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How to stay sober during the Coronavirus pandemic…

How to stay sober during the Coronavirus pandemic…

Should you wish to find out more about the programme of Making Changes after reading this blog, and how it has helped others move away from alcohol and drug abuse, please head over to the Programme and About Us sections in the website. 

Firstly, I'd just like to say that my heart goes out to anyone struggling with alcohol or drugs at any time, yet maybe even more so during this current period. I have been working with people who live on their own or who have the difficulties of living with a family and both are equally challenging.

Yet, as the old adage goes, a problem shared is a problem halved and the advice of, "please speak to someone" should never stop being pushed and can never be overstated. Mental Health awareness week has just taken place and there can be no doubt that, as a society we are getting better at talking about it and creating more opportunities for people to do so. The work must never stop though and in relation to alcohol and drug issues specifically, I believe we have some catching up to do when compared with mental health awareness as a whole.

Even when there is no lockdown to contend with, isolation, for the problem drinker or drug user is dangerous. I know, I've been there and whilst Making Changes has been created to be a secular programme, I don't disregard recovery material that has religious connotations; to do so is potentially unwise. I try to look at everything as a source of information and one of my favourite people to watch when it comes to recovery is a person called Father Martin, whose videos from decades ago are widely available on YouTube. One of the things he spoke about, that always stayed with me, was regarding the loneliness that an alcoholic (or problem drinker; self-abuser etc.) feels,

"Who was it who once said the alcoholic is alone in a crowd? Whoever said that didn't even come close. The loneliness in the heart of the alcoholic is indescribable. They're like a swimmer, isolated underneath the surface of the water, knowing that soon his lungs will burst and it will all be over. They're like a prisoner, locked alone, with no prison guard around; petrified that they'll never be free". https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=65lWeWu-Mpo&t=881s

He talks about how the 'alcoholic', when actively drinking, is isolated from his fellow human beings. For me this was definitely true – scared, full of fear, ashamed, without self-esteem, self-respect, I hid from the world. Yet now, I am also isolated, to some extent, from my fellow human beings – the fundamental difference is, I still feel connected. My soul, my heart, my belonging in this world are all here – I know I deserve my place. I know that even the small gestures I carry out can have a ripple effect throughout the day and beyond. I also know that if I live the right way I can feel peace at night as I lay down to sleep. If I do have negative feelings of some sort – they no longer have an overwhelming life of their own. I'm aware of them, I can investigate them and I can deal with them by either accepting them, knowing that they will disappear, often as fast as they came, or by acting in a more proactive way to change them – I read something; I write a gratitude list, even if I'm not feeling grateful, I walk whilst listening to an author who I know is a powerful source of information to help me get my head straight, yet probably the biggest difference between now and when I was addictively drinking is that I have faith and confidence that I'll be okay. Many years of being sober, along with living the right way, nurturing myself, learning from mistakes and growing, means that when I look at myself in the mirror I have the confidence to say, "don't worry kid, you've got this".

Now I know, and I'm not saying this is you, that if I was to read what I have written above, when I was drinking, that I would probably have thought something along the lines of, "Yeah that all sounds great that YOU have managed to do that, but what about me? How am I supposed to do it? You don't know what it's like for me etc. etc." and you know what, I get that, totally.

So whilst I can talk about what I do now, whilst sober, I know only too well that for some of you who may be actively drinking or using that that may not be of benefit and so I'm also going to put myself back in the position of what it was like for me when I was drinking. That's not to say that this blog is some sort of magic wand – you still have to want to do it. If you do, I think you will find that some, even if not all of what I suggest, can help.

Firstly – there has to be a level of admittance and acceptance that drinking or using to excess for you at any time isn't good – yet when isolated on your own or as part of a family dynamic, where you may still feel isolated – it is even worse.

