Strange Days: Getting Sober in the Time of COVID

What a strange time it’s been. There is no denying it – those suffering from addiction and alcoholism have had a rough road over the past 18 months. The coronavirus pandemic brought with it unprecedented new levels of stress, uncertainty, and economic insecurity. Many battled with loss, grief, upheaval, and diminished social connections. It’s no surprise that along with this tumult, mental health issues spiked, as did binge drinking and overdoses. In short – people struggled to cope. And who could blame them? Many of the structures people rely upon for well being, such as friends and family, 12-step groups, recovery services, and regular routines were unavailable.

In fact, addiction and overdose rates went through the roof during the pandemic. Recent data indicates that drug overdoses during this period rose by roughly 18%. Reports collected in real-time by the Washington, D.C.-based group ODMAP — the Overdose Detection Mapping Application Program, located at the University of Baltimore — also found a significant spike in the number of fatal overdoses.

According to preliminary data collected by the CDC, there was a roughly 10% increase in fatalities associated with those overdoses in the first three months of the pandemic. If this trend continues, the CDC estimates the U.S. will suffer more than 75,500 drug-related over the year, setting a dark record for the second consecutive year.

In short, everything that made the pandemic difficult for people everywhere took an exceedingly brutal toll on people with substance use disorder.

For those that were lucky enough to find their way into recovery during this period, they faced the unique challenges of maintaining it during challenging times and reentering the face-to-face world. Most who sobered up over the past year and a half likely did so with the help of a treatment center, or by attending online meetings of 12-step groups, or a combination of both.

For those that haven’t yet found a way out – the good news is that treatment centers remain open and offer a safe place to get a fresh start.

For those that are navigating their early days or recovery – or trying to – here are some tips for recovery in the COVID era:

Get Plugged In

On Zoom or in person, one core component of a happy, healthy recovery is finding a network and getting plugged in. For those who have been attending meetings online, going to their face-to-face counterparts, when re-launched, might be an easy way in. The comfort of a few familiar faces goes a long way. And it may be helpful to try several meetings of the fellowship of your choice until you find one that feels like home. Finding a group of people who are living well while not drinking, using, or acting out is essential. They can offer friendship, support, and helpful guidance, especially for those who are just starting out. In addition, many treatment centers offer a range of inpatient and outpatient options, as well as aftercare, sober living and alumni support groups. A good facility can help you create a sound foundation for future success.

Take it Easy

It’s important to acknowledge that the newly sober aren’t the only ones daunted at the prospect of a return to normal life. For most of us, after a year indoors, facing a relentless schedule, large social circle, or any of the other trappings of a “normal” life seems overwhelming. Many people—sober or not—feel less confident socializing, uneager to return to stuffy office environments, and insecure in large crowds. This is all to be expected after what we have collectively been through. Many experts advise taking it slow. There is no need to hustle to fill every hour of the day. Starting out slow with a few healthy, positive activities per day is a good way to make sure you don’t find yourself burned out by the intensity. It will also help you stay centered as you think about what and who you want to re-introduce and when.

Stay Accountable

For most, remaining accountable is a vital part of lasting recovery. This means being honest about where you are at, and allowing other people to call you out when you’re not. Good ways to stay accountable include staying connected to a sponsor, a group of sober friends, or finding a homegroup that you attend regularly. Letting people see you and know you can be a little scary after a long period of isolation, but it’s an opportunity for deeper connection and bigger joy.

Ask for Help

Let’s be real – many of us have moments during the pandemic that feel like we are in the midst of a mental health crisis. It WAS hard. But for people with a mental health diagnosis, regular care plans may need to be stepped up during times of increased stress. Finding or getting in touch with a care team, counselor, doctor, or therapist, and discussing your feelings and symptoms can be the first step in finding some peace. Letting people know what is going on with you can be lifesaving.

Best of luck and let us know how it goes! As always, our team is here to offer support, resources, and help if and when you need it.