It’s more than a case of wishing people who suffer from addictions ‘good luck’ during the lockdown. Addiction counselor Freddie van Rensburg has advice on how to stay in touch with your recovery community during this exceptionally trying time.

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One of the first things taught in addiction rehabilitation facilities is that an addict on their own is in dangerous territory.

Addiction is an isolator. It convinces the sufferer that they do not fit in anywhere, are not liked, are judged and will never be good enough to be a contributing member of society. With the addict isolated, the addiction plays havoc with their mind. It keeps the feeling of not being worthy ever-present. An addicted person develops resentment, anger, fear, guilt and shame; all contribute to feeding the addiction. This is referred to as “the mushroom treatment”. In these conditions addiction, like mushrooms in humid soil, thrives.

The uncomfortable feelings drive addicts to whatever will make them feel better, which can virtually be anything: over-eating, binging on series, gambling, gaming, alcohol, watching porn, hoarding, taking drugs (illegal or prescribed), over-working, frequenting sex workers or strip clubs, seeking danger. Whatever works to numb their feelings.

Most addicts feel that they have a jury in their heads, constantly judging them. Many seek help while they are still highly functioning people. Often, psychologists and psychiatrists are the first port of call, but many addicts later find help in addiction rehabilitation centres and the rooms of 12-step fellowships, like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). There are over 200 different types of 12-step fellowships, dealing with conditions like addiction to sex, drugs, hoarding, gaming, gambling, love, food and anorexia, to name only a few.

Most rehab programmes follow the Minnesota Model. This entails a combination of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and 12-step work. Addicts will be introduced to various forms of talk therapy and the 12-step process. It is during therapy and 12-step meetings that addicts get to know the fundamentals of addiction recovery.

One of the most valuable of these recovery tools is breaking isolation. I personally believe that the opposite of addiction is connection, a view espoused by Johann Hari, who gave an important Ted Talk on the subject, Everything you think you know about addiction is wrong. To quote from the literature that Narcotics Anonymous distributes:

“We feel that our approach to the disease of addiction is completely realistic, for the therapeutic value of one addict helping another is without parallel. We feel that our way is practical, for one addict can best understand and help another addict.”

This connection-principle is enhanced through the following concepts:

  • Sponsorship, where one addict, with more experience, guides another addict through the 12-steps during face-to-face meetings.
  • Fellowship meetings; of which there are hundreds of thousands all over the world.
  • Meeting before and after the meeting; during which addicts meet before 12-step meetings at coffee shops, encouraging informal connections.
  • Events: most fellowships have committees that arrange events, like conferences, conventions and retreats.

Two recovery tools that fuel connections are: “shame dies on exposure” and “secrets keep you sick”. Addicts are encouraged to make themselves vulnerable and talk about what is happening in their lives, and in their heads. If they keep their juries’ verdicts to themselves, they feed their guilt and shame, and their addiction.

A further strategy, not discussed in 12-step fellowships, as it is an outside issue, is therapy for ongoing guidance and support. Therapists assist addicts to get to the bottom of their addictive behaviour; they represent a tremendous source of help for addicts, moving them through isolation into connection; through shame and guilt to acceptance; and through secrets into living with integrity.

The biggest question for people suffering with addictions during this time of social isolation and lockdown, then, is how to stay connected and not fall back into isolating again. Here are a few suggestions from me.

  • Sponsors: It is imperative to stay connected with your sponsor to continue working the steps together. Do whatever it takes to maintain this connection, whether it be setting up regular video chats, organising discussions over WhatsApp, or simply having a regular voice call.

Sponsors and recovery friends, it’s vital to commit to check-in with recovery friends daily; preferably by telephone.

  • Fellowship meetings: Most 12-step fellowships offer online and/or tele-meetings. Since the onset of Covid-19, the volume of these online meetings has exploded. You can find help here: Alcoholics Anonymous ; Narcotics Anonymous; Sex Addicts Anonymous ; Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous; Gamblers Anonymous; Overeaters AnonymousCodependents Anonymous
  • E-coffee-meetings: Set up coffee dates with (recovery) friends on Zoom, Hangouts or WhatsApp video calling.
  • Therapy: Most therapists offer e-therapy now; don’t be shy to ask for these details from your therapist.
  • WhatsApp Groups: Fellowship meetings often have WhatsApp groups. It is recommended that addicts become members of these groups to stay in touch.
  • Social media: There are many recovery support-groups to join on Facebook. Twitter has a vibrant #RecoveryPosse community and many recovering addicts are active on Instagram.
  • Podcasts and online shares: There are literally hundreds of recovery-related podcasts. Here are some suggestions from Player.fm. Many 12-step fellowship websites have sections where you can listen to or download shares.

We may be physically isolated from the rest of the world, but there is absolutely no reason or excuse not to stay connected to recovery and support systems during these trying times.

It’s more than a case of wishing addicts “good luck” during the lockdown. Please, let’s support one another as members of South Africa’s addiction and recovery community: together, we can get through this.

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