Isolated and Intoxicated – How lonely societies are turning us into addicts.

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Cw: drug use 

Dan Sumison (he/him)

Study communities with fatally high rates of drug and alcohol addiction and a common theme can be found running through them – an extraordinary experience of dislocation. When people experience the trauma of being torn from their land, work, or purpose, they are left with an unbearable grief for a better time. Towns north of the Scottish border, deteriorated through brutal 1980s deindustrialisation and a shattering of their communities, are now home to the country’s soaring drug deaths – currently at record levels. As rural England witnesses the death of its economic relevance to Britain’s future, city kids run county lines to sell heroin anaesthetic to lonely villages and people in pain. Studies show displaced Native Americans use meth on a disproportionate scale; smoking a bag of crystals can provide an antidote to the intolerable pain of being stripped of your land, language, and culture.

Now, study society and you will observe the same trends – of dislocation, isolation and chronic communal pain. The (unfortunately) conservative sociologist Robert Nisbet wrote: ‘surely the outstanding spectre of contemporary thought on man and society is the preoccupation with personal alienation and cultural disintegration’. As a society we are the loneliest we’ve ever been – increasingly cut off, we are unfulfilled and unhappy. Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, published in 2000, observed the decline in people bowling in groups and leagues at the turn of the century as evidence of the collapse of the American community. The title foreshadowed the beginning of a lonely two decades. Our societies are racked with unhappy children and disillusioned parents; the UK scores as the industrialised country which spends the least time ‘just talking’ to their kids. As a man under the age of 45, the most likely thing to kill me? Me. This is not normal – and it can be different.

The dislocation is clear. So, where can we find our societal dependencies? First, there are good, old-fashioned, proper drugs; the land of the free seems increasingly the land of the medicated. Two-thirds of Americans use prescription drugs. In 2019, nearly 50,000 people (many materially successful and financially comfortable) in the United States died from opioid-involved overdoses. Doctors prescribe opiates to treat back pain – a nation consumes them to numb a chronic unhappiness. If American Beauty’s Lester Burnham was having his 1999 mid-life crisis now, he wouldn’t be flipping burgers and pursuing sexual fantasies – he’d be killing himself on heroin. 

A second addiction is clearer to see – our dopamine addiction. Isolated from one another we manically buy and consume goods we don’t want, don’t need, and which keep us in a state of chronic unhappiness. We do this to satisfy a limited set of material needs to fill the hole where deep, emotional needs are missing. The concept of consuming less distresses us. Capitalism drives our addiction, consistently generating the means to produce new goods for us to consume. Its drive for short-term profit feeds our demand for short-term satisfaction. As a dopamine dealer, Capitalism makes El-Chapo look like small fry. 

We carry this belief that little can be done to change our existing environment. When we question whether things can be different, the rules of capitalism are drilled back into us. Ideas about a 4 day week or Universal Basic Income are discounted: their impact on the country’s ‘economic productivity’ being cited as too great a risk. This ‘economic productivity’ it seems is routinely valued above our right to a healthy and content life. We could get rid of mass advertising – which makes us unhappy – if only we decided that human contentment would be socially valued above our GDP growth. 

Writer Mark Fisher used to talk about a feeling students had that ‘something is missing’. The feeling is married to one of dejected apathy about their incapacity to do anything about the system they’re in. But understanding this feeling doesn’t make it go away: instead, we medicate, to unmiss the missing. Quest for Community was a remarkably prescient 1950s book about Western cultural decline; that quest for community ought also to be the mission of states which want to have strong, confident and healthy societies in the next decade. Through a revival of community and connection we can reassess what values are important to us as a society. Human association, civic participation and expressing moments of deep emotional connection all underpin successful and content societies. Our current system, starving ourselves of our emotional needs and in their place manically consuming any substance which fails to truly address them, creates a fractured and angry society that will struggle to move forward. Unless we have conversations about a different way of living, about what systems and structures need to be radically altered, we will be stuck in a system which serves to make us chronically unhappy.

In 2001, American rock band The Strokes released their hit album Is This It?. The question posed seems to be the one confused and frustrated people across the West are asking themselves whilst finishing off their week’s prescription of Oxycontin, in their empty kitchens, after a day of their comatose 9 to 5. The answer: not unless we allow it to be. 


Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam

Scotland Excess Mortality Report

The Problem of Drug Misuse in Rural Counties of England

National Institute of Drug Abuse on Opiods

The Quest for Community, Robert Nisbet

Why are British children so unhappy, The Guardian

Suicide is the single biggest killer of men under 45 website

Chasing the Scream, book by Johann Hari

County Lines drugs, where do they go?


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