Fearing Distance and Isolation

By Peg O’Connor, PhD, author of Life on the Rocks

A recent article in the New York Times reported that alcohol sales are booming during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Drizly, an alcohol delivery service based in Boston, rates of sales in that city have increased 50 percent since news broke about the spread of the virus. And sales overall in Boston, Seattle, and Chicago have increased more than 300 percent since January. I’ve heard more jokes about working remotely being code for “day drinking” and binge-watching television. Others joke that the request for “social distancing” is an opportunity for people to understand how introverts live. Others note that social distancing is an opportunity to rest from the hurly-burly of social life and perhaps hit the reset button.

For people struggling with addiction, the request for “social distancing” may spark fear and anxiety. Many who struggle with addiction became quite adept at socially distancing ourselves. Isolating ourselves from others was a way to hide our use. For many, time off from work or school was a chance to use without the fear of being found. We would intentionally avoid making plans or having commitments; no one would miss us. No one would have expectations of us.

Now with the request or requirement that we socially distance and work remotely when we can, we may worry about what we will do with that expanse of unstructured time and lack of in-person connection. This stress can become exhausting and debilitating. Stress and anxiety rapidly compound, accelerate, and extend across every area of life. Soon every possibility—however remote—becomes a source of stress and anxiety.

People who are early in recovery and rely upon the fellowships of Alcoholics Anonymous, Women for Sobriety, Smart Recovery, LifeRing, Secular Organizations for Sobriety, or Moderation Management are particularly vulnerable. Overcoming a habit of distancing and isolating is an ongoing achievement that depends on connections, relationships, and routines. Most of these groups are still meeting in some way. As many in Alcoholics Anonymous say, it’s a meeting whenever and wherever two alcoholics gather. It could be a matter of bumping into each other in the grocery store. Each of these groups has some online presence, which is helpful for those who have Internet access. But not everyone does.

What can we do to help ourselves and to help others be connected? If someone in your life is struggling with addiction or other mental health concerns, reach out. Understand that what might feel like a relief to you is a source of anxiety to them. Suspend your judgment and that just might help them to quiet their own inner judge. Talk about the stress and anxiety to acknowledge what is reasonable.

Adults with children or adults with elderly parents who may need to quarantine will be especially stressed and understandably so. Helping with childcare, running errands, being on standby for driving to appointments, checking on vulnerable family members, making food, and buying groceries are a few of things one person can do for another. These very practical and concrete acts help to tether people together. Anxiety running riot tends to pull people away from reality and into the realm of terrifying possibilities. Lost in possibility, people cannot act effectively in reality.

Emergencies disrupt connection and routine, which can have a devastating impact on individuals’ well being. Each of us can help to re-establish these with others. Those of us who have been in recovery for a while understand the tolls distance and isolation take. We know many of the fears. This knowledge comes with a responsibility to help others struggling with addiction. This responsibility extends to others who are vulnerable in different ways this pandemic is making obvious.

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