Addiction recovery amidst coronavirus makes isolation is the breeding ground not just for loneliness but for depression and negative thoughts to take over like some evil dictator.
My roommate finally found toilet paper after weeks of searching and while he was walking home from CVS with 12 rolls in his hands, a homeless guy approached him and said, “You guys found toilet paper. Good job,” and gave him a thumbs up. My roommate, without skipping a beat, said, “Do you need some?” and the guy kind of shrugged yes. So my roommate tore open a package and handed him a roll. He is a normie, by the way. He doesn’t have a program that instructs him on how not to be a selfish asshole which makes the story all the more moving to me.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the type of behavior we’re seeing in general, but it should be. Instead, people are fighting over sanitizing wipes at Sprouts. A woman walked into Erewhon coughing and somebody threw a banana at her–an overpriced organic one I’m sure–and said “Get the fuck out of here.” There is widespread panic and a scarcity mentality which is leading to hoarding, paranoia, and an “every man for himself” mindset. Personally, I find it all really depressing and in a time when I need to feel more connected, I feel less.
I tweeted something about it and somebody mentioned modeling the behavior I wanted to see in others and that really struck me: Knowing people are scared and on edge, how can I cut them more slack, be more compassionate? Instead of being reactive, how can I be generous and loving toward people who are acting like dicks? As addicts and alcoholics, we know all too well how fear brings out the worst in people.
Ahh, fear. We are naturally fearful people so this pandemic can really ramp up our underlying anxiety. Personally, it has totally freaked me out. I have a shitty immune system anyway and am almost famous for always being sick… without some terrifying virus taking people out all over the world. On top of that, I have 82-year-old parents. One is wheelchair bound with a horrible flu (not COVID-19) and the other is just recovering from chemo. So yeah, I’m scared.
I hear program peeps being all “I choose to have faith and be positive. I’m not worried about it” while they do things that the CDC have warned us not to do. Ummm, okay, magical thinker. I’m all for being positive but let’s wash our fucking hands and not hang out in big groups. As the old Russian sailor proverb goes, “Pray to God, but row to shore.”
When we get clean and sober, two different mindsets seem to emerge. One is “we’re addicts and alcoholics. We’ve survived a killer disease. Nothing can take us down.” Those people are the ones who still push for live group meetings. “Recovery first!” they chant. “Fuck fear!” I know a few places that have re-opened their homegroups, limiting the number and spreading out the participants, claiming it felt “rebellious.” Is it rebellious or is it just classic alcoholic defiance and selfishness? Let’s say you go to a meeting, catch it from an asymptomatic carrier and then go home and give it to your nana or some old woman at the market and kill her? And Jesus, is that what it’s come to? That having a meeting gets our adrenaline pumping and feels risky? Man, get a hobby.
The other mindset I’ve seen when people get clean and sober is hypochondria, an OCD cleanliness, and an obsession with health. People who shot up with toilet water are now carrying Purell or drinking kale smoothies or doing ozone therapy; that ironic swing from smoking meth to becoming vegan and doing crossfit. These people are like: “I survived all that stupid shit and now I want/need to take care of my body and certainly don’t want to die from a virus.”
Those people, and I count myself among them, are currently flipping out. Even before COVID-19 hit, I thought every headache was a brain tumor, every cramp was pancreatitis. I was never particularly obsessed with germs but now I try to push elevator buttons and open doors with the sleeve of my distressed vintage sweatshirt, only to find myself wiping my nose with said sleeve 30 seconds later. Old habits die hard.
Key to Recovery
A key to recovery is connection. As meeting halls and churches close their doors, most 12-step meetings have moved online. Although online meetings have existed for those who couldn’t or didn’t want to go to in-person meetings, membership has really jumped since COVID-19 hit the stage. These are great stopgaps during a time when social distancing or quarantine is suggested or mandatory. And sure, it’s wonderful to see the faces of your regular meeting people, all sequestered in their individual little homes. And it’s quite incredible to be in a big online meeting with 200 people from all over the world. There’s a feeling of solidarity that’s very much needed in this time.
But, let’s be honest, it’s not the same. I’m a very touchy person who likes to hug and these meetings are lacking the physical connection and face-to-face contact that I really crave. But a bigger concern than the lack of physicality for needy fuckers like me is that many older people who have been told to stay home aren’t technically savvy enough to get on Zoom or intherooms.com. So are they being left out? And how about the deaf population? Of the 2,000 brick and mortar AA meetings in LA, I believe 12 have ASL interpreters. So let’s imagine how many of the new online meetings have them. Or people who don’t have access to computers or internet connections? Granted, this is uncharted territory for all of us and we’re all learning and adjusting to this new way of life together.