If we can get to that point, we need to then start to implement tools, practices and principles into our daily lives and routines. Remember, it is okay to slow things down. At first, when all this happened, I was planning on doing more work; then I was reading some literature and listening to audiobooks – mainly about self-care, compassion and mindfulness and I came to the realisation that I was going to slow down, I was actually going to take this opportunity not to 'do more' but to just do the same, maybe less and actually use the additional time I had to just 'be' and practice caring for myself more. We live in a world which prides itself on being 'busy'. This is not something to be proud of, like a badge of honour – we weren't meant to always be running around all over the place – to do so means missing out on life and finding beauty in the small stuff. But what about if we need to be busy to avoid staying out of our own head? After all, that's where the problems are right? Below I have provided some tools that I hope you will find useful tools during this Coronavirus pandemic.

We can now get outside more: Now that we are able to go to parks or nice places please take advantage of this. Appreciating the outdoors is something I never really did when actively drinking; I never truly noticed the beauty around me – mainly because I didn't want to see beauty but also because I didn't even have the awareness to try. It was just there – it wasn't something to be appreciated. That's such a different story for me now and has been a huge part of my recovery. I find for me, and it may be different for you so experiment with it, that going out early in the morning makes it much easier to enjoy the surroundings – whether that is a simple park close by or a beach or hilly area further afield. Try being totally aware of your surroundings, but maybe also try listening to a good audiobook or podcast, maybe music or take a book and sit somewhere nice to read. What really got me thinking was if I went to somewhere that was quite vast, so, the sea, lakes or hills and mountains, that type of thing; I would look around me and think about how big the world is, how much is out of my control – this helped me let go of things I couldn't control and take care of what I could, namely – myself. Additionally, it would help me minimise any problems I had in my head that I was exaggerating or catastrophising – when I looked around at the vastness of the universe it suddenly would make my issues, in the grand scheme of life, very trivial. I'm not talking about a situation where someone is unwell physically or mentally here – that's a different matter and something that can be overpowering; instead, I'm talking more about everyday issues and stresses.

Read, listen and watch something good for you: Not something trashy, violent or something that isn't good for the soul. I love a bit of sci-fi, Netflix box sets or a Box Office thriller as much as anyone so I'm not saying stop these; just become mindful of what you are taking on board. To remain in a good place we need to work at it. First thing in the morning is key. I would suggest not automatically going to your phone to simply scroll away and surf the net mindlessly. The only thing I would use a phone for is a meditation app, to watch an inspirational video or to listen to an audiobook or podcast that I know will be useful for me. This can take some searching around and you won't like everything you come across. Try and become engaged and enthusiastic about the search – knowing that when you do find something, it will be useful for you; it can make a difference. Knowing that you're putting effort into helping yourself is good for the soul, good for self-esteem, good for knowing that you're simply being good. Additionally, if you do live with a family, they will also see the benefits. You can't be there for your family unless you are first there for yourself.

Additionally, try and find a book that resonates with you but is linked to mental health, sobriety, or some sort of inspiration. Engaging in a practice first thing in the morning can set you up for the day in the best way and some of the books I have used for this are:

The Promise of a New Day by Karen Casey and Martha Vanceburg – this is a small pocket-sized book that provides a new message corresponding to whatever date of the year it is – it doesn't mention alcohol or drugs but I have found that those who have issues with either or both can get a lot from it. My advice would be to sit with the message for 15 minutes and interpret what it means for you, explore what you take from it. You can even go further and write your thoughts down and keep a record. Additionally, you can come back to the book throughout the day or take a screenshot of the page if you find that day's message particularly useful. I have found that spending just a few minutes later in the day reminding myself of its message and principles can be really useful in keeping me on a good path and doing the right thing https://www.amazon.co.uk/Promise-New-Day-Meditations-Hazelden/dp/0894862030/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=the+promise+of+a+new+day&qid=1590303917&sr=8-1.

For some practical tips on staying sober, the book 'Living Sober' from Alcoholics Anonymous is useful, even for those who aren't religious, like myself: https://www.alcoholics-anonymous.org.uk/product.do?48960.

