Charles versus COVID

Fighting through the pandemic was difficult for everyone, arguably, even more so for people struggling with Substance Use or Mental Health Disorders.  One of the main tenets of any recovery program is the importance of being part of a community that provides support in the brightest and darkest of times.  The forced isolation of a whole society being in quarantine hit the recovery community extremely hard; a lot of people relapsed, far too many died, and some did make it through.  Charles is one of the fortunate souls in recovery who went into, and came out of, the COVID-19 pandemic sober.

Born and raised in Milwaukee, WI, Charles has two loving and nurturing parents that provided a comfortable childhood.  Unfortunately, all of their protection and care wasn’t enough to prevent the unconscionable.  At the age of eight Charles was the victim of sexual abuse and in the aftermath, began to self-medicate. He used drugs and alcohol to distance himself from the nightmares in his head.  Using substances to hide from that trauma would be the most predictable theme until adulthood.

Charles’s use became a daily routine by the time he settled into middle school; abusing marijuana, prescription medications, and alcohol.  Despite the drug abuse, Charles was able to pass as a productive teen.  He played sports, charmed the adults, and got into college.  By the time he started college his addiction was in full force. “The transition was not healthy, the anxiety and stress of college led to more use and deepening isolation.”

Spending time between Milwaukee and Madison, his substance abuse worsened and expanded into cocaine, benzodiazepines, and opiates.  Regardless of his zip code or his growing habit, Charles could never leave his trauma far behind.  By 2019 the tornado that was his life became too much. “My thoughts often were between killing myself or going to get a bag of dope.  I realized that using, no matter how much, wasn’t going to make my thoughts go away; so, suicide started seeming like the right thing to do.  I was now actively planning it, tall buildings, weapons, more drugs or booze.” Through this, there was still somehow a faint flicker of hope.

Charles let that flicker of hope carry him all the way from a planned suicide attempt into treatment at Aurora’s Dewey Center.  Like most in recovery, his first attempt wasn’t successful.  After trying and failing, recovery finally stuck.  On July 21, 2019, Charles used drugs and alcohol for the last time.  “After not trying, trying a little bit and stumbling regardless, I decided to take this thing [recovery] seriously.”

Taking things seriously meant Charles had to join a community and build a foundation of supporting characters that would help carry him when he couldn’t do it on his own. The people who attended recovery groups at the Lighthouse on Dewey became that community for Charles.  “I dove into the anonymous groups; that meant, at the very least, I was sober for the hours that I was up at the Lighthouse.  Instead of drinking and using, the meetings became my consistency.

The community is truly the bedrock of my recovery.  It is a “we” program.”  Then the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything.
The pandemic removed the luxury of sanctuary. Churches, businesses, and schools closed and so did support groups. “The biggest thing with COVID for people in recovery [mental health or addiction] was, it forced you to do the exact opposite of what you have been told to do to get through these issues.  We are constantly told not to isolate, don’t spend too much time in your head, don’t overthink about the past or future, be present.  With COVID all we could do was think about what we were missing from the past, or when in the future it would be normal again.  We did all of this relatively alone.”

Personally, Charles stumbled when the pandemic started to shutter the world.  While he stayed sober, he went inward and back to the isolation that haunted his days of active addiction.  He became complacent and, for those with addiction, that can be lethal.

“The loss of reality, the loss of routine, coping skills, and the things you [recovery community] were doing to stay alive.   It felt like progress was stalled”.  Like so many, initially, Charles did not attend the online meetings being offered across the country.  “COVID was a pass to use, stop doing all the work, and just crawl into a hole”.  As his mental health continued to deteriorate, people started to notice and push the issue.  Most, if not all, of his recovery fellows continued to reach out and Charles realized his mental health was shaken, in part, due to his isolation.  He missed, and needed, his community to help him move past the anger and fear of coming back, especially online.

Slowly, he tip-toed back into the community.  “You can’t just not show up and expect people to not say something”. Like anyone in the community, he was welcomed back with open arms.  He realized how close he had been to going back to drinking and drugging.  He was one of the lucky ones; he was able to pull the plane out of a nose dive.  The pandemic had put so many who struggle with substance abuse back on the streets.  In increments, Charles began to appreciate the sobriety he was maintaining.

As awful as it was, the pandemic taught Charles some invaluable things about his sobriety and the people he shared that with.  The pandemic forced people in sobriety to take inventory of their support groups. People who wanted to stay sober had to decide who to keep in their circle.  In the midst of the pandemic, Charles also learned some valuable things about himself.

The pandemic forced Charles to do the hard work needed to grow and to learn to be comfortable with himself.  There was no “clubhouse” to go to and be with like minded people.  The only way to stay sober and mentally healthy, was to actually do all of the things that mentors suggested.  “It wiped away the feeling that I was a victim of circumstance.  Throughout this whole ordeal I learned that I was able to stay sober without running to a group.”  The easy way out [to use drugs or alcohol]  was there the entire time.  Still, Charles chose to push on and become a better, sober, human being.

“In the end, what I learned was that the decision to not use lies with me and me alone.  The issue is in me.  It isn’t all about the triggers; people, places, and things.  Now and going forward it is much harder to see myself caving into the mundane pressures of life with a  substance use disorder. If I can make it through this.  I hope I can make it through anything”.

The first two years of Charles’s sobriety were grueling and plagued with uncertainty.  The global pandemic didn’t help matters, but Charles continued to grow and learn.  Today Charles keeps himself actively involved in the recovery community.  Helping others who struggle gives him the stability he needs to keep himself safe.  Staying safe and stable allows him to continue being of service, and service to others is the foundation of recovery.