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.