Times are tough right now, there’s no doubt about it. Every day, I feel like there’s more bad news. And, full disclosure: I have an immunocompromised husband and I am terrified of losing him. So yeah, I’m scared. But, is this the most frightening time of my life? Actually, it’s not. The scariest time of my life was when alcohol use, mental illness, and toxic relationships made me the star of my very own horror movie.
Now that I’m in recovery, I have things to help me get through a crisis like this. I have a support network, I see a therapist, and I avoid toxic people. I’ve had enough experience drinking through crises to last a lifetime, and I know now that hiding out with a six-pack doesn’t make the gale-force hurricane winds stop blowing or remove the eviction notice from the door. And while I don’t have a cocktail to keep me company right now, I have something infinitely better. I have hope.
But, is this the most frightening time of my life? Actually, it’s not. The scariest time of my life was when alcohol use, mental illness, and toxic relationships made me the star of my very own horror movie.
Years ago, when I decided to try the last thing I wanted to do — get sober — in order to save my sanity, the prospect of life without my safety net of alcohol was incredibly distressing. After multiple relapses, I left NYC and went to stay with my grandparents for about a month. It was not so different from how things are now. I was incredibly anxious and I had nothing but time on my hands. So I went for walks every day, I cooked dinner, I swept the floors, and I watched a lot of TV. I stopped judging the feelings I was having and accepted that I was having a hard time.
I’ve returned to the lessons I learned in those very early days of recovery to guide me during this difficult time. The issue now isn’t so much about alcohol (although I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a craving or two in the past few weeks) but the lessons still apply.
1. Stay in the moment.
When I decided to stop drinking, the idea of staying sober forever was too abstract and overwhelming of a concept to wrap my mind around. Thinking about getting through the next two weeks was enough to give me a panic attack, let alone the rest of my life. The only way it was possible to stay away from a drink in these early days was just taking it day by day. When I’d wake up in the morning, I’d say to myself, “I am not going to drink today.” And that would be the level of planning I did. And by continuing to do this, I was able to put 30 days of sober time together.
What I can handle is today. Today is manageable.
I have to remind myself that it’s time to do this again. I can easily spiral into an almost paralyzed state of anxiety by reading the news. The statistics, the projections of what life will be like in the future, how many people are estimated to get sick — all of this is too much to take in right now. I literally can’t handle it. What I can handle is today. Today is manageable. I’m following the protocols for social distancing, washing my hands, and making sure I’m doing something that benefits my mental health. When tomorrow comes, I will worry about tomorrow.
2. Focus on what you can control.
I can’t control the fact that there are people in my city who are not taking this pandemic seriously. I can’t control my relatives — especially the elderly ones — who are not taking the safety precautions that we have all been repeatedly told to take. And I can’t control the global spread of this virus.
But I can control my own actions. I can take the necessary safety measures to protect my husband and the vulnerable people in my neighborhood. I can’t control the fear I feel, but I can control the media I consume that exacerbates that fear. I can’t control whether or not surges of anxiety and panic may surface, but I can control how I deal with them. Instead of my old coping mechanisms of booze and drugs, I can choose actions that are good for my mental health, like phone sessions with my therapist, breathing exercises, and contact with other people in recovery.
Instead of my old coping mechanisms of booze and drugs, I can choose actions that are good for my mental health, like phone sessions with my therapist, breathing exercises, and contact with other people in recovery.
I can plan out what I’m going to make for dinner tonight (tacos or shepherd’s pie?). I can call my friends and send them dumb memes. I can choose to focus on the stories I read about kindness and humanity, rather than the sad stories about people hoarding toilet paper.
3. Be honest, and ask for help when you need it.
While it’s good to put on a brave face and stay positive, there’s no shame in asking for help when you need it. The day my recovery truly began is the day that I was able to admit that I needed help. Once I accepted that I couldn’t simply will myself to “get better” on my own, I was able to seek out professional help and find a community support group, both of which made a massive difference in helping me get sober.
The same principle applies to the situation we’re facing right now — if you need help, ask for it. This can mean getting honest with your therapist about how you’re feeling, or seeking out a therapist if you don’t have one already, and talking to other people in recovery, either individually or in a group format.
The day my recovery truly began is the day that I was able to admit that I needed help.
If you are immunocompromised, or you are a caregiver to someone who is, please also be honest about when you need help. On a logistical level, there are ways that you can get prescriptions, groceries, and other supplies delivered to you without having to be in contact with other people in public and putting yourself in danger of infection. You can check in with your doctor for additional guidance. But don’t forget about self-care. If you are feeling lonely or anxious while isolating, reach out to your friends and family and let them know that you need to stay connected. Make a schedule where you have catch-ups and calls with different people on different days. It takes a lot of bravery to admit that you’re feeling lonely, just like it takes a lot of courage to admit that you have issues with addiction.
I don’t know what’s going to happen next. But in order to face it, and get through it, I know that I need to be sober. And that’s where I am today.