Isolation and Loneliness
The isolation aspect of this pandemic is deadly for us. We are prone to isolate anyway and now we’re encouraged (or required) to do so. Isolation is the breeding ground not just for loneliness but for depression and negative thoughts to take over like some evil dictator. As I quarantine (when I’m not at the market or pharmacy), sleeping has become a big hobby, as has, I’m embarrassed to say, looking for cat sweaters for the newly shaved Colonel Puff Puff. Don’t judge. It’s easy to spiral out with too much time on your hands. And as mortifying as it is, at least I’m not getting loaded.
I checked in with one of my best friends, former news anchor and certified recovery specialist Laurie Dhue. “The only thing I can really compare this to (and it’s not exactly comparable) is the eeriness of the empty streets and the feeling of desperate helplessness immediately after the 911 attacks in NYC,” she said. “There was so much fear of the unknown, fear of uncertainty, ‘is Al-Qaeda going to attack again? Will life ever get back to normal? Is this the new normal?’ Those of us privileged to anchor the news during this terrifying time felt extra pressure to deliver. Of course I drank more than usual in the immediate aftermath of the terror attacks and during the war on terror for the next several years… we ALL drank more. In THIS crisis, I have 13 years of recovery so of course I can’t fall back on substances. But imagine being newly sober? I feel for the newcomers.”
She brings up two great points. One is that people have a natural tendency to anesthetize during terrifying periods like this. As people get ready to hole up at home, the cannabis dispensaries have lines around the block. Liquor stores are reporting booming sales.
Now that most bars are closed as well as many restaurants (apart from takeout or delivery), you can get alcohol to go as long as you buy it with food. The government is urging people to stay at home and drink. But as sober people, we can’t do that. I admit that I want to vape but I haven’t been. I know some people who have relapsed on cigarettes after years of not smoking and I know people who have already relapsed on drugs. People in recovery are especially vulnerable in these unique circumstances.
Dhue also points to the looming ambiguity and uncertainty that both 9/11 and the COVID-19 pandemic have created. Many alcoholics and addicts, control freaks to the max, loathe uncertainty despite it being an integral part of life. That’s one of the reasons why we drank and used. If we couldn’t control the outcome, at least we could control our feelings. Well, right now we don’t just have the uncertainty of the virus, but we have financial insecurity as well. So many people have lost their jobs as restaurants, schools, and gyms close and companies lay off employees in record numbers. So financial fear is rampant and that’s a big struggle for people in recovery even at the best of times. It’s really easy to let your mind take you to a place where you’re not only sick but homeless as well.
I have a lot of friends in the treatment business and they are working double or triple shifts. Intensive outpatient clinics have closed. Clients in residential treatment aren’t allowed to go to the few outside meetings still happening or have family or friends come visit. Behavioral health care workers are exposing themselves everyday. It’s mayhem. Many treatment staff feel human contact is key to recovery, but that isn’t allowed right now.
Patrick Reilly, program supervisor of LSS Aspen Center and Genesis House in Waukesha, Wisconsin, who has 10 years clean and sober, told me, “I’m fearful for residents currently in treatment because most aftercare has been cancelled and there’s no community support. We have to create a new path for these individuals and it’s going to have to be social media. It’s imperative that rehabs stay connected to their alumni and help guide them into whatever the new normal of community support is.” He continued, “Personally I’m concerned that the overdose numbers will either stay where they are or increase. I’m nervous for the slow creep relapse. Are alcoholics maybe starting to smoke pot? Are junkies starting to drink? Like I won’t do my drug of choice but….As a drug addict and alcoholic when I’m scared, I know the one thing that will make it better. As people in recovery, it’s imperative we reach out to those people whose number we got once a few weeks ago. It’s on us to stay connected. We need to take care of our own. We are the most selfish people in the world and if there was ever an opportunity to challenge or change that behavior and mindset, this is it.“
If you need help, financial, emotional, some dried noodles, whatever, ask for it. Stay on your meds. Do the virtual meetings. Call people. Stay connected. Be empathetic. Getting loaded will not help anything. There is no current escape from this. Do self-care, whatever that looks like. Don’t bang a lot of people. Cut yourself some slack. This is new and terrifying for all of us. Most importantly, be kind. This can either tear us apart or bring us together.
James Reidy is a certified interventionist in Philadelphia who has been clean and sober over 13 years and has helped over 300 addicts get on the road to recovery. Call him directly at 267-970-7623 or contact us here.