Zooming through a Pandemic Sober
During these challenging times, it is appropriate and important to share personal stories that reflect on addiction, recovery, and treatment. The COVID-19 pandemic has created some new and unusual experiences for many, in itself creating obstacles to maintaining sobriety. Here is a voice that gives a glimpse into a new reality that strengthens our resolve and dedication at the ATTC Network and our commitment to those providing treatment and recovery services.
By Deron D.
The people with whom I attend support meetings have given me the tools I need to live a life worth living. Of course, this does not mean that I necessarily use these tools daily, but at least I have the capacity to access them, when I choose to do so. I consider myself one of the lucky ones who has been walking this path for almost 30 years now. I try to practice spiritual principles on a weekly basis. Thankfully, most of my friendships share a mutual desire, actual need, to abstain from alcohol. Having friends with these common goals helps me tremendously.
Through three decades, every single one of these meetings has been in-person, with people who I can touch (appropriately), connect with eye contact, read their body language, and hear their responses of laughter, empathy, and anger during individual sharing moments. Then the global pandemic hit. Stay at home mandates were put in place. The fact that my work requires me to spend a fair portion of my day on Zoom undoubtedly was a significant factor in my becoming burned out with virtual meetings. So when I contemplate and configure a value towards the total effectiveness of attending online support groups, I must try to factor this in. When the virus took hold and the shutdowns began, I, like so many others, turned to online meetings as a survival mechanism. I had come to rely upon support groups to help cultivate, maintain, and enhance my sense of well-being. It was a tool to nurture your path to live a principled life. Virtual meetings at first were a novel experience; it was initially interesting and even enjoyable. Sure, I missed the hugs and other things mentioned above, but at least there was still a connection with kindred others. Online meetings seemed a decent substitute. The weeks turned into months and as my parents fell ill to COVID-19, became hospitalized and died, this simulacrum of connection began to leave a bad taste in my mouth - kind of like that crappy salt substitute: bitter and lingering and unwanted, even after its long gone.
I ponder this question: Has it helped staying in touch and sharing my burdens and joys and listening to the journeys of friends whom I have known for decades via Zoom? Most definitely! Still, there is no virtual replacement for a hug. No adequate fill-in for patting someone on the shoulder. There is no online grasping of another's hand in genuine and mutually shared happiness of sharing the same space, same moment. In the last virtual meeting we had, we asked everyone who was in a quiet place to unmute themselves. This was a first. We were all missing the human reactions, mostly the shared laughter, of our friends as people spoke. As the meeting progressed, I realized this was one thing I wish we’d done differently from the beginning. What a game changer! It vastly enhanced the experience to hear real-time, spontaneous reactions, which felt real and rejuvenated me. The loss of my parents has probably colored my experience and perspective of online meetings. The inability to hug my mom and dad the last time I saw them and going without the balm of hugs from friends and family during such grief is not something I would not wish upon my enemies. In retrospect I would have many enemies if not for the practices and habits instilled within me by the people in my support groups.
Lonely But Not Alone
As I write these words, I am one day removed from my first real in-person meeting in more than two months. Caveat: We conducted an outdoor, socially distanced meeting on the same weekend that my parents died. For this, I will remain grateful to my final breath. Our small group plans to continue our meeting, once a week, in-person and outdoors. Of course, this is dependent on the severity of a second wave of the virus arrives.
I don’t want to give anyone the impression that I am ungrateful for the technology that allows us to remain connected during this period of isolation. It helped me and I have heard from many others that it was a lifeline for them. That strikes me as a net-positive. Yet, there were a couple of times, before a virtual meeting began, that I found myself dreading it in a way I never dreaded a “real” meeting. And, on more than one occasion after a virtual meeting, I felt more alienated than before. There’s an adage that many people in these support groups like to say: “I never left a meeting feeling worse than when I showed up.” In all honesty, this is not 100% true for me. The times I did leave feeling worse, however, have been rare. My experience with virtual meetings feels much closer to a .500 batting average. That said, not once in these past few surreal months have I thought about picking up a drink. Staying sober, I know with 100% accuracy, is not something I can do alone, virtually or not. The meetings may not have all been virtual happy hours, but for people like me that is not the point. Then again, thinking about what takes place during typical happy hours, maybe that is exactly the point.
The ATTC Network has a newly formed national workgroup focused on self-care for the substance use disorder and recovery workforce, particularly for clinical and peer specialists in the field. This workgroup, first convened in April 2020 is made up of ATTC Directors, Co-Directors, and key staff from across the Network, and will create leadership, capacity building, and educational resources for a national audience.
While this workgroup decides next steps, please check out the ATTC "Building Resiliency and Compassion" webpage (https://attcnetwork.org/centers/global-attc/compassion-resources) and the ATTC “COVID-19 Response Resources" webpage (https://attcnetwork.org/centers/global-attc/network-pandemic-resources).