Chemical Dependence in the Age of Coronavirus


Note: Recovery groups regularly attend Mount Olivet Conference & Retreat Center. Group members find serenity in this place of natural beauty and special support in taking time away to continue their journey of wholeness and wellbeing. We recognize that this pandemic has created special challenges for persons with addiction and offer this reflection as a means of support and care in this time.

“Why do we drink? Why do we drug?” The capstone of my graduate school training was a twelve-month internship at an addiction treatment clinic. My supervisor and trainer was a man with alcoholism who had been in recovery for sixteen years, and he liked to start off the new client evaluations with the two “why” questions. Clients would often fumble around for a minute or two, looking for what they thought he wanted to hear. Then my supervisor would share his personal insight with them: “We drink and we drug. . . because it works! They change how we feel by altering our brain chemistry. Now what is going on that you want to feel differently?”

That logic did and still does make sense to me. As a therapist who specializes in addiction work, I have found that these responses fall into two categories: the desire to feel more and the desire to feel less. The desire to feel more is evident, for example, when working with young men who are often insecure and feel the need for chemical relaxation in order to have fun with their friends or to find the nerve to cross the dance floor and talk to a potential date. The need to feel less applies to many, many more people. The need to chemically numb our anxiety, depression, our physical or emotional pain.  Usually, the most common reason given for drinking or drugging by people over the age of thirty is to help them manage their stress or their boredom. In these situations, treatment includes helping them establish a sober support system, breaking down the goals of recovery to smaller, achievable units of time (usually called “chunking”) and helping them find healthier ways to manage the stress and boredom. 

Now imagine a world where support groups cannot meet in person for fear of spreading a new disease. A world where spending time with people outside of our immediate family is discouraged.  Where we are warned against physically touching those we love. Where “chunking” becomes more difficult as daily routines are interrupted or suspended altogether as jobs disappear and schools and churches shut down.  A world where suddenly millions more people are experiencing anxiety, stress, depression, and boredom on a daily basis. 

This is the new reality of treating chemical dependence in the age of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings where I live (West Michigan) have been suspended. So have outpatient treatment groups. Face-to-face individual counseling sessions are discouraged as well. In a larger context, how do people in recovery manage their anxiety, depression, stress and boredom when many in the general population are also having difficulty managing their own anxiety, depression, stress and boredom?

Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. However, there are a combination of things that may help people in recovery to stay in recovery:

Establish a sober routine and stick with it.  Go to bed at the same time and get up at the same time every morning.  Continue to do things that help you feel “normal” such as a morning shower and getting out of your pajamas and into day-clothes, even if you have nowhere to go.  A woman once told me that the first sign her recovery was in jeopardy was when she stopped making her bed every morning.

Find activities that help you to feel “normal.” Clean the apartment, cook actual meals, or walk the dog. One client has decided that this is the perfect time to paint his living room.  Board games have suddenly become very popular again.

Engage in a creative outlet.  Adult coloring books are a great way to manage anxiety.   Some people have begun keeping a “Pandemic Journal” for their grandchildren to read someday. Others engage in drawing, painting or visual arts.  One client who is locked down at home has decided this is the time to start taking guitar lessons via YouTube.

Stay connected with your sober support group as much as you can.  While meeting via Zoom, Skype or FaceTime is not as engaging or effective as meeting face-to-face, it can be helpful in providing support and encouragement.  Every Wednesday evening, a group from my church meets via Zoom.  The meeting lasts for one hour and we share how we are feeling, the ups and downs of the week, as well as the more mundane things that we enjoy, such as, “What did you have for dinner tonight?”

Do not expect perfection from yourself.  Like the rest of us, you will have good days and bad days, some days of good energy and motivation and other days where taking a shower and putting on clean clothes may be the extent of your motivation.  Try to remember that the bad days will not last forever.

If possible, get outside.  Keeping social distancing guidelines in mind, just a few minutes of fresh air can greatly improve how we feel.

Avoid too much news consumption.  Excessive consumption tends to form mental loops of worry and anxiety that are difficult to break.  A daily diet of 15-20 minutes of news should be sufficient.

Stay connected with your Higher Power, whatever that may be. For those of us who believe in God, running into the limits of our personal control has brought home our reliance on God in a very real way.  This is a perfect time to practice daily contemplation, mediation, and prayer.

As difficult as it is to remember, this will not last forever. While we do not know how long the pandemic will last or what our world will be like afterwards, try to remember that the pandemic will eventually end. What kind of world we will live in then is being decided by the choices that we all make now.   


*Thomas Mullens, LMSW, CAADC is a therapist from Holland, MI. He specializes in addiction and recovery and mental health treatment.


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