At the onset of the COVID pandemic, I noticed myself going into fear behavior. While I didn’t want to drink, I did want to numb out in some way — and I fell right back into old controlling patterns.
If I was feeling this way with 15 years of recovery behind me, I could only imagine how hard it was for other addicts during this time.
The pandemic took our sense of safety, security and control away from us. And when we feel out of control, we act out with addictive patterns. Each time we’re triggered, we turn to these patterns as a way to numb the feelings we don’t want to face.
With this post, I want to create a space to talk about addiction and give voice to the rise of addiction at this time. Being an addict is hard enough, let alone during a pandemic. So I called my dear friend Dr. Elisa Hallerman.
Dr. Hallerman is the founder of the Recovery Management Agency as well as an attorney. She holds master’s and doctorate degrees in Depth Psychology and Somatic Studies, focusing on neuroscience and trauma. Dr. Hallerman is also a drug and alcohol counselor and certified in yogic science for addictive behavior.
Below is my interview with Dr. Hallerman about how to handle addiction and stay sober in a pandemic. Be sure to read to the end for helpful resources for addiction and mental health.
My interview with Dr. Elisa Hallerman on how to cope with addiction during the pandemic
What have you been seeing among people in sober recovery since the start of the pandemic?
Dr. Hallerman: This pandemic has been and continues to be a traumatic event for everyone, yet each person is going to have a different response to the same experience. If an individual already has underlying issues such as substance abuse or mental health issues, they’re probably already coming into it with some underlying trauma.
Some people have been able to work from home, be mindful and breathe through this unprecedented experience. They’re using all the tools we hear about so frequently on the news: Breathe, go outside for fresh air and short walks, exercise, connect to friends and family on FaceTime and Zoom.
These are the folks who are at that place where they can say, “Okay. This is a big pause. I’m going to go inward and do some work on myself, now that I have some extra time.” They’re capable of that.
For others, though, the isolation and uncertainty we’re living in trigger a real trauma response. As a result, they go into a state of freeze, which requires another level of care.
They may be really destabilized and suffering. This is when it can be easy to turn to outside coping mechanisms — like their addiction — to try and get through that pain, discomfort and trauma.
You can’t say to the person who’s in a real trauma response, “Just do this, just do that.” The coping mechanisms that work for non-triggered people don’t work. You can’t just breathe through a trauma response. Going outside isn’t going to fix it. It’s not that simple.
Toward the beginning of the pandemic, I was seeing a lot of patients who were suffering from severe depression, suicidal ideation — much more on the mental health side of things. And now that things are starting to lift a little, we’re seeing more of the addiction clients. And then, of course, the trauma underlying all of it.
The other thing we’ve been seeing is a lot of obsessive-compulsive disorder symptoms. Rather than substance abuse addictions or behavioral addictions, I’m seeing OCD come up for the people who are depressed and anxious. It’s triggered by a sense of uncertainty, as well as the fact that there’s an active virus and new rules that come with our current situation.
When the quarantine started, I noticed a lot of jokes and social posts about drinking.
Dr. Hallerman: It’s not a surprise that a lot of people want to drink to numb out stress. Stress will definitely get people looking to something outside of themselves to feel better, and when you’re not identified as an addict the drinking jokes can seem really funny. But it’s less funny when you are at risk of sinking into the disease of addiction.
People who know that addiction is an issue for them have to be extremely mindful about where they’re putting their attention on. I would almost equate it to not having the news cycle on 24/7 if you have a child in the house. It’s too triggering, and often you don’t even realize that it’s sinking in.
The jokes and Instagram posts that are just like, “Oh let’s just all get some THC and have a glass of wine and knock yourselves out” are dangerous for people who are already on that trajectory, or who are trying to live sober or abstinence-based.
What are your thoughts on people who don’t have any addiction issues but find themselves overdoing it with the substances lately?
Dr. Hallerman: This gets back to my question of, “How do you become an addict?” There are a couple of different ways.
It’s partly biological, so you can genetically have a disposition to it.If addiction runs in your family and you’re finding yourself drinking too much, you’re very close to crossing that line from “use and abuse” into a disease of addiction.
And when I say “the disease of addiction,” I mean the brain disease of addiction that is no longer curable, only treatable with abstinence-based behavior. Now, everyone might not believe in that, but that’s certainly science.
Second: Are you in an enormously stressful environment where you’re going to keep going up and up and up? Is your tolerance increasing? Are you noticing that you need more of the same thing to get the same result? Are you having withdrawal from that substance or from that alcohol? Are you finding yourself hungover? Are you experiencing blackout? Are you not feeling well the next day? Is it starting to affect your life? Is there any unmanageability creeping up?
People will often say when we talk about the unmanageability of it, “Well, I’m still going to work and I’m still doing what I need to do and this and that.”
