“Don’t isolate.” It’s one of the first things anyone in recovery, anyone attending a 12-Step meeting or getting therapy, usually hears. It also happens to be good advice for anyone in any kind of healing process: if you need help, don’t isolate. Don’t be alone with only your own “stinkin’ thinkin’” to keep you company.
All of which obviously flies in the face of everything we’re being told to do for our safety under the conditions of the pandemic sweeping the world: “shelter in place.” Observe “social distancing.” Keep six feet between you and everyone. Stay away. What do we do when what we need for our recovery contradicts what’s best for our health and that of others?
Everything that makes social distancing difficult for everyone is increased for those in recovery. As Mike Marshall, executive director of Oregon Recovers, observes, “Recovery is, for many people, a social endeavor. From the very beginning, it’s all built around being in community and supporting each other.” Tera Hurst, 23 years sober, echoes his point: “When I found out my mom died, I had just celebrated one year clean and sober. The first place I went was to a meeting where everyone lined around the room to give me a hug and their number. I survived because I had those rooms and people to support me.”
In an op-ed piece on timescall.com, writer Jenna Drennen puts it starkly:
“It is often said that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety, but rather human connection. Addiction is above all else, a disease of isolation. By definition, substance use disorders consist of a relationship between an individual and a substance, rather than a human being with another human being. As a substance becomes the central focus of an addict’s life, important relationships dissolve, and social isolation results. Addiction requires this isolation to thrive.”
Obviously, an enforced return to a key condition of one’s addiction—isolation—increases the risk of relapse. Just when all of the stresses on us are greatest, the tools we need to cope successfully with stress are being taken away, or at least reduced. Group meetings have been shut down and treatment centers closed. In-person counseling and therapy and supports like Yoga or Tai Chi classes are unavailable.
People in recovery tend to rely on carefully built routines to help them maintain sobriety. Ross Sears, 53, said he is concerned especially that for those newly in recovery, the loss of protective routines will increase the temptation to resume addictive behaviors. He notes that “Alcoholics and addicts…try to justify stuff. With all this going haywire, they can kind of talk themselves into, ‘Hey, what the heck?’”
Sears also pointed out that those most vulnerable to relapse are under new stress with less support just when many will have easier access to alcohol, as states like Oregon relax rules on curbside pickup of beer, wine and cider and hours of delivery to help the hard-hit hospitality industry. Sears suspects an increase in using will lead to more hospital visits and arrests, when hospitals and crowded prisons are places to avoid.
This view of the value of social connection as crucial to establishing and preserving our recovery isn’t simply anecdotal, either: as Jenna Drennen states,
“Group therapy is considered one of the most crucial, evidence-based approaches to treating addiction. In-person 12-step support groups such as AA and NA are often essential structural components of an addict’s routine, and research has shown that 12-step programs lead to longer stretches of abstinence than other types of treatment programs.”
I’m tempted to say at this point, “Okay, so give me the bad news.” Yet I wonder if those of us in recovery, while belonging to some of the most vulnerable categories, might not also possess some real strengths not everyone has. In one sense, we’re used to dealing with catastrophes. We had to face one challenge after another to gain our sobriety. We know, better than most, that life is fragile and precarious. We’re familiar with having routines disrupted. We know first-hand what it’s like to wake up in a different world than the one we lay down in. We are experts at living one day at a time.
Acknowledging both our risks and our strengths in this crisis, where does it leave us? What can we do to protect our health while preserving our recovery?
First, I want to address some of the ways in which we can keep some of the lifelines we’ve relied on intact, if in different forms. Drennen addresses the needs of those who count on AA and other 12-Step meetings:
“It is clear that alternative methods for addicts/alcoholics to remain connected need to be embraced and sought out. Virtual support groups and online AA meetings are readily available for those needing this type of support system. In addition, the AA call line remains open 24/7, for those who need to speak to someone directly. It is important to maintain a close phone network with one another, and to reach out often.”
Cumberland Heights, a recovery center in Tennessee, reinforces this, pointing out that AA’s intergroups—the state-level organizations that run AA and NA meetings—have moved to address the COVID-19 self-quarantine guidelines:
…the New York chapter has closed its office, but plans to move meetings to phone calls. Online meetings are also available; there are countless to choose from, many of which are linked from the Online Intergroup directory for Alcoholics Anonymous. Of course, your individual group may create its own plan to continue meeting via Skype, Zoom or conference call.
Cumberland Heights also suggests other steps we can take, such as listening to a recovery speaker at sites like recoveryspeakers.com. And they make the critically important recommendation to stay in regular contact with all of the important people in your life—those that lift you up, not drag you down—whether family, friends, your sponsor or members of your local 12-Step meeting.