There are some other sources I mention in the next section that also provide books as well as the online resources I refer to below, so I would encourage you to explore those also. In the meantime, here are some other books I have found beneficial:

Letting Go, The Pathway of Surrender by David Hawkins: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Letting-Surrender-M-D-David-Hawkins/dp/1401945015/ref=sr_1_1?crid=2FR7XHMACOPQP&dchild=1&keywords=letting+go+david+hawkins&qid=1590304389&sprefix=letting+go%2Caps%2C311&sr=8-1.

The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky: https://www.amazon.co.uk/How-Happiness-Practical-Guide-Getting/dp/0749952466/ref=sr_1_1?crid=2IGOTW8DHQ4Q3&dchild=1&keywords=the+how+of+happiness+sonja+lyubomirsky&qid=1590304475&sprefix=the+how+of+ha%2Caps%2C164&sr=8-1.

Emotional Advantage by Randy Taran: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Emotional-Advantage-Embracing-Feelings-Create/dp/1250200059/ref=sr_1_1?crid=KWNDGQAJHE5N&dchild=1&keywords=emotional+advantage&qid=1590305224&sprefix=emotional+advan%2Caps%2C164&sr=8-1.

Other books that can be relatable and therefore inspirational are biographies that tell you of other people's journeys. One such book that I have read is called Back from the Edge by former professional cricketer, Luke Sutton. Luke is someone who was a mentor to me personally and has done an amazing job speaking out about addiction and has made massive efforts to shatter the stigma that surrounds it. These types of books can really help us come to terms with the fact that we're not alone and that we're not the only ones that this happens to. What I found is that once I knew what was wrong with me, it was such a huge relief – that people knew about this thing; I wasn't the only one who felt like this. Further on down the line, you may even go further and feel a kind of duty to get the message out there in order to try and help others that are going through what you have, as you know only too well how painful it is. You can find Luke's book here https://www.amazon.co.uk/Back-Edge-Mental-Health-Addiction/dp/1526767546/ref=sr_1_1?crid=TJC77XQEL0&dchild=1&keywords=back+from+the+edge+luke+sutton&qid=1590305567&sprefix=back+from+the+e%2Caps%2C173&sr=8-1.

When it comes to what we watch I would say definitely, which is not a word I normally use as it is so final, leaving no wiggle room, but on this occasion, yes, definitely stay away from the news; when I first read about staying away from the news, I did so for many months and then automatically one morning, after a meditation, I was getting ready for a work meeting whilst in my hotel room and put the TV on. The news was on and at first I didn't really pay attention, but then I noticed it and quite frankly I found it bizarre and definitely not good for me. I'm not saying don't stay informed but be wise about how you do it.

I also find it beneficial to watch something that is humorous in the morning too, a comedy that you like, something that makes you laugh. This can help us find humour even in the darkest of places and do not underestimate the power of that. Personal 'go-to' programmes to watch for me can be, Everybody Loves Raymond, Frasier and The Big Bang Theory, all of which are on in the morning and for 30 minutes or so can certainly help me smile.

Online workshops, classes and self-help groups: Pick a topic which is an area where you need help e.g. alcohol or drug use; anxiety; fear; worry etc. and spend some time searching for something that really hits home. Keep an open mind as you will probably come across things that aren't for you – don't let this put you off. We're fortunate to live in a time when so much helpful information is so accessible, we just have to apply a little patience in sifting through it but I am confident that you will find something that resonates with you. One thing that is especially important, even during normal times, let alone in this pandemic, is that you must remember to cut yourself some slack. Self-criticism is something that all human beings do too much of, it's become entrenched in society and we can run away with ourselves when we do it because we've not lived up to those impossible expectations of perfection. I have recently been looking more into this and have been reading, listening and working through exercises all delivered by Tara Brach who is an expert in this field and also covers off, in some areas, how to handle alcohol or drug issues, you can find her at: https://www.tarabrach.com/. Another specialist in this area is Kristin Neff, who also has a useful workbook and online courses that you can work through: https://self-compassion.org/. Additionally, I would recommend listening to Happiness Unlimited which is delivered by Sister BK Shivani who is a member of Brahma Kumaris, which is an organisation that delivers meditation classes, courses and talks across their Inner Space centres in the UK and beyond. The format of it is slightly cheesy, however, I love the innocence of that and the messages are really powerful in the conversations:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7dNPNtdaMWY&list=PLCE9046E85D3918D8.