Then I ask, “Well how’s your marriage?”
“Oh, terrible. We’re not speaking. My daughter hates me. I’ve gained 75 pounds.” And so on, whatever it is.
There’s not always going to be unmanageability in all aspects of your life, but the keyword is “yet.”
Then there’s the psychological aspect to it. Do you find yourself needing something to make yourself feel better? Are you actively seeking to numb out? You might you want to sit with that and look at that for a minute.
When things like this happen, we can be experiencing a dark night of the soul, which is an opportunity for us to really sit still. If we’re not having a trauma response, we can sit still for a second and not be afraid of the dark. And instead be able to go, “What is going on right now? Be curious. Let me sit here and have my aha moment.”
In order to have that aha learning moment, you need to be present for it. You need to be clear. You can’t have that conscious attachment with higher power or others or yourself if you’re clouding it with substance. Because that is only going to work short term. It’s not meant to be maintained or sustainable.
Right now, some restrictions are starting to lift. But if everything shuts down again, what can people do if they can’t physically attend a 12-step meeting or something similar?
Dr. Hallerman: There are a ton of Zoom meetings for all 12-step groups. If you go on aa.org now, they list all the Zoom meetings. It’s literally online. So that’s really cool. You can stay in the comfort zone of your home, but you can also be anonymous and jump into another state or another country.
Some people are uncomfortable with the Zoom meetings because they’re on a computer. I’ve found that if you can sit into it for a minute, there’s something really personal because you’re in their home. You can see what’s going on. It can be slightly distracting, but at the same time it’s very personal.
I’ve really enjoyed the gender-specific ones because I enjoy the women and I enjoy seeing them in their element with their coffee and tea, in their bed or lounging in their living room.
As for coed meetings, I don’t feel comfortable with that intimacy. So I’ll usually put up a Zoom background or something. It’s just something to be mindful of.
I’ve been helping out with this foundation called Generation S.O.S. It was started by a good friend of mine, Jim Hood, and Robin Kiam Aviv. What they’ve done is created a community, now it’s online, where they have meetings and it’s open. It is a conversation with young people and adults around abstinence, sobriety, harm reduction that is rooted in connection and healing family systems. It’s not affiliated with any 12 step meetings; however, the 12 steps are discussed.
They bring in amazing speakers, and I found it to be current and very informative.
What have you seen people do that’s positive and successful during the pandemic?
Dr. Hallerman: Human beings are made to connect. We have to have connections to survive and thrive. I think everyone’s experiencing social distancing differently. There are people who are isolating together, and that can be hard. And then there are people who are isolating alone, going weeks or months without any physical contact, which is very difficult too.
I think that for the addicts, meetings are essential. Also reading abstinence-based material — even if it’s a page in the morning from one of Gabby’s books or decks. Anything that’s going to ground you in your recovery and healing. I do that sometimes throughout the day, not just in the morning or night.
I also think there’s a lot to be said for journaling: writing down feelings, resentments and emotions, and getting them out of your mind and onto the page.
Dr. Hallerman: It is essential to have that eye-to-eye connection with other human beings as many times a day as we can. Because you can feel more by looking into someone’s eyes.
Oftentimes when we’re scrolling or looking at online sites, we project this false sense of happiness on the other side. Looking in people’s eyes and tapping into the windows of their soul is essential because it grounds you.
I’ve also told my clients: You should know who your support system is on one hand. You need your primary emergency contact, and maybe two or three others who make up your support system. Check in with them every day and make sure they do the same.
Then, aside from your support team, who is your board of directors? You’re the CEO of your life, but who’s your board? Let’s say you want to make a decision — “I’m moving to Canada; I can’t deal with it anymore.” Or “I’m dropping out of school,” or “I’m divorcing my spouse.” Who is the board of directors? Who will you consult to say, “How does this sound?”
It’s very much about having a team. Maybe you’ve created your board in a clinical way, and it’s your therapist or your psychiatrist or your sponsor. If so, great. But if not, can you designate yourself two teams that you go to, your “911 team” and your board of directors?
Maybe it’s the same group of people for you. For me, it’s two separate groups. Sometimes there’s crossover, but for the most part I have my soul sisters who I can check in with (Gabby being one of them) and then my board of directors, which is different.
Resources for addiction recovery and mental health
Dr. Hallerman has an extensive list of resources on her website, including some great links specific to dealing with the COVID—19 pandemic.
You can see the full list here. She’s compiled books, websites and articles on addiction recovery, psychology/psychotherapy, mental health, personal growth and more.
Two of the recent articles she’s included are “Staying Sober During a Lockdown” from The New York Times and one on mental health coping strategies during coronavirus from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).
For more on Dr. Elisa Hallerman, Recovery Management Agency and Soulbriety, check out her website.