addiction — These Kansas City Moms Work To Recover From Both

Alex Smith
KCUR 89.3
Nicole, a mother in recovery at Kansas City's Healing House, celebrates her son's first birthday. She is working to regain custody of the boy.

As the United States struggled with a crisis of addiction to opioids and other drugs over the past few years, scientists began to learn how addiction and loneliness can feed one another.

That was true for the Kansas City women in recovery whose stories support researchers’ findings about how loneliness and addiction work together to create a downward spiral.

“It isolated me from my family,” Monica says of her addiction. “They did not want to be bothered with me because of my behaviors. It caused me to lose good friends.”

Monica and another mother named Nicole (KCUR agreed to use only their first names to protect their anonymity) live at Healing House Inc., a live-in recovery program in northeast Kansas City, Missouri, where dozens of people are recovering from drug and alcohol abuse.

Their stories illustrate recent findings by Stanford neuroscience researcher Anne-Pascale Le Berre, who has been studying how people who are in recovery, and people who are heavily using alcohol, can be impaired in basic social abilities. Other researchers, primarily in Europe, have investigated similar effects among drug users.

Monica says that when she was growing up in Kansas City, her mother was regularly drunk or high on drugs, and this put a huge strain on their relationship.

“It was a lot of abuse in the home,” Monica says. “A lot of neglect, because, of course, I wasn’t getting the time that I thought I should be getting, as her being my mother.”

As a teenager she ran away from home, then started using PCP and later, cocaine. Her substance abuse led to legal problems, but now she is hoping for a fresh start for herself and for her relationship with her own kids, who are in state custody.

When addiction pushes people away

Sustaining that fresh start can be especially hard for parents, including many at Healing House, who have lost custody of their children and are now working to get them back.

“For people who’ve experienced trauma, they may not have the same ability to cope with stress in the future that other people have,” says Carl Lejuez, a University of Kansas psychology researcher who is interim provost and executive vice chancellor of KU.

Though Lejuez was not involved in the recent studies of drugs and alcohol and social impairment, he says many young people begin using drugs or alcohol as ways of dealing with isolation and loneliness.

And once addiction has taken hold of someone’s life, it can push other people even further away. Researchers have found that people who use alcohol heavily or who take drugs such as opioids can show reduced empathy and ability to recognize other people's emotions.

“For example, a person with alcohol use disorder can misperceive facial expression, emotion, on the face, and can misunderstand that (to be) an aggression,” LeBerre explains.

And stimulant drugs such as meth or cocaine can make people more aggressive.

LeBerre's research and that of others exploring this topic focuses primarily on individuals and test groups, but LeBerre says the findings could have broad implications as many communities grapple with widespread substance abuse and loneliness.

Credit Alex Smith / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
On Friday evenings at Healing House, people in recovery and their family members celebrate milestones of sobriety.

Nicole, the other mother in recovery at Healing House, has struggled with alcohol and meth. She was a stay-at-home mom, but her substance abuse still prevented her from having a healthy relationship with her children.

“Even though I still got up every day, and I still took care of my kids, and I still cook them breakfast, lunch and dinner and put them to bed at night, I still wasn’t getting down on their level and nurturing them the way that I really, truly should have been doing,” Nicole says.

Getting sober is a step in the right direction, but it doesn’t solve everything. For many people whose brains are craving the high of a drug or alcohol, it’s hard to enjoy a celebration — or much of anything.

“Some of the people I’ve worked with would say they’ve lost the ability to taste food,” Lejuez says. “They’ve lost the ability to see beauty in art. And you can imagine, when you’re first quitting, at least for a period of time, nothing else feels good.”

People in recovery do learn to enjoy things and regain social abilities that they may have lost during substance abuse — although this can take time, especially for cocaine users, whose brains may take many months to recover.

However, LeBerre says, for many people, having strong relationships is key to staying sober in the long run.

“You need to have connections with your family,” LeBerre says. “You need to have connections with your friends, be a part of a community. It helps you on an emotional level. It help you on a brain level too.”

Nicole says she’s eager to return to her family life and close connections with her children.

In November, Nicole celebrated the first birthday of her youngest son in the Healing House dining hall. He visited with an escort from the state.

Nicole and her friends from Healing House sang him "Happy Birthday," helped him unwrap gifts and shared cake.

She says now that she’s sober and rebuilding her life, the connection with her children is coming back as well.

“I feel like the motherly thing is all natural,” Nicole says. “It was just distorted by what was going on in my life.”

Monica, on the other hand, is taking slower approach to getting her kids back. She says she wants to spend more time working on sobriety to make sure she’s ready to be a good mother.

“I am doing this for myself so that I can be good for them,” Monica says. “Because if I’m not good for myself, I’m no good for anyone.”

Alex Smith is a health reporter for KCUR. You can reach him by email at alexs@kcur.org.

As a health care reporter, I aim to empower my audience to take steps to improve health care and make informed decisions as consumers and voters. I tell human stories augmented with research and data to explain how our health care system works and sometimes fails us. Email me at alexs@kcur.org.
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