Addiction Recovery in the Midst of Social Distancing

The challenges are substantial but there are many resources available.

Posted May 07, 2020

Source: Pixabay

Addiction is an affliction of isolation. In the early stages, many people’s use of alcohol and other drugs occurs in social settings, often to feel less alone and more connected to others. However, as that use becomes repetitive and progresses to the point where brain chemistry shifts in ways that generate obsessive thoughts and compulsive actions, the accumulation of adverse consequences, guilt, and shame ensnare those individuals in a perverse version of tunnel vision. Substance use becomes the central organizing principle of their lives. 

When life increasingly revolves around the activities of seeking the ways and means to use alcohol or other drugs, using, and recovering from the immediate aftereffects of using, the world continues to shrink becoming ever smaller, narrower, and more isolated. As a result, the antidote for addiction is not abstinence (although abstinence is a foundational ingredient), but rather connection with others. 

This has much to do with why 12-step and other mutual-aid recovery programs—in providing communities based on shared lived experience, common goals, and mentorship, as well as mutual support and identification—have helped more people achieve and sustain recovery from active addiction than any other method. Yet, across the country and around the world in-person meetings have been suspended in order to comply with the World Health Organization’s and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s social distancing recommendations.

If recovery is about connection, how are those in recovery supposed to maintain it during a global pandemic that requires social distancing, if not quarantine, and unavoidably leaves so many people well, isolated? In recovery, sheltering in place and social distancing is a damned-if-you-d-damned-if-you-don’t double-bind.

Most people in recovery are experiencing the significant loss of the social support and connection that is a crucial component of their recovery process. Due to quarantine and social distancing requirements, the availability of in-person 12-step and other recovery support meetings, socializing with peers in recovery, and face-to-face meetings with sponsors/recovery mentors evaporated almost overnight. Moreover, people in early recovery have especially limited capacities to cope with the various forms of discomfort/pain, including mental, emotional, physical, and financial distress, inherent in this public health crisis. As circumstances related to coronavirus continue to evolve, individuals in recovery need access to alternative means of recovery support.

Among the attributes needed to maintain addiction over time are resourcefulness and creativity. These are qualities that can be mobilized and redirected toward positive, healthy ends. In fact, successful recovery requires active participation that benefits from the abilities to be resourceful and creative. 

These qualities have been actualized collectively at a national level in the incredibly rapid, almost overnight transition from face-to-face recovery support to the use of digital platforms such as Zoom and widespread availability of online meetings. Recovering people again have “places” to meet, connect, and socialize while simultaneously adhering to best practices social distancing guidelines.

Enhancing connection

While life in the third decade of the 21st century affords multiple ways to communicate and connect, in the absence of in-person contact and the range of non-verbal communication cues that accompany it, the methods used to maintain connection with sources of recovery support carry particular importance. For instance, it is strongly recommended that those in recovery talk with others on the phone or via a video platform, rather than rely on text messaging. Phone contact provides considerable information and feedback through voice tone and volume. In addition to these critical non-verbal forms of connection, video provides access to facial expression and a degree of body language. 

Because it provides none of these, texting not uncommonly leaves people unclear about the other person’s real meaning and intent. Absent is the between-the-lines communication underlying the words (often abbreviated through “text speak,” with the potential for further confusion). In this way, texting can actually increase a sense of disconnection. Talking to a person and hearing a voice offers a much deeper and more direct connection than sending a text or Facebook message. Voices of understanding, compassion, and empathy can be soothing, especially in times of uncertainty and stress

Video chat interfaces such as Skype, FaceTime, or Zoom allow people to gather together (digitally), see and hear one another, and engage in conversation, creating an even higher level of connection. Although obviously the forms of caring touch often shared in in-person recovery meetings like shaking hands and hugging are unavailable in online forums, these nonetheless provide an emotionally safe space where people have the ability to share about their experiences, including how they’re coping with things that are happening right now.

Online 12-Step and Mutual-Aid Recovery Resources

Alcoholics Anonymous has a web page devoted to online options, including Zoom and Google Hangouts.

Narcotics Anonymous World Services has a webpage with listings for virtual meetings all over the world.

S.M.A.R.T. (Self-Management and Recovery Training) Recovery also provides access to online meetings through its website.

In the Rooms is an independent online recovery support platform that provides a forum to bring together recovering people around the world, offering 130 live meetings across different 12-step and non-12-step programs, along with discussion groups, and other recovery-supportive activities and information.

Social distancing does not have to mean social isolation

The uncertain times around COVID-19 require a balancing act for people in recovery. Many of the safety protocols put in place serve a vital public health purpose, and there are reasons to be concerned about the impacts of social isolation. Isolation and the sense of boredom that comes with it can be a trigger to relapse into alcohol and other drug use. It’s essential to keep in mind that social distancing may be necessary, but it does not have to mean isolation. Social isolation can be mitigated and even prevented by taking the time to pick up the phone and call people—both in and outside of one’s recovery community, and utilize the full and ever-expanding spectrum of available digital resources, including social media, and online recovery meetings. 

To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

Copyright 2020 Dan Mager, MSW.

Author of Roots and Wings: Mindful Parenting in Recovery and Some Assembly Required: A Balanced Approach to Recovery from Addiction and Chronic Pain.