As I have mentioned above, Making Changes is secular, as is the majority of materials I have cited within this blog, however, attending an online AA meeting is still something I would recommend. This is where you can expect to identify with at least one person you listen too – they may be just hours sober, weeks or months, several years or long term. Either way, they will have probably been through what you are going through and this can be a huge comfort. If you're not religious, do not let that prevent you from getting the benefits that can come from AA meetings; I'm not saying all of them – they're like anything in life, imperfect, but give them a go. The good thing about online meetings is you can join anywhere in the country. You can find a meeting here:

https://www.alcoholics-anonymous.org.uk/AA-Meetings/Find-a-Meeting/

FaceTime: This may not be feasible if you are anxious or going through withdrawals; if that is the case try and make the effort with a phone call or text message and build up to a video chat. Asking for help is a fundamental issue for someone going through alcohol or drug abuse as well as mental health issues as a whole. Even to this day, in sobriety, it can be something I struggle to do easily if I'm going through a tough time. But I trust the experts who advised me, I trust the things I've read and listened to and most importantly I trust the evidence of the good it has done me. So if it is not natural for you to do it, think of it as a task, exercise or a form of training – it's another way of caring for and working on yourself and you'll feel better when you've done it, even if you're nervous about doing it.

Writing: Getting your thoughts down on paper can be a great release and a practical way of 'letting go'. It can help you rationalise circumstances too as it is a way of processing what is happening internally rather than just allowing your head to run away with itself. It does help to do this in tandem with some reading; you don't want to be simply writing down toxic thoughts and nothing else! Additionally, a journal can be helpful to see how you are progressing. Anxiety was still an issue for me at the outset of my move away from alcohol use and it remained for some time. I still get it today but less frequently and it's much more manageable. By getting my feelings down in a journal I could look back on my time and literally see my anxiety slipping away in the words I was writing, in that, I either wasn't writing about it anymore or I was commenting on how it was decreasing, usually with real-life examples of gettingthrough situations that would have previously been unachievable for me, such as presenting to an audience. Finally, a gratitude list can help too, even if you're not feeling grateful, you can at least open your mind to the possibility of feeling grateful. Here is a link to a book I use:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Good-Days-Start-Gratitude-Cultivate/dp/1976436184/ref=sr_1_1?crid=2GL4GI8HY9WTQ&dchild=1&keywords=good+days+start+with+gratitude+journal&qid=1590237907&sprefix=Good+days+sta%2Caps%2C212&sr=8-1.

Of course, you can go into more detail with a pad and pen too, I have often written pages about gratitude – it's a great way to snap out of what I might perceive as problems today, by reminding me of tougher times and that actually, things are pretty good right now and I'm doing okay. This can start to happen just a few days into giving up the booze or drugs too. Another resource I use for gratitude can be found in the link below – this is full of insightful and, quite simply, nice, sayings and brief paragraphs to make you sit, think, reflect and get some perspective on things:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Buddhas-Guide-Gratitude-Life-changing-Mindfulness-ebook/dp/B07BWKPMRZ/ref=sr_1_1_sspa?dchild=1&keywords=the+buddhas+guide+to+gratitude&qid=1590238189&sr=8-1-spons&psc=1&spLa=ZW5jcnlwdGVkUXVhbGlmaWVyPUFYNzJHTkVJNkVKRkcmZW5jcnlwdGVkSWQ9QTA4OTU1MTEyV1JEUEJaQlVQOEtUJmVuY3J5cHRlZEFkSWQ9QTAxNzYwNzQ0RjRKRjNDMURSVzImd2lkZ2V0TmFtZT1zcF9hdGYmYWN0aW9uPWNsaWNrUmVkaXJlY3QmZG9Ob3RMb2dDbGljaz10cnVl

