“I’m not willing to lose everything”: Recovery in the Time of Coronavirus

Let’s not sugarcoat things: Amid the COVID-19 crisis, anxiety is sky high among folks in treatment for opioid addiction.

If that’s you, your number one fear may be relapse. After all, stress, isolation, and boredom — key triggers under any circumstance — have been cranked up to the max during the coronavirus pandemic.

Maybe you also fear losing the stability — the housing, the job, the family life — you’ve worked so hard to achieve. Of course, just like everyone else, you might fear the virus itself.

“Our minds automatically go to panic mode in a crisis,” says Amber, 38, an Ideal Option patient, who worried she’d lose access to her medication. (She won’t. Both Ideal Option and pharmacies remain open during the crisis.)

Amber was laid off from her retail job when the coronavirus hit. But after all she has survived in addiction — living on the street, relapsing multiple times, being separated from her children — she is confident she and her fellow patients will endure the fallout of coronavirus.

“If we can get through addiction and walk through the doors of Ideal Option — a petrifying and humbling thing — we can overcome anything,” says Amber, in recovery for two years. “This is a bump in the road and will make us better people.”

It’s a big bump, to be sure, but there’s no shortage of actions you can take to sustain recovery.

“What I hope to impart to patients during this crisis is a sense of control,” says Geoff Godfrey, an advanced nurse practitioner at Ideal Option.

Geoff says patients fearful of relapse have told him, “Hey, if I’ve got my head in the sand by using again, I won’t have to think about the disease and see all the crap going down.”

He assures them they have better options than to start using again.

“Yes, we’re in a world of hurt right now,” Geoff says, “but we’re a wonderful community of patients and providers, and we will get through this together.”

If you’re feeling vulnerable, here are 7 actions you can take, during these strange and uncertain times, to maintain your hard-earned recovery.

Call someone — a friend, your sponsor, or Ideal Option. Don’t try to white-knuckle it! 

“Even without the virus stressing everyone out, it’s not easy to get your footing in recovery,” says Shante, 38, an Ideal Option patient who used heroin for a decade and is now pursuing a college degree in addiction studies. “So don’t be afraid to call someone who’s supportive and say, ‘Hey, I’m not doing so well. This is stressing me out and I want to use.’”

Twelve-step meetings are being held online, and Ideal Option has nurses to talk to every day from 4am to 8pm Pacific Time. If you do have a return-to-use episode, call right away. No, you won’t get kicked out of the program, as some patients fear. You will be treated with compassion and understanding.

“I had to relapse a bunch before I finally started doing things that were proactively helping my recovery,” says Curtis, 52, another Ideal Option patient stressed by the pandemic. “I’ve learned how to identify situations that are not good for my recovery, and I do that by getting connected to people who care.”

Even in these days of lockdowns and shelter-in-place rules, you can get the support you need.

“The other day, I had a patient who was absolutely panic stricken, and we stood across the room from each other like we were hugging each other,” says Geoff. “It was such a moment.”

Imagine, in detail, what your life will be like — financially, logistically, emotionally — if you start using again.

“I play the whole tape in my mind,” says Shante, who lives with her 5-year-old daughter. “I literally envision myself from the beginning to the end: Where would I leave my daughter to go buy drugs? What would happen to her after I use the drugs? I’ll definitely want more, so then what? Will I be able to prepare meals for her and be the attentive, loving mom I am now? No, I’ll be consumed with using. What if I OD? What if I die? Will the state take her?”

Playing out the entire scenario reminds Shante why, despite her anxiety right now, she remains committed to recovery.

“After all I’ve been through,” she says, “I’m just not willing to lose everything. I’ve come too far.”

Take time each day to meditate, paint, listen to music — whatever relaxes you.

Whether you are working, stressing about not working, adjusting to spending 24/7 with your kids, or keeping tabs on the relentless coronavirus news, carve time out of your day to step back and chill out.

Curtis, who’s building a house, starts his day at 4 a.m. with an hour of meditation and reading. “It’s my favorite time of the day,” he says. “Quieting my mind and letting my spirit guide me takes some of the anxiety away.

Later in the day, he takes a break from work to reconnect with that calm feeling he had at 4 a.m. “It really grounds me,” he says.

Amber paints every day, whether on a canvas, a TV tray, or a piece of furniture.

“Even if I’m super stressed when I start, before I know it, I’m not even thinking,” she says. “I’m just looking at the pretty flower I painted, and my mind is clear of all the stress.”

Writing in her journal helps calm her, too, Amber says.

“If I’m mad I’ll grab my journal, and then I’ll look at it again later and say, ‘That was stupid to get that mad over nothing. Who wants to be angry all the time?’”

Shante makes sure she and her daughter take a half-hour each day to walk outside, and in the evenings, she stops her studying to play games and watch a movie with her daughter.

“I am stressed and nervous,” she says, “but I have to put on that supermom cape and incorporate my self-care with hers.”

Remember: Suboxone has your back.

Medication does not guarantee a sustained recovery, but the medication is proven to greatly diminish withdrawal and diminish cravings and drastically improves your odds of weathering a storm. Geoff calls it a “protective device.” Amber calls “my armor.”

If you take your medication every day, in the dose and manner prescribed by Ideal Option, you will be much less likely to relapse, even in these stressful times.

“Suboxone is like a back-up — it gives me an extra sense of security,” says Shante.

Help out someone else.

If you’re young and healthy, offer to pick up groceries for an elderly neighbor. Call someone who is newer to recovery than you are and ask how they’re coping.

Or, make an extra effort to be present for your children. Practice the kind of parenting you might not have received. Read to your kids, play games with them, teach them a useful skill, like making scrambled eggs or changing a bike tire.

Says Geoff: “One patient told me, ‘My daughter was really scared, and I was able to calm her down by assuring her that no matter what, I’m going to be there for her. I’ve never been able to feel like that good of a parent.’”

Another patient, whose own mom used to shoot her up with heroin to keep her quiet, says she’s using this time to help her kids with their online school work. “She’s being the opposite of what her mother was,” Geoff says. “She’s changing history.”

Find a way to improve yourself.

Boredom is bound to creep in when you can’t go out with friends, see a band, or attend to your weekly card game. But even when you’re stuck at home, there’s plenty you can do to stay occupied and keep thoughts of using at bay.

Work on making yourself healthier. Learn yoga online, walk outside every day, or join an online smoking-cessation program.

Enroll in an online community college course, pick up that dusty old Spanish workbook, or learn new songs on the guitar.

“Start studying something you’re passionate about,” Geoff says. “If you spend 25 minutes a day for a year, you’ll have 187 hours of knowledge in your brain that nobody can steal from you.”

You may surprise yourself at just how much more you can accomplish than when you were using.

“Now that I’m in recovery, I’m actually worth a damn,” says Curtis, who discovered his carpentry skills are top level. “In recovery, I can get stuff done whereas before I couldn’t.”

Appreciate how far you’ve come.

When you have coronavirus stress piled on top of the everyday challenges of recovery, it’s only natural to feel overwhelmed.

“It almost seems unfair to have experienced and survived such suffering in addiction and even to have begun thriving — and then this virus comes along and tries to rob you of your life in recovery,” Curtis says.

But try to flip your thinking. View the situation as a challenge you’re equipped to handle because of what you’ve already endured.

Says Curtis: “Many people in recovery, especially early in recovery, fail to recognize the strength and courage it’s taken them to get this far.”

For more tips on how to avoid relapse, check out out webinar, “Preventing Relapse in Times of Crisis” with addiction medicine provider, Ben Rae, ARNP-BC here: https://my.idealoption.org/fears-webinar/.

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