Grief over lost time and potential

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused people to experience grief in varied and layered ways. Most of us feel like we’re missing out – losing our ability to go places, have new and exciting experiences, spend time with those we love, or reach and celebrate life’s milestones. Many have lost opportunities and livelihoods, jobs and homes. Infants and young people at formative ages are missing out on critical social interactions and in-person learning experiences. College students have had to forego scholarships and foundational coming of age interactions. Many people are deeply lonely, isolated from family, and struggling to form or maintain romantic and friendship bonds. And, of course, some have experienced the ultimate loss, the death of loved ones.

This is related to a feeling of grief that many undergo after they quit drinking – usually after the initial high of the pink cloud subsides and we return to a more regular emotional rhythm. It’s a sense of having lost time and opportunities in the important years of our life due to heavy drinking. We may feel that we’ve completely missed out, burned some bridges, or gotten behind on reaching our personal goals and life’s milestones. Maybe we expected to be married by now, with kids or grandkids. Maybe we didn’t pursue a track of study or work that we were once passionate about.

image of a woman shot from the back with a train rushing by in the foreground
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The amount of time, and the opportunities that feel lost, vary greatly among those who’ve cut back or given up on alcohol. Regardless, this sense of grief can be tremendously painful – and it can feel impossible to make up for those losses.

Many sober people who once drank heavily go on to do amazing and impressive things with their lives, like winning marathons or publishing novels. When we hear those kinds of stories, we may compare ourselves to those individuals and wonder why we can’t make similar strides in our own lives. What about the perfectly average among us? Even though we may improve our lives in considerable ways and be more stable and resilient, we sometimes feel like we’re not living up to our potential.

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My own grief during the pandemic

A few months into lockdown, I started experiencing this sense of grief myself. I’ve become increasingly aware of what I lost – or didn’t build – during the years I was drinking heavily. The feeling was worsened by the isolating effects of the pandemic. I also don’t feel that I’m making as much progress with passion projects as I was before all this started. I’d been prolific with writing poetry, excited about learning guitar, and fulfilled as I got to travel for work and vacation. My eyes had been opened to a world of possibilities brought on by my sobriety.

But all of that growth got turned on its head on March 12, 2020, when my office shifted to full telework. Along with the rest of the world, I had to shut my doors to face-to-face interactions, travel, in-person poetry workshops, guitar lessons… all of the things that had been making me feel alive and whole for the first time in years.

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Sure, a lot of these activities can be continued or replicated in the virtual environment, and I’m taking advantage of that. But just like everyone else, I quickly burned out on video calls and other virtual hangouts. And I’ve lost my internal fire for a lot of my hobbies. I feel more scattered and less focused, with a general sense of malaise.

Though my sobriety at first made me feel more secure and resilient during the pandemic, recently it’s begun to hover a magnifying glass over my life, homing in on what’s meaningful and what’s not. This has forced me to question my identity, my purpose, my career track, my relationships, and even the value of my new passions. It’s made me wonder whether I should (or could) go back to school and pursue a career in something that interests me at a deeper level. But then I worry that it’s too late, that I’d be too far behind – or maybe it wouldn’t feel quite right, or that I still wouldn’t feel fulfilled in that area of my life.

signpost pointing in various directions against a pink and blue sunset
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I’ve also become more aware of holes in my knowledge, such as history and geopolitics, which can feel embarrassing and painful. I begin to criticize myself, thinking that perhaps I wouldn’t have those gaps if I hadn’t been so absorbed in meaningless activities that involved drinking. If only I’d been focused on finding the right career path and enriching myself intellectually. I know that I’m still fairly young and curious enough to fill many of these gaps, and that everyone has knowledge gaps – we don’t need to be ashamed of them. But I still stress over this awareness, and knowing that our minds are substantially less elastic after our 20s adds to my frustration.

With all this uncertainty and reflection comes a lot of pressure, a sense of only having one life to live and wondering if I’m doing enough with it. Am I even capable of making some large change, and if so, what would it be? I worry about both my capabilities and my purpose, unsure of what I really want out of life. I wonder if this is drinking’s legacy or just one step in sobriety?