Meditation: This can depend where you may or may not be on a meditation journey. If new to it, I would suggest downloading one of the well-known apps, such as Headspace, Calm or Ten Percent Happier, which is my personal favourite. Ten Percent Happier also have a live talk Mon-Fri at 8pm UK time where they discuss the current challenges along with a 5-minute meditation which is perfect for beginners and offers some practical advice about coping with certain difficulties: https://www.tenpercent.com/live. Whilst not always related to alcohol or drug issues they do cover topics for underlying issues that can play a part in why people may be drinking or are drinking more. The music artist, Moby, talks about sobriety in one of the episodes, all of which are available on YouTube. Additionally, in the app itself, you will find meditations on gratitude which can supplement the written work I mention above. Morning meditations are available that are purposefully created to be done whilst you lie in bed, again, great for beginners as well as those who are more experienced.

Voluntary Work: This is something to consider if you're not in the throes of serious alcohol or drug misuse, where you will need more acute and potentially clinical help. If that isn't the case however, or you want to think of a helpful way to stay sober once you have stopped, then voluntary work can be extremely useful, helpful to those you're providing your time for and most of all, it just feels good – it really is a win-win for all. During this period there are of course different opportunities to work with organisations, yet it may also be that you help your family more by running errands, the same for your neighbours or friends. There are lots of pictures across social media of people litter picking at beauty spots following an unusually busy period. There is significant 'real-life' as well as scientific evidence that proves the benefits of putting others before ourselves, yet it is important to do this when we are safe ourselves. It's no good trying to help others if it's us that needs help – we need to address that first and foremost.

Keep your home clean and tidy: This is a real practical thing to do and it's quite a simple principle that sits behind it and that is about 'keeping your house in order'. There are always exceptions to rules, yet for most people, I think you will find that if you live in a messy, untidy home that this can cause an underlying stress and 'messiness' to the mind and the way that we feel also. I appreciate that this is easier for some more than others, so common sense is needed in order to apply what I'm saying. If you have several children and pets it will be more difficult; if you're disabled it will not be as easy. So, of course, that must be factored in where necessary, yet even a little effort to ensuring the space that surrounds us has some order to it, can help and give us a little boost.

Eat healthy: They key thing about this piece of advice is not necessarily about tasting nice food; it's about the process of a.) making it and b.) knowing that you're looking after and taking care of yourself. When we've been used to not doing that, to then start gradually doing so can work wonders for our self esteem as well as the more obvious physical benefits, which, as well as weight loss, could also be that we feel more energetic and have better sleep.

Explore booking a holiday: A piece of advice that was given to me in early sobriety was that we don't stop the drinking or using to stop having fun; not that drinking in the end was fun for me, but you get my point and, as such, try and organise some sort of trip or holiday for every 6-8 weeks. This may be one night away or a day trip or it maybe a weekend away or a longer holiday. Having something to look forward to is important; the one piece of caution is to try and not think of the time in between now and the holiday as a time you can't also enjoy and have fun. Otherwise we're basically saying we can't be happy now and we'll only be happy when we go on our holiday, which is not a healthy way to live. Additionally, it is not just about having a break from the norm when we go away – we see new places, we make new discoveries or we go back to a familiar place that we know and enjoy, all of which are beneficial.

I hope these were of help to you; I have included some other links below that are worth browsing over too. Please do not get bogged down trying to do all of these things. One or two changes to begin with is a great start; experiment with them because some will be more beneficial for you than others. Of course, if you want to ask me a question, pop me an e-mail and if you want to enquire about how Making Changes can help during this period and beyond, please get in touch.

Take care, with love and compassion, Chris

Links to related articles:

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/health/coronavirus-alcohol-world-health-organisation-drugs-addiction-mental-health-lockdown-a9428546.html

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/health/coronavirus-alcohol-world-health-organisation-drugs-addiction-mental-health-lockdown-a9428546.html

http://www.euro.who.int/__data/assets/pdf_file/0010/437608/Alcohol-and-COVID-19-what-you-need-to-know.pdf

https://elemental.medium.com/the-heartbreaking-struggle-to-stay-sober-under-lockdown-e3aa4989deb3

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/02/nyregion/coronavirus-alcoholics-anonymous-online.html 

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