It has been said that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety, it is connection – to others, to a community. The Coronavirus pandemic has brought disconnection and magnified loneliness and stress for people the world over due to social isolation, economic instability, reduced access to spiritual communities, and overall national anxiety and fear of the future. “We certainly have data from years of multiple studies showing that social isolation and social stress plays a significant role in relapse…and relapsing to drug use can play a role in overdose.” Dr. Wilson Compton, deputy director NIDA.
The acronym HALT: Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired, is used in Alcoholics Anonymous and most recovery programs. It is a simple reminder that when our basic human needs are not met, one is susceptible to toxic thoughts and self-destructive behaviors including relapse and suicide.
Regardless of where you live, there have likely been restrictions imposed to limit the number of people who can gather together – from dozens in some countries to only the members of your immediate household in others – in order to slow down the high-speed train that is Covid-19. For many of us, we have been able to maintain our emotional equilibrium because we know this is for a limited time and we can look forward with hope to the future.
But what about those vulnerable members of society who already struggle on a daily basis to maintain their mental health, sobriety, or recovery? In the midst of one of the most isolating crisis the modern world has known, it is no surprise then that cities across America, and around the world, are reporting dramatic increases in drug overdoses, alcohol relapses, and suicides. “We’re seeing, sadly, far greater suicides now… And, we’re seeing far greater deaths from drug overdose,” said CDC Director Robert Redfield.
In-person community meetings are at the foundation of recovery programs. And no wonder. It is in community where individuals become part of something greater than themselves. And I believe it is in the breakdown of communal life in our individualistic American ideology that has, to a great degree, contributed to the anxiety, insecurity, and depression that so characterizes our national psyche and has led to the pursuit of finding relief in so many unhealthy ways.
A friend of our son, who is an alcoholic who has been working his recovery for the past 8 years, put it this way: “HALT encompasses all of the basic needs that will keep us fundamentally content. Absence or suppression of any of these needs will alter one’s well-being to toxic thoughts and for me personally, relapse. Through the guidance of AA, twelve steps, and other self-help/religious material I have a keener recognition of when those basic needs aren’t met, and my emotional equilibrium is unbalanced which exposes me to risky, overcomplicated thoughts. If not checked – it can lead me to a downward spiral of self-destruction and eventually relapse.
“Self-isolation breeds relapse for people in recovery. With quarantine, people are losing the accountability they have relied on from in-person meetings and it’s a lot easier to further isolate and close off their emotions. Attending virtual meetings keeps me grounded and gets the message across as much as regular in-person meetings but lacks the fellowship aspect. This will no doubt expose many in recovery to loneliness.”
Is there anything those of us who are not isolated emotionally can do to help? The one thing my husband and I have made as a priority in our weekly schedule is to check in with friends around the world via texts, emails, letters, phone or video calls – including our young friends who are in recovery and elderly friends who just need to know they are not forgotten. With our social networks and finances, we can support organizations that are working the front lines to serve the addiction/mental health population. We can make or purchase masks, buy food and basic supplies, to give to those in need. For those of us who can, this quote from a man who gave his life to help others around the globe is a good reminder:
“Pray that your loneliness may spur you into finding something to live for, great enough to die for.” Dag Hammarskjöld, 1961 Nobel Peace Prize
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