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When it comes to finding answers to these questions, I know I’m not there yet and should go easy on myself. At a high level, I’m aware that these aren’t unusual things to ask yourself in your early 30s, often a transitional time in life. In fact, it’s typical to compare ourselves to our peers throughout our lives, questioning whether we’ve made the right choices. I also recognize that this is a newer feeling that must be due in part to the pandemic. It’s probably temporary. It may also be something I need to experience to have some significant realization of a change that’s needed in my life. Or perhaps incremental changes will add up to transformation over time. I don’t think I can know any of this yet.

In the meantime, when I let my emotions overtake reason (and I recognize that’s normal and okay sometimes), what I experience is uncomfortable and demoralizing. It’s grief. For my own well-being, I must acknowledge that what hurts is to know that I might be in a different place – fully content, more successful, and thriving – if I hadn’t handed over many of my formative years to drinking. Or, it may have had less to do with drinking, and more to do with other decisions I made at pivotal times in my life.

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In truth, I can’t disentangle how much of this uncertainty is related to having had problems with alcohol in the past, and how much of it’s related to other factors like my age, the pandemic, my personality and other psychological factors, or things outside of my understanding. I can only be patient with these unknowns, and hope that a path forward will become clear eventually. Most likely, that will be after the pandemic finally ends. And that’s a good reason to avoid making rash life changes right now, knowing that this is such an unusual time.

It’s not about “fixing it

A work acquaintance recently told me she’d just found out her husband of 26 years was having an affair. It was the first thing she said on our call, with tremendous pain in her voice. Though it wasn’t the most professional way to kick off a work call, it was evident she just needed someone to recognize that the situation entirely sucked – that nothing could hurt more than this did right now. The last thing I wanted to do was tell her it would get better. Instead, all I said is that the situation was completely awful, and that I was so sorry she was going through this on top of all the other challenges the pandemic has brought.

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I’m no expert on grief counseling, and in fact struggled with how to respond in the moment. But I know it can be counterproductive to succumb to the knee-jerk response of telling people things will get better. During the pandemic, we’ve grown desensitized (even annoyed) by empty, optimistic clichés like “we’re all in this together” or “hope you’re okay during this trying time.” They either fall flat or run directly against our lived experience. Though our human instinct is to want to alleviate pain and make things easier for one another, that’s not always the next step for someone in an early stage of grief. So the goal of our social interactions can’t always be to fix things for one another.

Our pains – and their impacts upon us – are diverse. Some of us are struggling with a sense grief due to missing out and experiencing loss due to COVID-19. Others, like me, feel they’ve lost opportunities and time in the wake of a long period of heavy drinking. Perhaps you’re struggling with grief due to something else, like my work acquaintance. Regardless, the simple acknowledgement of pain (not to mention, counseling or therapy) can go a long way. I think that may be all we can do, for ourselves and for each other, right now. Recognize loss, acknowledge pain, and let the answers come in their own time.

–Dana G

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Discovering old and new passions (VACI)

It’s easy to become bored when you initially give up alcohol. Your calendar may open up with free time that can’t be spent in the same way with friends who still drink. Maybe being around alcohol causes anxiety or cravings, and you need other activities to occupy you. Boredom and uncertainty about how to fill time may be exacerbated at this strange time when we’re engaging in long-term physical distancing (I’m calling it “physical” rather than “social” because there are still ways to be social, virtually!). Fortunately, a tool known as VACI from the science- and empowerment-based recovery organization SMART Recovery can help, whether you’ve given up drinking or just cut back.

What is a VACI? 

VACI is short for “Vital Absorbing Creative Interest” and refers to any activity that not only helps fill time, but is also pleasant, healthy, and riveting. A VACI could be anything from taking up a musical instrument to painting, learning a language, or restoring a car. VACIs can help you to become more engaged, curious, inventive, and contemplative in your everyday life. They can even help you replace some of the benefits you once perceived alcohol to bring, such as euphoria, feeling funnier or smarter, and reducing social anxiety.

VACIs allow you to reflect on and revisit what you used to enjoy before you started drinking – and to explore new activities that you’ve always been curious about but lacked the time, energy, or motivation to try. Maybe you didn’t think you could try them in the past, but have developed a new sense of self-assurance and are ready to do so now.

