Opinion by EHN Staff
Written by Carlee Campbell, Patient Care Specialist at Edgewood Treatment Centre.
We have all seen the thousands of memes bombarding social media these days. Half of these images are calls to action and attempts to inspire us with ways to use all our “newfound” time during the coronavirus COVID-19 crisis. Get a side hustle! Exercise more! Educate yourself! Learn to thrive! The other half are seeming calls to inaction. Watch all the Netflix! Eat all the snacks! Indulge in all the things! Don’t thrive, survive!
Both, however, are advising us of the urgent need to do something during this pandemic. The need “to do” as opposed to “to be,” can always be a bit of warning sign for those of us in recovery. So, before we get to crafting our perfect schedule for a new income, body, and brain, while searching to the end of the internet while eating snacks, we might want to take a moment. Let’s pause and acknowledge the brutally obvious thing we might be avoiding with all this “doing”—this sucks.
The terrible truth is that the coronavirus pandemic has robbed us of normal. It is quite apparent that the pandemic has taken away really big things, like jobs, health, life, and community, from so many of us. However, coronavirus has also taken away a thousand little, everyday things that we were not even aware were so good. Regardless of your religious affiliation, think back to what the Easter long weekend was like last year. Perhaps it was a time for gathering, food, fun, and loads of chocolate with extended friends, family, and neighbours. This year, while there may still be loads of chocolate, the rest is likely not an option.
We need not even think back as far as last year’s Easter to be reminded of coronavirus’ thefts. Think for a moment of what a trip to the grocery store was like even just a month ago. We would all love to pop in on Friday night for pizza and ice cream without socially-distanced lines, plexi-glass barriers, frightened fellow shoppers, bare shelves, and an undercurrent of anxiety. Of course, we can appreciate an ordinary trip to the grocery store more when it returns, but for right now, it is gone. So many ordinary things are gone. This is hard, stressful, and very, very strange. On a deep, collective level, many of us are sad.
While this isn’t great news for anyone, it can be life-threatening for us recovering addicts and alcoholics. So often we drank and used to avoid our feelings. Sadness was not an exception to the general rule that our feelings needed a drink or a drug. Therefore, it is not at all surprising that many of us are finding those sneaky little thoughts of escape arising in the face of so many little losses.
So what does one do about losing normalcy? We must all grieve. “Must” is a strong word. Grieving is a choice. Going towards pain is usually never an appealing option. However, for those of us in recovery, stuffing emotions down tends to result in us getting us loaded. The old adage, that “the only way out is through,” just might be true here. I don’t know about you, but I want out. So if you want out with me, here are some ideas on finding your way.
(1) Feel All the Feelings
Fellow traveller on the road to recovery, Glennon Doyle, said it best in a recent Instagram post: “feel, be still, and crumble.” We will survive. History is full of lessons on the incredible capacity human beings have to suffer and overcome. In fact, the rooms of recovery are testaments to our ability to feel incredible amounts of pain and survive. As Pema Chödrön notes in her book, When Things Fall Apart, being fully human necessitates embracing our capacity to feel pain. Without the contrast of pain, our joy would feel like nothing at all.
(2) Know the Stages of Grief
In her book, On Death and Dying, Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross described the five stages of grief as follows: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Many self-help gurus and psychologists alike have revisited and renamed these stages over the years. Whatever words or interpretations resonate with you, the awareness of the stages helps us feel sane. Comfort can emerge knowing that we are not “crazy,” but actually at an anticipated stage in a well-studied process.
(3) Understand That the Stages Are Not Linear
Grief is not neat and tidy. In fact, it is usually all over the place. Oftentimes, things that we don’t expect will cause us pain can actually be agonizing, like the line just to get into the grocery store. The converse can also be true. It can be unnerving that the things we expected to be the most difficult are actually not upsetting us. These unexpected reactions can cause us to wonder whether something is wrong with us. The answer is “no.” This messiness is the nature of grief. We can be in one stage at one moment and an hour later find ourselves in another stage entirely. Grief can make no sense at all, which brings us to the next point.
(4) Don’t Try to Figure It out
Grief is a heart game not a head game. Trying to make sense of grief can actually make it more painful. The mental obsession can add to the agony. We cannot figure our way out of grief any more than we could have figured our way out of addiction. Radical acceptance of the pain we are in, rather than trying to make sense of it or fix it, actually makes it easier to endure. For Buddhist insights on this notion, read Pema Chödrön’s, When Things Fall Apart.
(5) Be Aware That There Are Physical Symptoms Too
According to Harvard Health, “trouble sleeping, loss of appetite, and general aches and pains” are all common effects of grief. Grief can be exhausting. So if we find ourselves with a headache that just will not go away, it may actually be related to our grief. And no amount of Advil is going to fix that. Again, this awareness brings the relief of knowing that our bodies are just having predictable physiological reactions to the emotional rollercoaster ride resulting from our losses.
(6) Acknowledge That It’s Personal
The way I grieve may look very different from the way you grieve. Let’s respect each other’s processes. As another sobriety society member, Brené Brown, suggests in her book, Daring Greatly, we are all doing the best that we can at any given moment. We will find ourselves saner when we believe this to be true of one another. Instead of fury when you see a toilet paper hoarder, you may find yourself saddened knowing that this is the best they can do with their fear. This belief does not imply that their behaviour is positive, but it can make our responses more measured and compassionate.
(7) Find Your “Why”
Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, in Twilight of the Idols, that a person “who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” A really helpful way of finding your “why” is to ask the same question five times over. The idea is to drill down on your initial “why” for doing something until you find the deeper reason.
Let’s take the statement that “we all need to stay home.” The exercise would go something like the following:
(i) Why is staying home important? To avoid getting sick.
(ii) Why is avoiding getting sick important? Because it could overwhelm our hospital system.
(iii) Why is not overwhelming our hospital system important? Because if there are more patients than the capacity to treat them, a lot of people could unnecessarily die.
(iv) Why is avoiding unnecessary death important? Because people should not have to lose their loved ones if it is avoidable.
(v) Why is avoiding losing loved ones important? Because losing loved ones is agony.
By asking “why” five times over, we can each find an incredibly meaningful, deeply personal motivation for living life differently right now. Here is a short guide to the process that contains a few more examples.
(8) Make Your Heart Bigger Than Your Loss
In an interview on Oprah Winfrey’s podcast, David and Francine Wheeler, who lost their six-year old in the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting, describe this as the only solution for grief. They had to find a love greater than their loss. Those of us in recovery are often already familiar with this concept, namely service. We can use our experience surviving pain to help others. We can find compensation for the thousands of tiny losses in the tens of thousands of small kindnesses we can give to each other. The little item added to your grocery list for your neighbour, the tiny purchase from the struggling local business, the small “thinking of you” message, the hearts in your window, will each fill a little bit of the hole created by all the losses. Then slowly, gradually, almost imperceptibly, the acts initially done as selfish survival to escape the pain, can become a new way of life. This process mirrors the way recovery has long overflown whatever void that abstaining from drugs, alcohol, or processes left behind. So when you find yourself in those moments of sad stillness, perhaps ask yourself, “how can I find the love here?”
Sure, we will still have bad days during the coronavirus pandemic, but we used to have bad years during addiction. As Glennon Doyle suggests in her book, Untamed, approach the pain with curiosity of what will emerge from the crumbling. Pain makes evolution possible, just keep grasping for the next little, loving little thing, whether given or received. In fact, if we find enough of these little, loving things, we just may discover, like the Grinch, that our hearts have grown three sizes in a post-coronavirus world.