As told to HuffPost associate editor Connor Garel
We would meet in the basement gym or upstairs kitchen at West Neighbourhood House, in Toronto. Twelve or 15 of us would gather at 7 p.m. every Monday, shift some tables into a circle and discuss whatever challenges brought us to the meeting that evening. Maybe it was loneliness, or some other trigger. Maybe it was just because. The average session would be emotional — a meeting is usually full of tears, as well as laughter.
But the space we use to host She Recovers — a support group for women in recovery, often from substance use disorders — is regularly frequented by high-risk seniors. So when the COVID-19 outbreak happened and social distancing recommendations were announced, we moved quickly.
Concerned for everybody’s health, I shifted our meetings online.
I anticipated that some women in the group would be nervous about the meetings moving to Zoom. Being present for one another’s emotions is much easier when you’re two feet away, and you can’t exactly hold someone’s hand, or pass a tissue, or help them dry their tears from behind a laptop.
But the five online meetups we’ve had so far have been successful. From our open-sharing forum and wins for the week discussions to the regular advice on calming anxieties or finding particular therapies, we’ve replicated the in-person sessions exactly. We’re even still celebrating sobriety milestones, only now it’s with jazz hands on a screen, instead of clapping in real life.
It seems funny that these incredibly meaningful and heartfelt connections are happening virtually. But that’s what it is, and every week I look forward to “seeing” everyone.
Isolation as a trigger for relapse
When we think about being isolated for several weeks or months at a time, it’s quite scary and distressing. My friend, who is an ICU nurse, says she’s seeing more overdoses in ER than COVID-19 cases.
Without our usual routine, or anyone to talk to in real life, there are fewer distractions. It’s easy for the thoughts in your head to get loud, and for the trickster in your brain to repeatedly tell you, “If you take a drink right now, no one will know!”
In the first two years of my sobriety, there were many nights when I was on my own. On Friday nights, I’d be lying in bed, but my mind would be crawling the walls. I’d look at shadows, or at the street lamp outside, and I’d think about how easy it would be for me to zip around the corner and step into one of the many bars I used to frequent on Dundas St. West. I’d just lie there, having “What if” conversations with myself to the point of madness.
That’s always when I’d know I had to call a friend.
“But, the resounding sentiment in our group has been relief that we aren’t drinking through this.”
Today, She Recovers is sort of like that friend. I’m coming up on 10 years sober, and it’s been valuable to my health and stability. If I don’t have constant, ongoing connections with other women in recovery, I can start to drift — my anxiety can spike, or I can feel more triggered to drink.
Living in lockdown and in isolation is hard, and it’s drastically different from the life we are familiar with. We’re worried about loved ones. Many are juggling kids at home. Millions of Canadians have been hit hard financially, or have lost their jobs. It’s a crisis that’s impacting many areas of our life. When you pile trying to maintain sobriety on top of this, it’s easy to understand why relapse happens and why it’s a common problem right now.
It makes sense to have the desire to escape — to get away from the headlines and numb yourself from everything. It would be so easy to drink and slip into a terrible state. Who would know? You don’t need to leave your home, so the probability of being discovered is less likely. You don’t even need to have a history of addiction to want to pass out and wake up when this is all over — we all kind of want that.
Trying to be present, even in a pandemic
But, the resounding sentiment in our group has been relief that we aren’t drinking through this.
When you’re constantly trying to escape with a substance, then you lose sight of what’s happening in front of you. And I think that, even though right now is a very difficult time for people, with a lot of uncertainty, there are lessons and gifts that we should pay attention to.
I’m noticing the sound of birds a lot, and I’m appreciating a kind of quietness that I didn’t have in my life two months ago. It’s difficult trying to juggle my kid and my work all day, but in between the meltdowns, there are precious moments of deep connection. Creativity, patience, and perseverance are being challenged in unprecedented ways, but this time is also revealing things that perhaps we weren’t able to see clearly.
“Drinking would surely make this harder, messier, darker, and lonelier. The guilt alone would chew through me.”
I wish we weren’t dealing with a pandemic, obviously, but it has been beautiful to watch communities rally together to support one another. From sidewalk chalk messages of hope to restaurants donating meals to those in need, would I see the caring clearly if my head was focused on that next drink?
Hard as this is, I wouldn’t want to drink my way through it. Drinking would surely make it harder, messier, darker, and lonelier. The guilt alone would chew through me.
The accidental benefits to online meetings
I’m surprised by how much I love our virtual meetups. In a way, our attendance has grown. There were meetings, before, where there would only be a handful of people. Without having to cross town, or get a babysitter, our meetings are easier to attend. This is good, because attendance is important when you’re struggling — in a crisis, the best thing to do is reach out to other people.
At the online meetings, we all show up as we are. Some of the women are wearing sweatpants, stretched out on sofas or in beds. Others are cooking, or eating dinner. There are visiting cats and dogs who wander past the screen, and when they do, we often get an intro, like, “This is Daisy.” Everyone is at ease. Occasionally I’ll put on a little bit of lipstick, just so I feel somewhat put together, but it’s come as you are. And if you don’t feel like being looked at, you can just turn off your camera but still talk and listen.
It’s also a nice option for newcomers, who are maybe feeling terrified about joining a recovery group. A lot of people feel a tremendous amount of shame and guilt when they’re trying to get help. Or maybe they’re unsure of whether they’re actually committing to recovery. Attending a virtual meeting allows for a certain kind of anonymity that you don’t get when you have to physically walk into a space.
And if, in the middle of the night, like me in my early years of recovery, you wake up and feel vulnerable, there’s probably a meeting happening online, on the other side of the world, that you can log into. There is so much support available. The most important thing is to just reach out.
What people who aren’t in recovery can learn from group therapy
The pandemic is frightening.
We’re all holding onto more stress than usual. We’re having nightmares, or we’re scared we won’t be able to see or family for long stretches of time. We’re worried about our jobs, our finances, our future. We’re all dealing with a traumatic situation, some definitely more than others. And even with more time, it’s still difficult to step away from COVID-19, to pause for a minute and focus on how we’re feeling, and to talk about it. That’s basically what these circles are.
You don’t need to have a substance abuse disorder to learn from the model. Much of what we do to keep ourselves healthy and on a good path has to do with human connection. It’s about wanting to feel less alone, to feel seen and supported by others, and to have our feelings heard.
The group reminds us that we’re all more alike than we are different. It’s important to know that, whatever you think you’re going through, however alone you feel, there’s probably a neighbour four doors down going through the same thing and feeling the same way.
Everything in the group is an important reminder that this, too, shall pass. That might be the message we need to hear most right now.
Are you in need of support? She Recovers Toronto hosts virtual meetings for women in recovery every Monday at 7 p.m. Meetings are also held daily at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. EDT. For addictions treatment helplines in Canada, consult the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction. For information about available services at The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, call 1 800 463-2338 and press 2, or read more here.
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