Coronavirus presents a new challenge to sobriety

Addiction sufferers and their families face new challenges.  Coronavirus increases the dangers faced in recovery and has also adversely affected some well-tried responses which, until now, have proved reliable.

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The sudden arrival of coronavirus has brought everyone out of their comfort zones. Stress levels are high, mainly due to fear of the disease itself. There is also fear of consequences such as financial meltdown. Throughout the UK and around the world people are anxious, afraid and wondering what to do about it all.  We are being told to self-isolate and distance ourselves socially and none of this is good news for anyone, including those suffering from addiction.

Many groups of people are having to adjust to new ways of doing things and those who suffer from addiction – or have been affected by the addiction of others – are certainly one such group. Those suffer from addiction will recognise the feelings of anxiety, fear and uncertainty that these events are producing. After all, addiction is also a pandemic that has been around a long time and has killed a lot of people.

Alcoholics Anonymous – and its many 12 step derivatives such as Narcotics Anonymous and Gamblers Anonymous – are perhaps the most successful response to addiction ever devised. For them, recovery comes through human interaction first and foremost and a popular slogan is ‘You are no longer alone,’ with newcomers often attending 90 meetings in 90 days.  Longstanding AA members support their local meetings with a fervour and regularity that many churchgoers only aspire to.

But now, the recent government advice to self-isolate and distance means a very careful rethink to the way that these self-help groups are run. After all, self-isolation does not sit well with a movement whose cornerstone is human interaction. Old habits are changing, and old methods are being reviewed.

Nevertheless, those in recovery should not panic. AA members know from the marvellous Serenity Prayer that although they cannot change events, they can certainly change themselves. And in times like these, necessary personal changes can – and need to – happen. Headlines such as: ‘Coronavirus lockdowns could see thousands of alcoholics relapse as Alcoholics Anonymous in-person meetings shut’ are alarming and often untrue.

Will virtual meetings replace real AA and NA meetings for good?

Some members are worried that virtual meetings will permanently replace actual meetings. It might at first glance seem an easy substitution but, for AA and NA newcomers especially, there is a special power in the warm handshake of welcome, the cup of tea and the holding of hands while the Serenity Prayer is recited at the conclusion of a meeting, which can make all the difference between success and failure.

Can all this be replaced? There are certainly the tools to try – besides virtual meetings, there is a wealth of groups on Facebook, WhatsApp, Skype, Zoom and the “old-fashioned” telephone. With these, it would seem communication itself is not the problem. Some might say connection is all that matters while others may feel that physical presence and warmth are crucial.

Progress is not perfection

Nevertheless, when forced to – by government directives and the desire to help those who are vulnerable – we are all having to learn some new ways; we may be powerless to change many things but we do have the power to learn. We can learn to adapt and to see virtual meetings and contacts as representing a form of ‘progress not perfection’ – another popular AA slogan.

An AA old timer said to me recently ‘AA started when two hopeless alcoholics met and realised that by talking together, they could stay sober. Would it have happened if their meeting had been on Skype? We will never know, so let’s be grateful for what we have.‘

At times of stress and challenge, it can be useful for those of us in recovery to remember our priorities, evaluate our resources and perhaps revisit our core beliefs and attitudes. Here are some general points for consideration.

The disease of addiction

Coronavirus is a major threat to public health, but addiction is a serious and life-threatening disease too. We should take care that the steps we take to defeat coronavirus does not endanger our recovery addiction.

Self-isolation, not social isolation

Self-isolation is crucial but addiction itself is a disease of isolation and many addicts have led lonely lives. Therefore, when self-isolating from coronavirus you must stay connected to your own support network – sponsor, therapist, the fellowships and your family and friends.  We are lucky today that technology makes this easy to achieve.

Think rationally

The present crisis feels serious because it is serious. But we should not let our feelings get out of hand. Remember that our feelings are connected to our thoughts and our beliefs. Therefore, it is important to think rationally.

Every situation can be managed and overcome, but this depends on our responses. Catastrophising simply does not help. We have come a long way from the primitive choices of freeze, flight or fight. Civilisation has evolved because we have learnt to develop better responses than these.

Avoid the “Breaking News” loop

Remember in this respect the dangers around too much media exposure. The TV and other outlets nowadays often produce a constant stream of breaking news – much of it bad and often sensationalised – which in itself can become addictive.

Those in recovery should remind themselves of the inherent dangers in becoming a ‘news junkie’ and recognise how breaking news can provide an unhealthy buzz of excitement and escape that characterises many addictions. We should ration our exposure to live news so as to keep our thinking healthy.

Respect family members

Family members are always important for addiction recovery. Addiction is a family disease and family members should take the same approach towards their support group meetings of Families Anonymous and the like, as their addicted loved ones. Equally importantly, consideration should be given to the constraints and frustrations that will surely arise when social distancing and self-isolation cease being novelties and become irksome burdens instead. Try to be aware of each other’s concerns and to respect their needs.

Recovery planning

Whatever stage of recovery you are at, there should always be an underlying plan, whether you are aware of it or not. This is true whether your sobriety covers years or simply a few days. Recovery is always important because addiction is never beaten completely, only contained. Your recovery plan, whether formalised in a document or simply established through good habit, has to address your basic needs:

  • Be with the right people
  • Avoid dangerous situations
  • Connect with your higher power
  • Help others

In normal times these needs would be met through attending fellowship meetings, which is largely what many people in recovery manage on a weekly basis. In these abnormal times we need to adjust.

And we still need to connect, in as human a way as possible. Even when meetings are closed, because of the infection, in some cases AA members will turn up, lest a desperate person comes, needing help. This AA member in the USA puts it well:

Tonight, we’re still gonna be there….a representative needs to be there, maybe not to shake their hand or give them a hug, but at least give them a phone number. Let them know they’re not alone.”

Addiction is a disease of isolation and addicts can be lonely people. Reaching out, even if not actually touching, remains vitally important for recovery.

A word of hope

Great problems have been solved before. Disease epidemics have been addressed and made manageable in the past and coronavirus is no different. Our response as people in recovery should be to accept and adapt, making changes wherever possible. The world will recover. To quote yet another favourite AA slogan:

‘This too shall pass’.

Written by Chris Burn, Addiction Recovery Consultant and Writer. Former therapist at Castle Craig Hospital.

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