Lockdown is a scary and unsettling time for everyone. Living in isolation, away from our friends and family, unable to go where we like. These are difficult times and although we are all in the same storm – not all of us are in the same boat.
Living through lockdown in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction is incredibly challenging, especially for those who may have just started their recovery journey, or relapsed when things started looking especially bleak (understandable of course) and are now back to counting single digit days and white-knuckling through them. Surrendering to this new way of life and accepting the new rules and regulations are not easy tasks. No addict or alcoholic likes to be told what to do and it would be easy to slip back into old coping mechanisms.
The first two weeks of lockdown felt so similar to a relapse to me. Even though I had thankfully managed to stay sober I was isolated, I couldn’t see any of my friends, I couldn’t face going outside, I was full of fear and an impending sense of doom. More than anything, my anxiety grew by the hour. I described it to a friend as feeling like I was on the last two legs of a chair tipped backwards, hanging, suspended in uncertainty. I’m sure this was a similar feeling for everyone, and although things have settled somewhat, and we are all adjusting to this new routine- this new way of life, I am aware that for some fellow addicts out there, the journey is just beginning.
Addicts live in self-imposed isolation on a daily basis. During my active addiction I would go days, weeks sometimes months, without seeing or speaking to anyone apart from the shopkeepers who sold me my booze and the occasional takeaway delivery driver. This isolation was a prison I made for myself, and my illness was happy to have me as its prisoner. In my recovery I now have an understanding of my mental health issues, and have found a new way of life and a new freedom from this prison. But what to do when faced with a world that now demands us to “stay home, stay safe” and stay separate?
From experience, I know that the opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety – it’s connection. The feeling that I get from being connected to other recovering addicts and alcoholics is what has helped me to get sober and stay sober. In the midst of this madness, talking to someone else who truly understands the way that I think and feel is so important, now more than ever. I urge anyone who is feeling lost and alone right now to reach out to a fellow addict who is also in recovery; it might just save their life too. If you don’t have any numbers, there are helplines you can call to talk to someone who understands. Talking your feeling through is key – even if it is with a complete stranger.
Routine is key too. Having structure to your day will help encourage a feeling of purpose and hopefully keep you just busy enough so that thoughts of drinking and using are kept at bay. Please, don’t think I’m suggesting you now have to take up the cello, or learn Mandarin, or start weaving on a loom (unless you already do any of those things, in which case – bash on!) Do things that you already know you’re good at. Do things that bring you instant joy, even (and especially) if they seem simple. This is not the time to take on ridiculous new challenges. You are already being challenged enough by the world. Let the overachievers climb Mount Everest on their stairs; all you have to do today is stay sober.
There will be days when the simple act of getting out of bed, washing your face and getting dressed is enough. More than enough! Commit to small acts of kindness towards yourself. I have re-read one of my favorite books recently, allowed myself to zone out, allowed myself chocolate when I wanted it and moved my body when it told me it wanted to be moved. I have gone on walks with my children in the sunshine and cried in the bath after they have fallen asleep. I have allowed myself to dance in the ebb and flow of fear and hope and when all else has failed- Ru Paul’s Drag Race on Netflix never does. Now, there is a Queen who knows how to survive.
Part of my daily routine usually includes time for meditation. If the idea of sitting alone with your thoughts makes your skin crawl, believe me, I used to hate it too. When I was first introduced to meditation in rehab it felt like an actual legitimate form of torture. Also, because I’m an attention-seeking blabbermouth, I talk all the bloody time. Being quiet did not come easily to me. Now, I actively look forward to the 10 minutes I give to myself every morning to sit, breathe, listen to my body and try and tune into the part of me that wants to live.
There are many apps that can help, and if all else fails, everyone knows how to count, right? Breathe in through your nose for four counts, hold for eight counts, breathe out through your mouth for eight counts and repeat. This technique is especially helpful during moments of bone shaking panic and anxiety, and has helped me to fight off cravings numerous times. Lockdown is forcing us to take an uncomfortable look at parts of ourselves that are difficult, and knowing how to sit with those feelings and thoughts will be easier if we can meditate through them.
If you can, try to find gratitude every day. It’s a lot easier said than done, I know, but even just finding a moment of gratitude for the cup of tea you’ve just made for yourself or the fact that you are sober today can make the hugest difference. And if gratitude and positivity are too much – you are allowed to cry and scream into a pillow and rage at the world for a while, just make sure you don’t stay there too long. It’s healthy to be angry in early recovery, but holding on to that anger will only hurt you in the long run. Try to let go as much as possible, and when you can, find laughter with a trusted friend on the phone or your favorite comedy film.
Another technique I have used is the method of taking it “one day at a time”, or sometimes even “one hour at a time”. Trying to look too far into an uncertain future, or lingering on a difficult past is tempting but ultimately futile. Living in the present moment, for exactly what it is at this time, can be painful. But it will teach you that today is exactly all we have. Break things down into small, manageable ideas and tasks.
Believe me, I have not managed to do all these things every day since lockdown began. There have been days when I felt like my mental health was hanging on by a thread, and that I was very close to breaking point. There have been days when I couldn’t eat or sleep for worrying about my children, my family and my friends and there have definitely been days when I felt the weight of the world’s pain and sadness on my chest holding me down.
When this happens I come back again to surrender and acceptance, and also faith. Have faith that things will get better, that we will get through this, and that you can and will stay sober. Above all, no matter what happens, know you are not for one second alone. You may feel lonely, but I promise, you are not alone.
If you or anyone you know is experiencing problems with drugs and alcohol or mental health issues, the following services can offer support:
Turning Point Scotland - 0800 652 3757
Support in Mind Scotland - 0300 323 1545
Crossreach - 0131 657 2000
Samaritans - 116 123
Ella Duncan is a mum of two wee boys and lives in Edinburgh. She loves baking and running and meditating and Prince, not necessarily in that order. You can follow her on Instagram @bella_duncan_ella.