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Many of us feel just as busy despite physical distancing with things like work, cleaning, taking care of children, and keeping in touch with friends and family. This post is certainly not intended to tell people they should be just as productive or more than they would be under normal circumstances. These are not normal times, and many people are struggling and mourning.

But if you live alone or have a lot of idle time (or perhaps you’re getting tired of a single activity you tend towards such as gaming or streaming video), trying out new VACIs can broaden your go-to activity set and open you up to things that may be surprisingly fulfilling. These may also serve as welcome distractions if you have roommates or family members who live with you and are still partaking of alcohol.

Even in normal times, it’s a good idea to explore activities you enjoy doing alone, because you can’t rely on people in your circle to be available when and how you need them to be. That said, if you can find supportive friends to have one-on-one or small group hangouts to do these things (virtually, for now), that’s great. Or, you can find local and virtual communities in which to do them.

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One thing to remember when exploring VACIs is that not every activity is enjoyable for every person. It’s important to “try things on” and see how you respond. Does a new hobby feel a little awkward or uncomfortable? Does it fit just right and fill you with excitement? Are you eager to explore it further? It’s also a good idea to engage in VACIs moderately, so you aren’t replacing one addiction with another. Weigh any comorbidities you may have, such as bipolar disorder. Mood states like mania and hypomania may cause you to react differently to the development of new hobbies – especially if you’re experiencing the pink cloud.

When I was in the pink cloud, I got a little overeager trying to juggle too many new balloons. I felt like I had to do every new VACI every evening – from practicing guitar to creative writing to exercising. These things shouldn’t have been stressing me out… they should have been exciting. To overcome this, I started thinking of VACIs as a menu of activities I could decide between on any given evening, letting myself pick and choose. 

Eventually, I found myself gravitating towards some activities more than others. I joined local creative writing workshop groups and co-writing spaces, diving back into writing poetry. In addition to feeling smarter, and more creative and capable than I had in years, this helped me to overcome social anxiety toward meeting new people and sharing things I’m passionate about. I’ve developed new and enriching friendships, honed my craft, and feel more connected to a community that holds endless possibilities for engagement and growth.

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You might finally delve into a passion or hobby that excited you years or even decades ago. Or, you could fall in love with an activity you didn’t think you would – opening a door you never knew was closed. That can be tremendously empowering, helping to pull you through the difficult and sometimes isolating experience of early recovery. Eventually, the VACIs you explore can lead to bigger goals, and a more focused sense of purpose.

Not sure where to start? Here’s a long list of ideas to help. If it’s a bit overwhelming, try selecting and exploring just a handful of activities. Create a table to rate how fun and fulfilling each of them seem, both before and after you try them.

Activities that can be done during physical distancing:

Entertainment and Education

  • Read a long book series, or a number of books from a favorite author or genre
  • Take an online class in something you’ve always wanted to learn more about through a service like edX or Coursera
  • Learn a new language, or at least the basics, through an app like Duolingo
  • Virtually visit museums all over the world
  • Become an armchair expert by reading up on something like history, psychology, astronomy, dream theory, or the history of your favorite genre of American cinema
  • Take an acting or art class
  • Learn a new technical skill such as writing code, programming, graphic design, or web development
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Creative Writing

  • Write a novel, play, screenplay, memoir, short story, poetry, or stand-up comedy routine
  • Look online for writing prompts to generate ideas
  • Engage in introspection and keep a journal on a theme such as gratitude or surviving the 2020 quarantine
  • Write reviews of streaming movies or shows
  • Start a blog or podcast on something you’re passionate about – perhaps one of your other VACIs

New Artistic Skills

  • Learn a new musical instrument or pick up an old one
  • Practice singing or songwriting
  • Try a new craft such as knitting or other textiles, woodcraft, model-building, pottery, jewelry-making, book-binding, or calligraphy
  • Start a project in an art medium such as painting, drawing, sculpting, collaging, mixed media, or writing comics
  • Explore your creative “eye” with photography or videography – though for now, your subject may have to be yourself, those you live with, or your living space
  • Perfect a new skill like knitting or woodworking, and starting a side business selling your wares
person playing acoustic guitar
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Exercise and Movement

  • Explore new forms of exercise such as walking, jogging, running, cycling, high intensity training, bodybuilding, or yoga
  • Take a virtual martial arts class
  • Dance – learn new dancing styles, or just dance to your favorite music for fun

