Updated: Jan 12
We die at a higher rate than everybody else. That means you and me!
Addiction to drugs and alcohol is now considered a risk factor for infection by the coronavirus. As addicts, we are more likely to catch the disease and more likely to be hospitalized because of it. But most importantly, we die at a higher rate than the general population!
According to Dr. Sanjay Gupta of CNN, drug overdoses are surging during the pandemic, having risen 18% since stay-at-home orders were implemented in mid-March. Although the number of opioid prescriptions has been steadily declining, overdoses are rising.
Newcomers are at special risk. An NIH (National Institute of Health) report found that those recently diagnosed with Substance Abuse Disorder (SUD), a fancy name for addiction to drugs and alcohol, fared worse, with higher hospitalization rates, complications, and deaths. Recently diagnosed means the newcomers, unable to find in-person meetings.
Dr. Nora Volow, Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), said that people with SUD during the pandemic were more likely to be homeless or in jail. Volow's work has been instrumental in demonstrating that drug addiction is a disease of the human brain, has an excellent video on YouTube, “Effects of COVID-19 on the Opioid Crisis: Francis Collins with Nora Volkow.” Her blog is here
Social Isolation. Addicts have always had a problem with isolation and it’s often a trigger for relapse. For some of us, our using occurred at home, so being quarantined is a problem. Sitting alone at home amplifies our fears and anxieties. Deprived of relationships we depend on to maintain our sobriety, we develop sleep disorders, depression, even post-traumatic stress disorders.
Interruption of drug sources. Temporary border closures have interrupted the smuggling of illicit drugs, resulting in a scarcity of street drugs. Social distancing has reduced drug trafficking on the streets, pushing consumers toward unusual markets such as the dark web. Lack of our drug of choice has led to alternate drugs, for example, substituting heroin (which is often cut with fentanyl) for opioid pills. Limited access to detox and the closing of methadone clinics makes things worse. There are reports from Italy of people violating the quarantine roaming the streets looking for drugs.
Lung problems. Many drugs, such as heroin, synthetic opioids, and methamphetamine all compromise respiratory function which contributes to lung damage, increasing the severity of the illness. This is probably true for any drug which is smoked.
Lack of AA meetings
When we walk into an AA or NA meeting room, there is an indescribable feeling of community which no Zoom or online meeting can replace. Gupta again, “the musty smell of the church basement, that energy, the fellowship, that immediate sense of belonging. Those kinds of connections may be unconscious, but we associate them with recovery.”And many of the Old Timers simply “aren’t into the whole technology thing anyway.”This also impacts the newcomer desperately trying to get clean and sober.
For professionals trying to stay sober, the pandemic has been especially tough. Not only health care workers, but also lawyers and other white-collar types. They already have high rates of depression, anxiety, and many are struggling. Working from home, it’s easier to hide intoxication. At the end of a trying day, it’s easy to reach out for something to “take the edge off.”(We used to call it ‘attitude adjustment hour.’ “There is tremendous fear, tremendous uncertainty” in this group, reports Eilene Zimmerman in the Guardian. One residential treatment center in Ohio (The Ridge) has admitted twice as many healthcare professionals as they usually do.
What do the principles of AA tell us?
As a long-time member of AA, I miss seeing my friends in our homegroup. Meetings are the mainstay of my program. They provide a fellowship like no other. The meeting before the meeting and the meeting after the meeting amplify all the good things we share. As a group, sitting in a meeting room, we share an indescribable spirituality that is beyond hugs, handshakes, and coffee.
Meetings are an essential part of our recovery. Left to myself, my thinking easily becomes distorted. For many, boredom and isolation are relapse triggers.
At my first Zoom meeting, I was overcome, when, for the first time in weeks, I saw the faces of my friends and heard their voices. I came away with a lighter heart, but it was nowhere near what the old meetings were like.
What do the principles of AA have to offer during the pandemic?
In AA, our task can be summed up in a few words: clean house, trust God, and help others. If our goal is sobriety, a life that is happy, joyous, and free, then that’s how we’ll get there. Even in a pandemic.
Clean house. Before I can be of help to others, I’ve got to clean up my side of the street. Look around you. Anger and resentment can’t be allowed to gain the upper hand. What can we do to sweep despair and doubt from our door?
I hate discipline, but it sets me free. Under lock-down, pajamas, snack food, and laziness seem to be my only friends. Wake up, Meadows! Set a regular schedule and stick to it. Eat as well as you can. Get enough sleep. One way or another, get out of the house; find a spot in Nature where you can chill, if it’s only staring out the bathroom window. Don’t wallow in self-pity; make a gratitude list instead. Count your blessings, not your lacks.
The biggie, of course, is to deepen my spirituality. My sobriety is based on a daily reprieve and requires a daily dose of spirituality. This spirituality, they said, comes from going to meetings, and from prayer and meditation. In the absence of meetings, I can still maintain that spiritual fitness, so prayer and meditation are now more important than ever.
Help others. The preamble says that our purpose is to solve our common problem and help others to recover. The founding principle of AA is that working with another alcoholic will keep me clean and sober. Pick up the phone, call people you know. Call people you barely know. Just call. Share your own pandemic experience. Listen to theirs. No matter how far I have sunk into despair, there are others worse off than I am, and I can be of help. We need each other.
Trust God. I worked hard to find a Higher Power I could believe in. He lifted my spirits, showed me the way, and answered my prayers. He has not gone anywhere. I just have to remember to call on Him, and often.
Remember this: Let go and let God. I must put my worries aside, remove my selfish wants and desires, and think more of others than myself. Look into the face of everyone I encounter and smile, even if we’re both wearing masks. See the humanity in them; they are just as frightened as you. Listen to what they are saying. Get outside of myself and see the world from their point of view. Treat other people the way you want to be treated. Especially now.
Remember this as well. We ceased fighting anything and everything. Take a deep breath. You’re going to be just fine.
The CDC has a question and answer page on SUD and the pandemic.
SAMHSA, (the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) has an incredible collection of resources on its website.
It has a National Helpline, 1-800-662-HELP (4357).
And it sponsors the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255
(The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention, and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals.
“Overcoming substance abuse through the use of spiritual principles behind
12-Step programs, to find long-term recovery from addiction to drugs
and alcohol and to live a sober life.”
Photo of the Carina Nebula courtesy of NASA