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.

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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.

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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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Feeling powerless

One day after the next, we continue to push through life in a time that makes many feel powerless – especially if you’re in the U.S., a nation so divided that even public health is political. We’re witnessing unconscionable negligence from the powers that be in both reopening society and ignoring systemic problems in areas such as policing and criminal justice. It’s easy to feel that our voices are unheard, ignored, or trapped in echo chambers. And even small victories seem few and far between.

On top of this, the strain of long-term isolation and anxiety about the future affects each of us personally. People are stressed, lonely, and if they live with others, may be dealing with household and relationship conflict. Parents are worried about balancing their children’s needs with work responsibilities, many of them preparing for a dangerous school environment and inconsistent educational methods. We’re struggling with the challenges of remote work or unsafe in-person work environments, with unemployment, and with financial stress. Some of us are worried about or grieving those who’ve fallen ill or suffered the ultimate fate at the hands of COVID-19.

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Other factors could be causing stress and anxiety as well. Maybe you’re stuck in an urban environment with no way to experience nature or breathe fresh air. Maybe you miss life as you once knew it, and the ability to visit friends without masks, or deep anxiety about spreading a deadly virus. Maybe you’re recognizing personal habits that are bigger or uglier than they once seemed.

What can you do when you feel powerless?

First, know that you aren’t suffering alone. You’ve probably expressed the cliché yourself: “we’re all in this together.”

That phrase has a dual meaning when it comes to social progress. There are things we absolutely can’t fix on our own – global political battles, societal rifts, the economy, and the minds of stubborn adversaries. But we can take steps and celebrate small wins, gaining a measure of control. That could include becoming better informed, donating, having hard conversations with friends and relatives, or making calls to members of Congress. Taking initiative, even screwing up and learning from it, allows us to develop an internal locus of control. That can instill a sense of empowerment as we make a measure of difference.

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Maybe what’s creating a feeling of powerlessness is household dynamics, interpersonal conflicts, or behaviors that have gotten out of control – such as drinking, overeating, scrolling through social media, or gaming. Many of our habits have come under the spotlight during isolation. Everyone needs a little me-time and escapism. But if you only have one or two coping mechanisms that function as escape, they probably aren’t sustainable and won’t make things easier. If you know there’s something you could be doing differently, it can only help to try.

If you don’t know where to start or just aren’t ready, try simply contemplating a change. Journal about how it would look. Read about or talk to other people who’ve successfully done it. You can learn about others’ experiences by searching podcasts, TED talks, or YouTube. If you have the resources, I recommend trying virtual counseling. Learning and starting with small steps can help you feel energized, supported, and encouraged to make a plan.

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Alcohol consumption during a global pandemic

I’m not here to say that all drinking is bad. The human relationship with alcohol is far more complicated than that. I’m a big proponent of recognizing good and bad qualities in all things, and the continuum between the two. Alcohol is no exception, though I regard it as a primarily negative influence in my own life.

Despite harmful consequences for many, alcohol has been a catalyst of communion throughout history. In the present moment, virtual social drinking is helping people to stay connected and entertained, find a sense of discovery even in our confinement, and deal with disappointment about the world’s most stubborn problems. We might also be using alcohol to cope with stress and loss – not just lives lost, but as Dr. Argie Allen Wilson puts it, “the loss of the lives that we once knew. Loss of the engagement that we came to enjoy so much.”

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Unfortunately, however, the pandemic is causing some people to drink more than ever, justifying doing so with the need for relaxation and distraction during prolonged isolation. They could be under pressure from friends or those they live with to drink, or perhaps feel the need to isolate from those they live with through alcohol. Some are drinking more because they’re alone, succumbing to a daily routine and separated from those who typically witness or judge their behavior. There’s also a greater risk now for sober people to lapse back into alcohol use.

Whatever the causes may be, many people are recognizing that they don’t have as much control over alcohol as they once thought. They may see effects and behaviors they didn’t notice before, and even have deep regrets. Many are convinced each morning that they’ll change but feel powerless once evening rolls around.

It’s summertime in the northern hemisphere. With the heat and our longing for the excitement that summer typically brings, more people are drinking in large groups despite the pandemic. In addition to lowering inhibitions, alcohol causes us to become myopic, or short-sighted – we give in to the pressures and enjoyment of the moment, less aware of events that seem distant. So in addition to the usual risks of alcohol, we become less focused on the impacts of congregating in large groups and slip up on things like mask usage and 6-foot spacing.

