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Lacking Connection: How COVID-19 Challenged Recovery

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Category: Health, Recovery

Many integral factors are needed for recovery, including having a solid support system, coping skills, and available resources; however, for so many during the pandemic, regular, dependable outlets for support and connection became significantly reduced or nonexistent.

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For those recovering from substance abuse, the COVID-19 pandemic limited the community connection and support needed for sustained recovery.

Facing Recovery Alone During The Pandemic

According to Johann Hari, best-selling author, journalist, and addiction researcher, the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It is connection. We have all heard the grim statistics, the fatalities, the unsettling forecasts, and the discouraging personal outcomes of our quarantine that began globally in 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic took off like a brushfire spreading around the world. What started as a curious virus to many ultimately took hold of all our lives and disrupted everything we thought we knew about living safely, relationally, and even peacefully with ourselves and others. 

In the best of circumstances, economic insecurity, supply chain challenges, learning to adapt to new protocols in public, etc., would all be challenging to say the least. However, these circumstances brought on by the pandemic present even more specific challenges for those in recovery, especially when connection and personal support are at the cornerstone of our continued sobriety. With limited social interactions, social support, and access to in-person treatment, like recovery meetings, individuals in recovery had to face multiple relapse triggers for months on end, often alone. 

When Staying Home Worsens Addiction

According to the Recovery Research Institute, “Drug overdose counts increased by 23% and 36% for March 2020 and April 2020 respectively compared to corresponding monthly values in 2019. May 2020 was the deadliest month during the pandemic, with an estimated 9,192 people dying from a drug overdose, a 58% increase from May 2019. Mortality remained elevated in June 2020 and July 2020 with a 36% and 44% increase respectively compared to corresponding monthly values in 2019.”

The study went on to show that “the number of drinking days increased among U.S. adults during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. Increases in drinking days were more likely to be observed and sustained sociodemographic groups, specifically in participants who were male, White, in older age groups (i.e., 65+ years), who had household structures characterized by living alone, with a partner alone, or with a partner and children, and who lived above the federal poverty level.”

While these studies bring some very enlightening information to the forefront, the question of why these outcomes occurred goes back to what we already know about addiction and substance abuse in general. We know that recovery depends on connection and peer support for most people. We know that when people experience the loss of a job, a death of a loved one, a sense of anxiety, or a broken relationship or marriage, it isn’t unlikely that a slip or a relapse could occur. Over the past 2 years, these experiences have become more than commonplace, creating the perfect storm for jeopardizing recovery for those trying to remain sober and confined to their homes with these triggering realities. 

Trauma, Information Overload, And Losing Connection

Imagine being in early recovery, trying to work from home (assuming your job stayed intact), living 24 hours a day with the relationships that can trigger your drinking, and experiencing the loss of friends and family to the virus simultaneously. Any one of these occurrences could trigger a lapse or relapse, but the pandemic created a pressure cooker of adverse environments where individuals faced challenges across multiple fronts. Many also faced information overload as we consumed round-the-clock, doom-stricken news stories that reminded us that our world may never look the same again and that we should be fearful and anxious. 

We eventually learn to integrate our trauma and do intentional self-care to minimize our acute anxiety from the barrage of information we are subjected to daily. When we enter recovery, we learn to identify and not always trust the fight, flight, or freeze parts of our brain (the part of our brain that responds to fear) as readily as we once did in our addiction. We also learn that when we are around others who allow us to feel heard and known, our inclination to act out, our anxieties, and our impulsive behaviors diminish greatly. However, if we are relegated to our homes, sequestered and isolated from our support systems, living on a steady diet of fear and social media discourse, and experiencing increasing economic insecurity, we soon see that we may have a boiling cauldron of relapse brewing.

What We Can Learn From COVID-19 About Recovery And Connection

So, what can COVID-19, the constant cravings of our recovering brains, and our lack of connection to community tell us about relapses? It could be saying that now is a teachable time for all of us to remind ourselves of what we already know about addiction and recovery. Connection is necessary for our emotional health and needs to be taken as seriously as we take any other part of our health and wellbeing. Reaching out to our recovering friends, taking advantage of virtual meetings (even though they aren’t always optimal) to experience community, and spending some of our downtime taking personal inventory of resentments that creep in can help tip the scales in our favor as we navigate the unprecedented waters of imposed isolation.

If any good can come from our experience as we move through this unprecedented time, it is that we have seen the reality that disruption has on addiction. We can’t avoid disruption. We can’t avoid plagues and pandemics. However, we can remind ourselves that even in our worst seasons, there is hope if we can continue to work with what we know to be true in recovery. Self-care, connection, regulating our anxiety by adjusting how much media we consume, and simply not allowing our triggers to become our excuses will continue to work for us regardless of the circumstances around us. In an ironic way, recovering people have a lot that we could teach the world about living in disruption and uncontrollable circumstances if we are intentional about using the tools we have to cope with it.

  • Author: David Hampton | Last Edited: June 6, 2022

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    David Hampton

    As a published author of two books, co-host of a weekly podcast, a regular contributor to blogs and articles for a variety of recovery and treatment websites and publications, and a Certified Professional Recovery Coach in private practice in the Greater Nashville, TN area, David Hampton is immersed in the world of helping those with a variety of unwanted behaviors and disorders. David is also one of the executive producers of the upcoming documentary film, Shame On Us which tackles the subject of stigma and substance use disorder in our culture.