Other

  • Serve your community as a volunteer, mentor, or tutor
  • Try new recipes or refine a cooking skill set
  • Arrange a virtual party where you and your friends present 3-minute PowerPoint presentations on topics you’re passionate about, or have everyone present another person’s PowerPoint
  • Color or work on puzzles while binge-listening to podcasts or audiobooks
  • Garden or landscape, if you have access to a yard or outdoor space
  • Delve into strategic gaming, such as chess, video games, word games, or board games (many of which can be played virtually)
chess board
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Activities for the future:

Here are several more activities that aren’t actionable right now, but that you can look forward to trying out after this period of physical distancing:

Entertainment, Education, and New Skills

  • Take yourself to the movie theater and treat yourself to soda, popcorn, and/or candy
  • Write reviews of the movies you see
  • Go to local museums or see what classes you can take locally
  • Try your hand at live storytelling or stand-up comedy
  • Explore film photography, if you live near a public darkroom where you can rent developing and print-making equipment

Sports and Outdoors

  • Go hiking, camping, swimming, or cycling in nature
  • Go on an adventure with activities such as rock climbing, kayaking, mountain biking, or skydiving
  • Follow or play a favorite sport
  • Go on long walks or bike rides to get more familiar with the area where you live
Lake with blue sky and hiking path
Photo by Pascal Debrunner on Unsplash

Clubs and Community

  • Join clubs or community organizations
  • Join interest-based community groups, locally or online (I’ve linked to this before and I’m sure there are similar services, but meetup.com is a great place to find these. Many group meetups are being conducted virtually right now.)

Shopping and Collecting

  • Visit and support local businesses such as restaurants, shops, music venues, and theaters
  • Browse flea markets for art, jewelry, furniture, collectibles, and unique gifts
  • Collect something that brings you joy – anything from stamps to antique decor to photo books
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Travel

  • Make it a goal to visit all 50 states, or all the national parks
  • Take trips with friends, family, or by yourself – and not necessarily to faraway places (perhaps you can spend your free time getting more familiar with your home state)


You can peruse hundreds more hobbies here, from Parkour to cheese-making to robot combat. You must choose your own adventure. Whatever you try and gravitate towards, VACIs can be both fun and enriching. I hope you enjoy, and maybe even discover a lifelong passion in the process!

-Dana G

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Maintaining a Socially Distant Sobriety

The spread of COVID-19 has posed enormous challenges to people across the world as individuals, as communities, and as societies. While so many of us are social distancing, potentially for the long haul, our concerns vary widely across geographic locations, financial and occupational circumstances, family situations, living environments, mental health challenges, and so much more. 

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to tools and information for getting through this, and I’m not equipped to put myself in the shoes of every person struggling through every situation. But I’ve tried to categorize some tools based on five particularly widespread problems for those of us working to maintain sobriety during this period of isolation.

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Problem #1: I’m struggling with cravings.

Avoiding temptation can be especially hard when dealing with a variety of unknowns and spending so much time at home. If you live by yourself and being alone is a trigger, it’s probably not the best time to have alcohol in the house. However, many people live with family members or roommates who drink. Though that can be tricky, the silver lining is that the presence of alcohol and the exercise of willpower to avoid it can help you to develop strategies to avoid alcohol in the future at restaurants, bars, and parties.

If alcohol is there to stay, and even if it isn’t, try to make sure you have enough of your favorite foods and non-alcoholic beverages on hand. These, along with activities and hobbies you can do in your home, can serve as a satisfying distraction from urges – holding you over until they subside. Dedicating time and energy to some other kind of pleasurable activity when cravings arise helps me satisfy what feels like it’s missing – whether the activity is on the less-healthy end, like snacking on something sugary and watching Netflix, or on the healthy end, like reading, writing, or trying a new recipe or workout video. I’ve also shared earlier posts that may be of use if you’re looking for strategies to manage cravings and treat yourself with things other than alcohol.