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Moderating or eliminating alcohol consumption

Plenty of people are able to mindfully moderate their alcohol consumption. And even those who can’t moderate may try doing so before making a sweeping decision to give up alcohol altogether. If you feel out of control and want to limit your drinking, now might be a good time to put it under the microscope and take some notes.

Pay attention to what triggers your consumption, and how alcohol affects your mood and reactions. If you could use some outside perspective, ask a trusted friend or relative what they see. When a trigger arises, mix in other responses so that alcohol isn’t the only thing helping you to adjust or escape. Try a different treat or activity like a favorite food or a form of exercise you enjoy, boosting your dopamine level in more sustainable ways and giving yourself a broader self-management toolkit.

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You can also place alcohol out of sight so it’s not so top-of-mind when you need release. When you are drinking, pace yourself. Alternate between alcohol and water. Consume plenty of food. Space out your drinks and count them – determine and heed your limit. Furthermore, educate yourself about the signs of Alcohol Use Disorder so you’re cognizant of any patterns that might arise in your drinking or that of loved ones.

Some of us are good at putting boundaries in place. I was not. Despite wanting to control my alcohol intake, I’d continue to let myself finish the wine bottle, waking up feeling sick, empty, and helpless, and going through the daily motions until I could settle into the comfort of the next night’s bottle of wine. I may not have had a single “rock bottom” moment but did several things over the years that wounded my sense of pride and self-worth.

It took me several years to realize I was incapable of moderation and couldn’t drink “normally.” I first tried using a calendar to reward myself with stickers on nights when I didn’t drink or only had a couple glasses of wine. Some weeks were more successful than others, but by and large, there weren’t that many stickers.

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Gaining power from theories of behavior change

Becoming familiar with some of the many theories on behavior change helped me to better understand and respond to my behavioral motivations. It might help you, too. This article provides a great overview of some of these theories; below, I’ll share what is really a cursory overview of how I applied them to becoming sober. Though the article focuses on challenges with food consumption and exercise, there’s a good deal of overlap between overeating and excessive drinking. And there are several more theories that I don’t have space to address here.

For me, self-determination theory, which revolves around “intrinsic motivation,” was key to successfully giving up alcohol. “Intrinsic motivation does not rely on external pressure, like rewards/approval or punishment/disapproval from peers or health professionals. It exists within the individual… [who] must believe the behaviour is enjoyable or compatible with their ‘sense of self’, values and life goals.” By examining my thoughts and feelings, and adopting new hobbies, my sobriety became something desirable – not just something I had to do.

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In addition, the principles of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy were built into my experiences in counseling and a recovery group. They helped me to challenge dysfunctional thoughts, assumptions, and coping mechanisms while I developed accountability through peer support.

Especially now, almost out of necessity, technological resources are worthy of exploration – whether that’s an app, an SMS (short message service) that sends motivational messages, or telemental health, such as video counseling. These interventions can be affordable, convenient, and less stigmatizing because they’re private – all factors that were integral in my decision to use video counseling in my first few months of sobriety.

Reading about theories of behavior change and related tools helped me to gain greater control over the factors that impact my behavior – from the personal (beliefs, knowledge, attitudes, skills, genetics) to the social (interaction with friends, family, community) and environmental (home, workplace, economy, and more). It gave me the knowledge I needed to turn the right valves and find the confidence to make changes in my life. I hope it helps other people, too.

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Wrapping Up

Whatever might be causing you to feel powerless, I hope you’ll find the resources and motivation to begin making a change. Even small adjustments can be empowering. Yes, many things fall outside of our control. But we have more influence than we think, both in our own lives and in the world around us.

Actions – even small actions – can have compounding effects, and we can use that to our advantage. We aren’t living in a vacuum, even if physical distancing makes it feel that way at times. While you’re working towards personal or social change, don’t forget that sharing supportive words can have a massive impact on others’ sense of empowerment, prompting them to push for change in their own lives and circles.

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So, take your me-time, indulge in self-care, and dive into the escapism you need. Read that fantasy novel. Take that midday nap. If you’re someone who can drink alcohol moderately, have that glass of wine. But think of those things as hitting “refresh” rather than being the only way out. And manage each one on your terms.

It’s fine and only natural to feel overwhelmed and powerless right now. But by adopting a defeatist attitude and failing to recognize what is within our power, our lives and the world around us move from the threat of limited setbacks to certain ruin. Let’s not let that happen. An ounce of hope is all we have, and with the right tools and a measure of effort we can make that hope a reality.

–Dana G

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