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Lockdown is challenging for many of us, but for those in recovery from addiction, every day can feel like an uphill struggle. Long periods of time at home, alone with their thoughts, is something they’re desperate to get away from.
“We’re taught early in recovery to set goals, keep busy, and minimise time spent in our own heads,” says Ben Robinson, 28, who has been sober for a year and two months. “With lockdown, this is a very hard task. When our minds wander, it wanders to the one thing that solved a lot of our problems – alcohol.”
Since the UK has been on lockdown, physical AA meetings have moved online. This is something Ben has found challenging. “Meetings for addicts are more than just a group getting together and talking about their problems,” he says.
“I’ve walked in [to a physical meeting] many times thinking ‘I’m not in the mood to share today’, then you hear an inspiring story or see someone’s emotion – that’s the beauty of them.”
Ben doesn’t feel that emotional connection in the virtual sessions. “I’m logging onto Zoom meetings, but they’re pretty rammed,” he says. “Share of voice is massively reduced and there might be people in there worse off than me, who can’t get a word in edgeways.”
“There is support,” he adds. “It’s just different and difficult to adapt to.”
Ben can’t pinpoint when he became addicted to alcohol, but recalls how he’d get through copious amounts at university. At one point his housemates staged an intervention to get him to stop. “They wrote ‘intervention’ on the carpet and collected all the bottles I’d drunk that week,” he says. “There was something like 20 bottles of wine and whisky – that was when I was 19.”
In the autumn of 2018, aged 27, he had two seizures and ended up in hospital due to excessive drinking. But he still wasn’t ready to accept help. “I pulled the IVs out my arm and ran across a motorway to get to a Spar shop,” he says. “I was in psychosis.”
Two months later, he’d had enough – he felt ill, looked ill, and couldn’t do it anymore. Ben checked into rehab and stayed there until January 2019. During that time he attended four therapy sessions a day and an AA meeting every evening.
He still went to meetings every day when he was discharged – if not every other day – and went back at the weekends for aftercare. And he’s since worked hard to rebuild his life. Ben moved back to London, started work as a freelancer in marketing and PR, and began socialising again.
But since lockdown was announced, his daily routine has disappeared and he’s stuck at home with less work to do. “It’s been really tough,” he says. “To be in a situation where all of that is gone and stripped away, it’s kind of like I’m starting recovery again.”
Ben lives with his partner in Wimbledon, but she’s a key worker so his days are mostly spent alone. “My biggest fear is that I hate being on my own. Isolation has brought a load of that back, as the times I’d drink the most was when I was on my own,” he says. “It’s been a very strange thing – I’ve had to go back and say to myself: I accept I’m an alcoholic and I can’t change it.”
Slowly, though, he’s starting to adapt. At the beginning of lockdown, he says he was panicking, desperately trying to fill his time. But it’s slowed down a bit now, as he’s learning to accept the situation.
The lack of face-to-face contact is a huge challenge for those in recovery right now, says Andrew Harvey, an addictions counsellor. Many rely on those appointments with therapists, in addition to group meetings, to get them through each day. Plus, those who live in busy households might not have the privacy to discuss their addiction or attend meetings from their living room, he adds.
“Another challenge, I believe, is that many people’s addictions were established by them trying to cope with difficult feelings and emotions,” says Harvey, who runs AddictionsCounselling.net. “They used the addictive substance to mediate those emotions, to turn those emotions down.
“We’re in a highly emotional state, all of us now. If your alcohol addiction was to turn down the feelings of anxiety, right now you’re in recovery, so you don’t have your alcohol – plus you have a whole bunch of anxiety. It’s a real challenge.”
Maddy, who preferred not to share her surname, is further along in her recovery and has welcomed the switch to virtual meetings. She’s been sober for 10-and-a-half years and is enjoying the online format of AA – it’s “just as good, if not better” than in real life, she says.
In 2008, slightly concerned about her drinking habits, she went to her first AA meeting, but didn’t think it was for her, as she didn’t resonate with the other people. She went back to drinking, but her habit got worse. “In July 2009 I drank myself into a stupor,” the 56-year-old from London says.
She had arrived home drunk and didn’t know how she’d got there. When she woke up and went into the bathroom, she saw she’d knocked a plant over with red flowers on it. “It looked like a human being and the red flowers were the blood,” she says. “I thought: ‘If you’re not careful, that’s going to happen to you.’”
Maddy returned to AA and stopped drinking for good on July 7 2009. In the first two years, she attended meetings every day. Now she goes once or twice a week. That image of the plant is an image she still conjures in her mind.
One of her recent Zoom AA meetings was based in Los Angeles and she found it empowering – better than the ones she’s attended physically in London. “It was an all-female meeting,” she says. “I’ve never attended one of those before. I found it inspiring. It was full of very honest, authentic, empowering women.”
There are downsides to online meets, of course. She acknowledges people can tend to “hide” in AA meetings and the online format makes it easier for people to do that. “But if you go online and listen to what people are sharing, you could get a lot out of it if you wanted to,” she says. “I find it really rewarding.”
Matt, from Plymouth, is currently attending two or three AA online meetings a week. While Zoom is a “good replacement”, he says “it’s not quite the same” as physical sessions. “I get my power within the group of people, face-to-face,” he explains. “But AA online, for the current circumstances, is a good substitute for that.”
The 45-year-old, who lives with his wife, has been sober for three-and-a-half months. He decided on a whim to stop drinking one day after being a “big drinker” all his life – he’d previously tried to quit but had relapsed. “I was sick and tired of being sick and tired, and being hungover in the morning,” he says.
Despite lockdown, Matt is still going into work six days a week – it’s a structure he’s thankful for, as he knows this situation is throwing up challenges for others in recovery. A friend of his recently relapsed after spending 18 months sober. “It’s difficult times really,” he adds. “Some people find it hard.”
While the format of online meetings is similar to physical ones, Matt is missing the physical reward – a chip received after each month of sobriety. He got a virtual chip to mark his third month of sobriety, but it wasn’t quite the same, he says.
Matt is also doing other things to keep busy and on top of his recovery: he’s in regular contact with other people he’s met through AA and he’s a big fan of using social media to connect with others – the #RecoveryHour and #RecoveryPosse hashtags on Twitter help. He also listens to sober podcasts like Over The Influence and watches AA Shares on YouTube.
“It’s difficult times really. Some people find it hard.”
Addictions counsellor, Harvey, urges anyone in recovery who is struggling, to reach out for support and make use of other online resources during this time, such as virtual meetings, Instagram recovery accounts, blogs, videos, and therapists’ web sessions.
Ben has made it his mission to stay connected with others through lockdown – he’s sharing his experiences in his blog, Beyond The Bottle, in the hope it’ll help others feel less alone. Speaking about his temptation to drink during this time, he adds: “I live by a slogan that is: if I drink I’ll die. My body won’t take it again, my mind won’t take it again and I will drink myself into the floor.
“While there is mass temptation there to push the fuck-it button, I know that I can’t because I value being alive.”