5 Key Steps to Staying Sober During a Crisis

Covid-19 has upended every facet of life, but there are still ways to seek help and remain sober.

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- Posted on Apr 9, 2020

Woman with hands on hips at a mountain lake.

In-person support group meetings have been restructured to go remote—or cancelled completely. Family routines are scrambled, as schools close and businesses are shuttered with jobs lost.

How are people maintaining sobriety amid so many challenges?

Guideposts has been a leader in coverage of substance abuse, first publishing Alcoholics Anonymous co-founder Bill Wilson’s story in 1947 and last year concluding a 24-month series on recovery. We talked to numerous experts and our own contributors about staying sober during a crisis.

“Like a lot of chronic illnesses, addiction is a stress-induced illness,” said Christopher O’Reilly, executive director of family services for Caron Treatment Centers, an addiction and behavioral healthcare treatment provider. “What we’re dealing with right now is how do people keep stress levels at a healthy rate with all [of these] changes, losing jobs, being home, people getting sick. How do you manage that stress and the stress associated with the unknown?”

O’Reilly said the risk is even greater for people new to recovery who don’t have established networks of support or daily habits that promote sobriety.

“It’s a big concern for us,” he said.

O’Reilly and several people who have told their recovery stories in Guideposts agreed on five key steps people in recovery can take to ensure they maintain their sobriety amid extreme challenges:

1. Don’t let a crisis become an excuse to use.

Disruption caused by the Coronavirus can seem like “a great excuse to drink, and you can tell yourself that, but you have to get over that,” said Suzanne Hayes, a recovering alcoholic in Simsbury, Connecticut, who shared her story in the Christmas 2019 issue of Guideposts.

Hayes, who recently celebrated her sixth year of sobriety, said even veterans of recovery must guard against old mental habits during times of stress. She said she relies on time-tested 12-step principles, such as breaking down recovery into one-day or even moment-by-moment increments.

“If you can stay sober one day, you can stay sober through anything,” she said.

2. Stay connected

Recovery professionals say the opposite of addiction isn’t just sobriety but also connection. That’s especially true in a crisis.

“Recovery programs are all about the fellowship and being close and relating,” said Melissa Dale of Des Moines, Iowa, a recovering gambling and methamphetamine addict who leads a Celebrate Recovery program at a church in Des Moines, Iowa. “You hear, ‘Hugs not drugs,’ and that’s not something we can do right now.”

Dale, who told her story in the October 2019 issue of Guideposts, said people in recovery must find other ways to connect, especially online. She recommended several resources, including an online recovery organization called In The Rooms, and Celebrate Recovery, a Christian 12-step program that connects people with local church-based support groups. Alcoholics Anonymous also has an online resource for people seeking a digital recovery community. The organization recently created a Coronavirus-specific resource page.

Dale said people in recovery should also reach out to sponsors or other sobriety mentors. “Online groups and Facebook Live give us that sense of fellowship we’re missing,” she said. “To go deeper we should be connecting to a group leader or a sponsor or someone who has more experience.”

3. Don’t be afraid to be afraid

Suzanne Hayes said people with substance abuse problems often suppress difficult emotions and channel fears into harmful behavior.

“The most important thing is staying connected and talking about what you’re feeling,” she said. “Even if there’s no solution, you have to get it out.”

Hayes—a single mom of three kids, ages 10, 12 and 16—juggles home schooling with her job as an admissions counselor at a private school. She worries about getting sick, maybe losing her job, running out of ideas for the kids. Formerly, she said, she would blot out stress by drinking. Now she shares her fears.

“Asking for help requires vulnerability,” she said. “I want people to think I’m strong and centered and I’ve got this. It only hurts me when I keep in my weaknesses and vulnerabilities and fears. The minute I get it off my chest, I feel better.”

4. Maintain healthy habits

David Stoecker, a recovering alcoholic and drug addict in Springfield, Missouri, runs a non-profit organization that helps people in recovery find constructive activities and stay involved in their communities.

Sheltering at home, Stoecker said he is now counseling people in recovery to maintain the healthy habits that are a foundation of sobriety.

“I always say there are a couple aspects we need to look at [in recovery]: physical self-care, social self-care and spiritual or emotional self-care,” said Stoecker, who told his story in the March 2018 issue of Guideposts. “With physical care we look at, are you getting enough sleep? Eating healthy? Getting exercise? As simple as, are you getting a 20-to-30-minute walk in the morning and evening?”

O’Reilly of Caron agrees that said such simple habits can dramatically reduce stress, which in turn reduces the urge to engage in destructive behavior. Use “lots of little enjoyable moments to counterbalance the bigger stress and burdens,” he said.

5. Have faith

All 12-step recovery programs begin with surrender to a higher power. Melissa Dale said such faith is even more necessary during a crisis.

Dale said she copes with the torrent of alarming news and the disruption of daily life by remembering the first three of Alcoholics Anonymous’ 12 steps.

“I’m powerless over this situation and trying to control it makes my life miserable,” she said. “There is a God that is bigger and I can’t control everything and I don’t have to. I can turn it over to God and God will carry it.”

Stoecker said he establishes a daily spiritual foundation with a habit of morning prayer. “I wake up and do a gratitude list…three things I’m grateful for while the coffee brews. I take the coffee on the back porch and give thanks to my creator for those three things while I drink my coffee.”

Hayes said it’s all about “faith over fear.”

“In my years of sobriety and growing closer to God, I know that no matter what is thrown at me I can get through it sober with God on my side,” she said.

Resources for People in Recovery During a Crisis

Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation: The national organization compiled a list of free online recovery resources. It’s encouraging those seeking support to “stay safe, stay connected and support one another.”  

Caron Treatment Centers: The nonprofit is offering the latest treatment options, policy news, expert ideas and more for those in the addiction and recovery space. They recently published a list of recovery tools to help patients manage their stress levels.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration: The agency provides a 24-hour hotline and more to people with mental or substance abuse disorders.

Narcotics Anonymous: Although the organization is no longer updating their website with event information, they have a slew of free publications, reports and other resources for people in recovery.

Cocaine Anonymous Online: The recovery program offers free, downloadable literature, from managing the first 30 days of sobriety to tips for staying clean and sober.

Recovery Dharma: The organization created a list of meetings that have moved from in-person to online as a result of Covid-19.

Al-Anon: The international group has a list of dozens of electronic meetings held through email, phone, web conferencing and even social media platforms.

Families Anonymous: The fellowship program created a virtual meeting library for members.  

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