There is no one who would deny that this was a stressful year. As the grateful dead said, “If thunder doesn’t get you, lightning will.” If you manage not to get COVID then you are likely to be struggling with at least a mix of financial and childcare stress, the exciting political divisions we see on TV and social media every day, and one narrowed social universe. Our society is already suffering from an epidemic of loneliness, cruelly exacerbated by the physical distancing required to keep the pandemic at bay.
Even people who are not struggling with addiction find that their drug and alcohol use increases along with other unhealthy habits. In a perfect world, we would all reach for the yoga mat, go for a walk, eat tofu, meditate, and practice mindfulness, but … we are only human. Stress can make us stand out, but it can also lead us into harmful habits, be it ice cream or potato chips or the extra beer we know we don’t need. The additive, multifactorial, relentless stress that 2020 has brought with it would challenge even a Zen master to stay cool.
For those struggling to recover from a drug or alcohol addiction, any day can be challenging. even on a good day. Because of this, the Alcoholics Anonymous adage “one day at a time” has stood the test of time and proven so helpful that it seems manageable to face the stresses of each day without falling back on your deranged crutch of choice .
What can you do to stay healthy when the world seems to have gone crazy?
People joke on Twitter that 2020 was the longest decade they can remember, but the truth is, it’s not difficult for anyone to maintain their equanimity with that steady eardrums of terrifying news. What can someone do to protect their hard-earned recovery?
The answer to this question rests on a deep understanding of what recovery from addiction really is. Recovery is not a negative, the sheer lack of drugs. Rather, recovery is a positive way of being in the world that replaces healthier ways of coping with problems and interacting with people so that the drugs and alcohol no longer really take hold in your life. Recovery is about getting in touch with others and asking for help when you need it, as well as not wiping out negative feelings with just a drug or drink. These are two sides of the same coin. Recovery is about being grateful for what is going well in your life rather than focusing on what you didn’t have, what you did wrong, or what could have been.
It is often said that in the event of a relapse, taking the drug or drink is the ultimate manifestation of the breakdown in their recovery process. That is, people lose sight of the positive ways of being and interacting that drowned out their drug use and stop practicing. The drug or drink is left to fill the vacuum and relieve the pain. For example, you might stop going to meetings, not seeing other people, and then feeling lonely and hopeless. Next, they reach for a solution. Or they fall out of their exercise routine and as a result, stop getting a good night’s sleep, causing their anxiety symptoms to return. Soon enough they’re miserable enough to say, “Forget that, I’m getting vodka.”
The greater the stress, the more important it is to practice healthy habits
To combat stressful times (which are inevitable in life) we need to get back to our healthy habits. The more stressful the times, the more important – even life-saving – these habits become. It is important to check in with yourself on a daily basis, be honest with yourself if you slip, and have techniques to get you back on track.
Some of the habits that will keep my recovery on track
- Remember to be grateful. In rehab we had to write a gratitude list every day. Although I’m too lazy to actually write this down, I make a mental list every morning, and I justify that there are many reasons to be optimistic.
- Daily exercise. Even a short walk a few times a day is good. Exercise lowers stress, improves sleep and increases mood.
- Pay attention to your needs. An acronym for things that cause relapse is HALT, which means “hungry, angry, lonely, tired”. Stay on top of things so you don’t get so miserable that you act impulsively.
- Have a mantra to say to yourself to strengthen yourself when you feel bad. A recovery mantra that I like is “progress over perfection,” which means that you are doing your best to go in the right direction and that no one is perfect.
- Please help! There’s no shame at all. Imagine a friend of yours, a friend. Imagine that you are lonely, suffering, and so miserable that you will be forgotten. Don’t you want them to call you and ask for help? Of course you would! This is how any of your friends or family members would feel if they were in need of such help in a similar way.
- Help, get involved, and help others. When you are helping other people, it is much more difficult to focus and wallow in your own misery.
- Make news. This is a difficult question as we have an obligation to keep citizens informed in these challenging times, but sometimes enough is enough. The other day, driving home from a complex day at the primary care clinic, I turned off NPR – because of the pandemic – and listened to the Beatles. It was a fantastic choice and turned my whole day around.
Especially if you slip – be it drugs, alcohol, your diet, your New Year’s resolution, gambling – don’t beat yourself up. Self-compassion will get us through these difficult times. Just reach for the help you need and find out this is a marathon, not a sprint. With an ongoing focus on healthy habits, maintaining relationships, and the way we are in the world, we will help each other – and ourselves – get through these seemingly impossible times.