staying sober during the coronavirus

Staying sober during the coronavirus has been a challenge for eight months now, and while news of a possible vaccine development is cause for hope, we’re all so very tired.

And for those of us in recovery from addiction or alcoholism, that can be dangerous territory. To be fair, it can be dangerous territory for all of us, because COVID-19 hasn’t upended only the lives of addicts and alcoholics — it’s thrown everything into a constant state of flux and turmoil, and even the most grounded of individuals can have a difficult time maintaining a positive attitude. Exhaustion can lead to feelings of helpless and hopelessness, intimately familiar emotions to recovering addicts and alcoholics, that that in turn only makes “COVID fatigue” worse, according to researchers at the University of California-Davis:

“We’re tired of being cooped up, tired of being careful, tired of being scared. Our collective fatigue is making some people careless — one reason COVID-19 is rising sharply again in California and throughout the U.S. However, facing this fatigue is important for our personal health and for beating the coronavirus that has shaken American life so completely. Many people understand this, which adds to their exhaustion and stress. ‘This is a real challenge,’ said Kaye Hermanson, UC Davis Health psychologist in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. ‘There are no easy solutions.’”

It's important to point out, however: “No easy solutions” is a far cry from “no solutions at all.”

Staying sober during the coronavirus: What is ‘COVID fatigue’?

staying sober during the coronavirusWriting for Amita Health, counselor Nichole Yarmolkevich breaks down what “COVID fatigue” actually is in terms of the body’s natural fight-or-flight response. As with any other stressor, the coronavirus has elicited one of the four possible fight-or-flight outcomes in all of us:

  • Fight (resist the threat)
  • Flight (evade the threat)
  • Freeze (become paralyzed by the threat) or
  • Faun (surrender to the threat

However, Yarmolkevich adds — and this is important to point out — “most stresses are not supposed to be long-term or permanent. The stressor triggers our fight-or-flight response and then we use a variety of coping skills to calm ourselves down when the stressor is over. But COVID-19 is not giving us that break. We’re just not prepared to handle a stress that goes on this long. As a result, we’re increasingly freezing or fauning, which often manifests as COVID fatigue.”

And, she goes on to add, “As hard as this emotional fatigue has been, it’s fallen doubly hard on people who are coping with mental illness” — which would include individuals who suffer from addiction or alcoholism, many of whom find staying sober during the coronavirus to be a struggle. Not because the temptation to drink or use is so strong, but because the temptation to just give up is.

As we often say in the rooms of recovery, however: Give yourself a break. Consider where we were a year ago: COVID-19 was barely a blip in the news, and we were preparing for Thanksgiving and Black Friday and the holidays with all of the gusto of any other year. In a year’s time, our lives have changed drastically, and those of us in recovery from addiction know all too well, it takes time and effort to make sustained and lasting changes.

“Trying to adhere to anything extra is always a challenge,” psychologist Dr. Carisa Parrish told the Health blog for Johns Hopkins Medicine. “You can add extra steps to your routine for a few days, but sustained behavior change is hard. Especially when no one around you is sick, and you just don’t feel like wearing a mask or saying no to things you like to do. But the fact is, the precautions work.”

Keep on keeping on: Steady as she goes

One of the biggest impediments to making these adjustments, at least early on, was the fact that the virus was many times removed from our personal bubble of family and friends. In some ways, it didn’t seem real, which made shutdown orders and mask mandates — or even voluntary mask-wearing — seem rather overly dramatic, Parrish added.

“Right now, most people are still removed from the consequences of getting COVID-19,” she said. “The risk might not feel real to them if they don’t know anyone who’s sick with COVID-19. And unfortunately, some people get a bit of a thrill from doing something risky and escaping consequences.”

It should be pointed out, however, that Parrish said those things back in August. Three months later, as National Public Radio pointed out a few days ago, and it’s a far different story: Last Friday alone, “there were more than 184,000 new confirmed cases and 1,400 deaths, the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center reported. Hospitals are reaching capacity. To date in the U.S., there have been more than 10 million confirmed cases of the virus and more than 240,000 have died — more than any other nation.”