To be clear: It isn’t the same. It can’t be. And it isn’t as good. There is no substitute for live human contact, for a hug or the touch of a hand. Yet ironically, our adaptation to electronic communication and real-world social distancing through email, texting, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and other social media has accustomed us to a diminished presence of flesh and blood people. We are just beginning to grapple with the long-term effects of these historically unprecedented changes in how society functions. But at least we are fairly used to them and know how to work them to our advantage. For those in recovery, it is crucial to do so.
But I want to suggest an additional possibility that goes beyond crisis management skills. I want to suggest that, in a way, this is where spirituality comes in: with a crystal-clear facing of the reality that life is like this—fragile, unpredictable, and laced with pain and difficulty. Genuine spirituality does not sugar-coat reality. Instead, it offers us tools for turning the inevitable problems of life to our advantage, by going deeper than the surfaces of everyday living.
In most of the world’s spiritual paths, the exact conditions that government and health officials are telling us to undertake are regarded as opportunities for growth, for becoming more of who we really are.
Almost all of the world’s great spiritual traditions have either a monastic tradition, in which monks and nuns enter a life of relative seclusion from the world where silence and solitude plays a large part in their daily routine, or offer periodic retreats from ordinary involvements. Indigenous peoples all over the world have also practiced this way, as in the Native American vision quest. In effect, all of these people sought out forms of social distancing and a greater degree of isolation for the benefits they can bring.
As Brett and Kate McKay point out in their article on “The Spiritual Disciplines: Solitude and Silence,” these tools of the spiritual life have been used and recommended by great spiritual teachers, philosophers and political leaders, as well as countless writers, poets, musicians and artists, ancient and modern.
So what are the potential benefits that so many have found in these practices, and how can we employ them for our benefit during the current crisis?
The simplest way to look at it is to think that we are doing is intentionally choosing to step outside the constant stream of everyday life—work, conversations, entertainment, all of the thousands of impressions that impact us daily—so we can find out who we are apart from all of that. What belongs to me, as distinct from what I happen to have picked up from others along the way, like inheriting an older brother’s jacket? Ideas, beliefs, feelings and mannerisms stick to us like dust, from those who have influenced us the most and from the torrents of information that constantly bombard us. In such an environment, deliberately taking time out to take stock and listen carefully within can refresh our hearts and minds.
William G. Simms makes the case for occasional solitude this way: “Solitude bears the same relation to the mind that sleep does to the body. It affords it the necessary opportunities for repose and recovery.”
In fact, one of the discoveries that some have made when they break with their usual daily routines is just how exhausted they really are, although they often hadn’t known it. The Taoist teacher Liu I-Ming and writer Patrick Leigh Fermor both commented on this, Fermor saying
“I found that my capacity for sleep was becoming more and more remarkable: till the hours I spent in or on my bed vastly outnumbered the hours I spent awake; and my sleep was so profound that I might have been under the influence of some hypnotic drug . . .”
Both found that once they had passed through this period of adjustment, their bodies and minds developed their own, natural rhythms of sleep and waking, and that the freedom from the “automatic drains” of everyday life left them needing much less sleep than before. Fermor also comments on how greatly expanded his levels of energy and creativity became in this new way of life.
I suggest these possibilities cautiously to those in recovery, for all of the reasons mentioned earlier. The patterns of addictive behavior that may still be in us add a complication to the use of silence and solitude not everyone faces. Still: We are where we are. For safety’s sake, we have to do these things, and I think it makes sense to use a little psychological Judo and do everything we can to turn difficulties into opportunities.
I’d also like to suggest that we can experiment with the use of solitude together. This isn’t as much of a contradiction as it might seem. The paradigm in Buddhist mindfulness retreats as I was taught it is, “Alone together.” You sit on your cushion in silence, dealing with whatever comes up; no one else in the room shares your unique experience. Yet, you’re all doing the same thing, and there develops a sense of shared energy and purpose. You come to feel grateful for everyone there.
In that spirit, you could arrange to meditate or practice Yoga or journal at the same time with others—maybe people from your local meeting or close friends. Establish a rhythm between silence and solitude and connecting with others to share what you’ve found. You may find that the privacy and stillness deepens your ability to listen and communicate, and that your appreciation of what you share is enhanced.
Apply the principles of mindfulness and skillful means to the actions we have to take to stay safe. Be mindful washing your hands, applying sanitizer, and wiping down doorknobs. Take this time to get deeply in touch with your heart, your sense of who you are and wish to be. Open your senses fully to what is still beautiful in this world. Renew the intention of your sobriety each new day. Stay in touch with the whole body with clear, present, full feeling. Keep letting go gently of any unhelpful thoughts. Come back, over and over, to this moment, and this moment, until the moment when this crisis is over—as it will be. Celebrate each moment of living you can until then. Then we’ll see each other once again, face to face, hand to hand, and embrace; and what a moment of celebration that will be.