By Jamie Salsberg, LCSW, CAP, EMDR, Transformations Clinical Director

Despite having gone through treatment, being in recovery for many years, and now serving as clinical director I still often struggle at times to help loved ones understand what an alcoholic or addict goes through upon entering treatment.  Loved ones often find it particularly challenging to empathize with the experience of suddenly needing to change everything, and to understand why their family member does not simply stop their dangerous and unhealthy behaviors.  One strategy I often use is to ask a loved one of someone in treatment the following question: “if a study came out today showing that looking at a cell phone screen was dangerous, how easy would it be for you to just stop using your cell phone, even with the knowledge that it was hurting you?”

In this day and age of global pandemic, particularly in the United States, it seems to me that everyone is beginning to get a taste of this experience firsthand.  

When someone enters treatment for substance use or mental health issues, they are essentially told the following:

  1. What you are doing is unsafe and unhealthy.  It will hurt the people around you and can kill you.
  2. All of your choices are not only affecting you but also affecting the people around you.  Your actions have consequences.
  3. The things you have been doing to cope and feel good are no longer viable ways of living your daily life.
  4. All of your behaviors need to change if you do not want to die. You need to change them fully and completely. Now.
  5. We have a set of suggestions that outline these behaviors.  You need to start following all of these immediately.

Does any of this sound familiar?  

As human beings, we are very much creatures of habit.  We resist change and are comfortable with the status quo.  Recently, around the world, we were all told that the common activities and behaviors we have become accustomed to doing in our daily lives are now putting us and others in danger and that we need a complete overhaul in all of our actions (and unlike in recovery, we do not have sponsors, therapists, or support groups through which those who have struggled and come out the other side are able to offer “experience, strength and hope” to guide us toward the solution).

When people first come to treatment, is very common to see them go through the stages of grief as a result of experiencing the loss of a life they have grown comfortable with: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.  As we, as a nation and a world mourn the loss of our previous lifestyles,  it is not surprising to see something similar.  Initially, people are often so resistant to the idea of change, that they experience denial.  This resistance can even lead a person to argue the existence of the problem itself or the legitimacy of the solution (some even going so far as to argue against facts).  They also may become angry.  This may manifest as looking for people to blame, being furious at the situation regardless of the fact that it cannot be changed, reacting in emotional ways, and often in defiance of what can help them, even if they understand that it will work.  Bargaining comes in when they try to look for ways of manipulating the rules or solutions offered or choose to follow some and refuse others.  Depression is a very common reaction when people begin to acknowledge the seriousness of the need for change, and the difficulty that comes along with it.  And finally, acceptance occurs when the individual ultimately chooses to embrace the need for change, embrace the importance of their lives and the lives of the people they care about and make difficult choices to change their lives.  It is important to understand that these reactions do not occur in this order, and people often bounce back and forth through many of these responses.

When this pandemic began, I had to do some soul searching when watching the news and seeing the reactions of the people around me, including those I care about.  To be honest I needed to let go of my righteousness and judgment about what I was seeing in others, and ask myself what my responsibility is in all of these, not just with my own choices, but with my compassion and response to the choices of others.  After all, I have been through the loss of a parent, an addiction, treatment, and recovery as well as other experiences that required me to make major and immediate changes.   My recovery taught me that the only way to survive and excel was to stop trying to change the world and to instead make a commitment to change my mindset about the world.  Making this mental shift, however, did not happen overnight, it took time, as it does for most people. And each time I was required to change, it became a little easier, but by no means was it ever easy.  It occurred to me several weeks into this global crisis that not everybody has had the opportunity to go through such drastic changes in their lives until this point.

It is unsurprising that we have seen an increase in substance abuse and mental health issues over the course of the pandemic.  Physical separation, financial devastation, and loss associated with this virus significantly impacts the mental stability of those who already struggle with these issues, as well as the rest of us.  It is a strange paradox that while we all serve as a physical threat to each other we simultaneously are each other’s saving grace. It is as if the need for physical separation from one another is the one thing with the potential to create a connection that will allow us to survive and excel.

As painful as this experience is for all of us, I believe even those who have never experienced addiction or mental health first-hand may now be able to develop a better understanding of and enhanced empathy toward the unsettling experience of the need to change everything in your life in order to survive.  While this coronavirus may be novel, our need to adapt, change to survive as human beings is an age-old phenomenon.  Perhaps some of the lessons that teach us (how to treat ourselves and each other, how to access surrender and compassion, seeking “progress not perfection”) can support all of us in coming through to the other side of this with a deeper sense of resilience and strength, and an opportunity to be better human beings to ourselves, to each other, and overall.

If you or someone you know are struggling, please reach out. You are not alone. 

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