That prompted U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams to caution against the natural inclination by Americans to gather in large numbers for the holiday season:

"The three W's are most important if you do come together around other people: wear a mask, wash your hands and frequently disinfect commonly touched surfaces, and watch your distance from other people," Adams says. "And if you can't do these things in this environment where you're planning on coming together, then you should probably stay home because, again, this virus is incredibly unforgiving."

And a lot of times, it seems we’re just fumbling our way through, getting mandates from on high that we may not understand completely, especially if we’re prone to digging around on social media for confirmation bias, as we’re often wont to do. As Parrish points out, it’s good to approach your virus response with some level-headed common sense.

staying sober during the coronavirusThat doesn’t mean you should live as if we’re in the opening pages of “The Stand,” nor does it mean that the end is nigh. It just means that holding fast to some general and gentle rules of thumb, as Parrish lays out, can be both comforting for you, reassuring for others and smart in a way that protects you and the people around you:

  • Make a commitment: “Behavior changes can start with having a clear intention and making a promise. Wearing a helmet when you bike ride, stopping at traffic lights and many other lifesaving habits begin with a decision: You want to do the right thing to keep yourself and others safe, even if that means a slight inconvenience. The same principle can apply to washing hands, maintaining physical distance and wearing a mask in public.”
  • Stay flexible as recommendations change: Eighteen months ago, this virus didn’t exist … which means that as it’s studied, new information emerges on how to combat it, and that new information may contradict older information. That may not make a lot of sense, except that’s exactly the way science works. “Sticking with reliable, trustworthy information is essential,” says Parrish. “New facts are emerging as we learn more and more about this virus. In the meantime, it makes sense to use the understanding we have.”
  • Practice precautions until they’re second nature: “The key is repeating that new step until it becomes a habit,” Parrish says. “When you first start flossing or putting your child in a safety seat, it might seem like a chore, even though you know it’s the right thing to do. So when it comes to COVID-19 protection, you just commit to it, and then over time, you find you’re putting your mask on or washing your hands without thinking.”
  • Keep necessary supplies handy: By this point, you should have masks (and hand sanitizer) readily available, in your home, your car, your place of business, your jacket pockets. It’s better to have a mask and not need it, than need a mask and not have it.
  • Use stories to understand risks and consequences: As Parrish wisely points out, “for a lot of people, getting sick with COVID-19 is an abstract idea, something that happens to other people in different parts of the country. But the reality is that the coronavirus can affect anyone. Read a story about someone who’s gone through COVID-19 so it becomes personal to you.”

By this point in the pandemic, there are undoubtedly personal stories for us all, within our immediate circle of family and friends. Taking these precautions can help reduce them. But what about staying sober during the coronavirus? Yes, as recovering addicts and alcoholics, our goal is to become acceptable, responsible and productive members of society, and many of us will gladly do our part to kick COVID-19 down the road, but how do we get through these trying times with our sanity and serenity intact?

Staying sober during the coronavirus: Doubling down

staying sober during the coronavirusWhile we’re all going through a tough time because of COVID-19, staying sober during the coronavirus can be especially demanding on individuals in recovery, many of whom are caregivers for newly sober addicts and alcoholics. The National Institute on Drug Abuse points out that “for those in recovery … social support is crucial since social isolation is a risk factor for relapse. Even though the physical distancing measures being implemented nationwide are important for reducing disease transmission, they may be especially difficult for people in recovery because they limit access to meetings of peer-support groups and other sources of social connection.”

Yes, there are recovery meetings available via Zoom, but “COVID fatigue” can often sour us on those. They aren’t the same, we say. They’re so impersonal. They can’t take the place of sitting in a room full of living, breathing human beings who laugh and cry and nod and hug one another. Or maybe we’ve been in so many over the past eight months that by this point, we’re turning our cameras off and folding laundry or attempting to multi-task … but not really paying attention, and therefore we think we’ve gotten nothing out of the meeting.

This is when we need to apply the principles of the program even more. When we first got clean and sober, we were told that if we put a quarter of the energy into recovery that we did into getting drunk and high, we’d succeed. How many times, then, did we use or drink whatever was available when we couldn’t get what we really wanted? If our favorite bar was closed, or our drug of choice was not available, we never stopped and said, “Guess I won’t get drunk or high today,” did we? Of course not. We persevered, because that’s what our disease demanded.