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If you have time, reading books or blogs about sobriety can reinforce your decision to cut back or quit. A few are listed on the Resources page of this blog. I often listen to audiobooks while doing things like cleaning or working on a puzzle, which require time but not a lot of brainpower. Listening to these reminds me of how bad things can get with alcohol, and of the physical and mental health benefits of quitting. Feeling down and lonely sometimes triggers the memory that I used to drink to make those emotions subside – so for people like me, the advice in the following section is also relevant to overcoming cravings.

Problem #2: I’m feeling anxious or depressed.

This, for obvious reasons, is going to be a challenge for a lot of people in the weeks or even months of isolation ahead. If you’re suffering from negative thoughts, anxiety, or depression, but aren’t able to maintain virtual counseling services with your usual in-person or online counselor, there are many virtual services that can help. You can also check out recommendations from therapists for helpful apps and resources during this time. If you have a pressing need to talk to someone but don’t have the resources or aren’t ready to commit, some online counseling services offer a few free appointments or tiers of service.

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The CDC also offers advice on managing mental health in the midst of COVID-19. This is just a sampling of the tips and resources available. I recommend searching more widely online to find resources specific to your circumstances, and reaching out to friends, family, or acquaintances who may be able to share additional advice.

Apart from counseling services, there are a lot of things you can do in daily life that might help. Try to maintain your regular sleep schedule, and practice a morning routine such as journaling, making breakfast, exercising, or getting ready for the day much like you usually would. Not everyone needs to do all of these things. I, for one, have no plans to leave pajamas until at least July. Just do what makes a difference for you and don’t be afraid to try new things. 

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You don’t have to be exceptionally productive just because you’re at home, but new habits can take your mind off old ones. It may help you to stay fairly busy, even indoors, with a range of activities (see the next section!). If you’re feeling stuck, identify a few things that make you love your living space, or rearrange the furniture. Meditation, mindfulness, and breathing exercises may help you manage anxiety. After a rough couple of evenings last week, I decided to start my own daily blend of exposure therapy and meditation. You can find more tips if you’re having a hard time staying occupied here.

If you’re glued to your phone, or if following social media or the news is making you feel anxious (or paranoid!), consider putting your phone across the room for a while. I’ve realized that I’m checking Instagram far more than usual. Despite the short-term relief, connection, and humor I’ve found, it can be draining. Checking our phones can become a compulsive behavior that acts on the same reward system in the brain as activities like gaming, over-eating, over-exercising, and even drinking.

It’s hard to pinpoint a “healthy amount” for behaviors that are essential to survive and feel connected to others. I’ve started leaving my phone on the kitchen counter when I realize I’m using it compulsively, and will only check to make sure I haven’t missed any urgent texts or calls if I’m getting up to do something else.

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All of this said, some stress and anxiety is inevitable right now. People are dealing with changes to their routines, concerns over their own health along with that of loved ones, job and financial losses, and major uncertainty in other areas of life. Don’t let anyone tell you that you have to feel okay all the time or seize the day as if there weren’t a major virus sweeping through the world’s population. Do what you can to manage your mental health challenges and feel more comfortable, but remember that everyone is having a hard time. It’s okay to worry and feel sad, and to adjust your expectations for yourself right now.

Problem #3: I’m getting extremely bored.

Another widespread concern is how to keep our minds and bodies occupied while spending so many hours at home. You don’t have to be productive all the time – as with our mental health, it’s okay to take a step back from the bustle of everyday life and settle in to what will be our new normal for some time. But if feelings of intense boredom are beginning to weigh on you, staying occupied with a range of activities may help.

You can start a puzzle, escape on an adventure through a good book, learn something new in a free online class, attend a virtual concert, or explore other opportunities for streaming art, education, entertainment, and more. You could clean or reorganize your living space, or declutter a closet that’s been grating on you. It might also be a good time to reach out virtually, and regularly, to friends and family – particularly if you live alone. 

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If you’re feeling creative or are up for processing emotions, you can write, journal, draw, make or listen to music, or work on other crafts. If you’re feeling restless, try to make it outside to get some fresh air or go for a walk. Just maintain your six feet of distance! If going outside right now falls outside your comfort zone, there are tons of companies and social media “influencers” offering free virtual exercise classes during COVID-19. 