And now, perseverance is what our recovery demands. We may be limited to technology in order to stay connected to our fellow addicts and alcoholics, but it is an option. It’s simply up to us to choose to use it. Whether it’s calling our sponsor, staying in regular contact with our network, or making a resolution to attend at least one Zoom meeting daily, we can maintain a measure of serenity that’s far more elusive when we give up or give in to “COVID fatigue.” Often, if we think that staying sober during the coronavirus is difficult, we need to take a step back and ask, what are we doing to make it less so?

And then there are other suggestions we can take, whether we’re in recovery or not, to care for our physical, mental and emotional health.

  • Exercise: If you feel better physically, you’ll feel better mentally. Even if your favorite gym is closed, think outside of the box. Going for a hike, going for a run, even a long walk around the neighborhood with your dog can make a world of difference. “Exercise is one of the best ways to release the energy that builds up from stress and worry, which helps us avoid making mistakes or having emotional outbursts,” Yarmolkevich writes. “It also releases endorphins that make us feel better.”
  • Prayer and meditation: For many of us, meditating, as suggested in the 11th of the 12 Steps, is something we pay lip service to. We imagine that when we’re driving to work, lost in our favorite song, that we’re “meditating,” and there’s surely some benefit to that. But during this time, perhaps looking into order some books online about meditation practices can help you develop the habit in a way you never have before. Even if you don’t channel your inner Buddhist monk, Yarmolkevich points out, there’s still much to be gained by practicing mindfulness: “It can be as simple as stopping and focusing on the task at hand, or on the natural world around you, or on your own breathing. Redirecting your focus to the now helps dispel anxiety about the future. It can also help you stay safe.”
  • Self-expression: According to Yarmolkevich, “By sharing how we’re feeling — whether through talk, writing in a journal, playing a musical instrument — we release the worry and stress that we’ve been holding in before it builds up to a traumatic level.”
  • Self-regulate: While technology can be a lifeline during this time, too much of it can be detrimental, says University of Wisconsin Health psychologist Shilagh Mirgain. Some tips to avoid digital overload include:
    • Use the “20-20-20 rule (For every 20 minutes you are looking at a screen, look away from the screen and focus on a spot 20 feet away for 20 seconds).”
    • “Consider getting blue light blocking glasses.”
    • “Getting up and walking for two minutes every hour can help reverse the negative health effects from prolonged sitting.”
    • Avoid "doom scrolling," or constantly monitoring social media and news sites to stay informed. Information is beneficial; information overload can lead to excessive worry, stress, negativity and hopelessness.

‘Grant me the serenity’ …

staying sober during the coronavirusHowever, it’s important to understand that while all of these suggestions, if taken regularly enough that they turn into habits, won’t magically make everything better. While news of a potential COVID vaccine may seem like light at the end of the tunnel, and it very well could be, we’re still in the middle of surging numbers of new infections and hospitalizations. Now is not the time to throw caution to the wind; if anything, we need to be more mindful of COVID precautions than ever before, including working on the “radical acceptance that life will continue to be difficult for a while,” as University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health officials point out.

And by the same token, we need to double down on our efforts at staying sober during the coronavirus. That includes being mindful of our willingness to go the extra mile, the open mindedness to plug into recovery resources outside of our comfort zone, and the honesty to ask for help when we need it.

And, as Dr. Scott T. Allison points out in an article for Psychology Today, look for ways to be of service. “The 12th and final step of recovery programs states that the key to maintaining our own emotional well-being is to help, encourage, and comfort others. Each one of us possesses a gift to share with the world, whether it is painting, writing, singing, or simply listening. The latest research is very clear: When we reach out to help others, we are helping ourselves get better, too.”

Staying sober during the coronavirus may be more difficult. Even staying sane during the coronavirus may seem like a challenge at times. But when we work to stay in the moment … to look for opportunities to serve one another … to view life during the time of COVID-19 as sometimes difficult, but incomparable to the difficulty, pain and misery we lived in, day in and day out, in our addiction … then we will persevere.

We will rise above. We will come out the other side of this long and seemingly interminable night, and with the shining sun warming our faces and the daylight pushing back the shadows, we will rejoice, hug one another and remember this period as a challenge that ultimately makes us stronger for having endured it.