Of course, if you’re hooked into the streaming services, there are plenty of shows and movies to keep you entertained. I’ve been trying to limit my viewing because I know how addictive they can be for me. But some evenings, I don’t have the motivation to do much else (I plowed through Tiger King in two nights). There’s a wealth of good entertainment media out there nowadays – with just as much junk. It’s all fair game right now!

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And don’t forget about others. Perhaps one of the best ways to mitigate harm, fill time, and build yourself up during this crisis is to find ways to help. Check on neighbors, friends, and family. If you can, donate to charities that are on the front lines. And look for ways to volunteer in your community. The list is likely to grow. You may find yourself dropping off food and supplies for older neighbors, or making masks for your local hospital or other essential workers. Service itself can be healing.

Problem #4: I’m feeling really lonely.

This is a tough one, especially if you live alone, like me. Loneliness is inevitable, given the fact that social distancing requires us to do the very thing that makes it worse – to physically isolate ourselves. Despite being dispersed, we can keep in touch in virtual ways. This could be as simple as a daily phone call to a friend or family member, or if you have the resources, you can conduct a video chat. There is a range of technology, much of it freely available at this time, to support virtual hangouts.

Zoom app on smartphone and laptop
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As you’re likely to have noticed, virtual happy hours and boozy brunches are growing in popularity. Joining friends – even virtually – who are drinking might not be the easiest thing to do when moderating or avoiding alcohol intake. But if you’re able to join and enjoy your coffee, selzer, or other drink of choice without struggling with temptation, this can be a good way to meet friends where they are and stay in touch. In fact, it may be a bit easier than meeting in a bar, where the smell of alcohol, not just the festive atmosphere, surrounds you. 

There are also interest-based activities prompting people to gather in virtual spaces. If you’re into creative writing, something that has worked for me is joining friends on video chat to work on separate writing projects and to share feedback. Meetup.com, a platform for gathering people based on common interests, just added an option for virtual meetups. You can also play virtual video and board games or create a spreadsheet where friends can add recommendations for books, movies, streaming series, activities, and more. 

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Problem #5: My usual recovery meeting isn’t meeting virtually.

Some recovery groups are offering virtual meetings during the COVID-19 outbreak because physical locations are closed. If your regular group happens to be offering a phone or video meeting, attending is a good way to stay accountable to your goals and feel less isolated as we endure this. If no virtual meeting is available, you may be forced to look for alternatives. 

Some recovery organizations (such as SMART Recovery) have online meetings, resources, and anonymous discussion boards. Browse the website of your recovery group of choice to see if they’re offering these. If you haven’t explored recovery groups but feel that now would be a good time to do so, you can learn more about different types of recovery groups here and here. You can also download the free Connections app for support in your recovery.

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There are substantial benefits of attending virtual meetings during COVID-19, from providing a source of connection to other people who aren’t drinking to sharing strategies for coping with all the uncertainty. In another blog post, I shared some of the ways I’ve personally benefited from attending a recovery group. In addition to taking advantage of online resources and meetings, reading books and blogs to hear stories from other people who have quit or cut back can be helpful when you’re managing that process on your own.

The power of sobriety during the COVID-19 crisis

With a world of uncertainty about the future, and abrupt transformations taking place in our everyday lives, it’s quite normal to not feel “okay.” Some things will quite simply not be okay. Many people of all ages and backgrounds are getting sick and dying. We’re not only faced with discomfort and isolation right now, but also grief at very real losses. We’re dealing with financial, occupational, and family challenges that are shifting faster than we ever imagined – and faster than the world of information can keep up. Everyone is being asked to figure these things out rapidly, and at the same time, to be unnaturally patient sitting at home awaiting the latest updates to guidelines for interpersonal behavior.

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When things like this happen, we are often told to “take things one day at a time.” That’s familiar territory for folks avoiding alcohol – it’s the very strategy we use to stay sober in normal situations. That training, along with the fact that we have a little practice in social distancing, can help us to stay strong and get through this.

Pandemics have hit the world many times before. And although everything around us is changing and setbacks are inevitable, we will get through this. Some semblance of normal life will resume. I’ve written here about just five out of innumerable problems for people at this time. While many face significant changes in areas like work, education, finances, and health, we can all do our part to help each other deal with challenges and losses and help ourselves in the process. Patience, and for some of us, the power of sobriety, are the vehicles that will get us there.

–Dana G

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