By Sean McDonald
Special to The Observer
“My name is Sean and I am an alcoholic.”
It took me a long time to say those words and even longer to actually believe and accept them.
As I write this, the world is going through the COVID-19 pandemic. There are a lot of adjectives that can be used to describe the situation and our reactions to it: confusing, uncertain, anxious, worrisome and angry are just a few.
For those who suffer from the disease of addiction, there are even more adjectives that can be used: bored, isolated and lonely come to mind.
While there is no doubt this pandemic is affecting just about everyone in some way, it can be especially dangerous to those who suffer from the disease of addiction. Those who are lucky to be in recovery are advised to avoid so-called “triggers.”
Triggers are people, places, things or circumstances that can potentially lead to a relapse of addictive behaviors. For many addicts, these triggers are emotional in nature. Feelings of loneliness, despair, anxiety, isolation, failure and others can lead an addict right back the drug of choice. This can happen to an addict who is new to recovery or to someone who has been clean and sober for a long time.
It is important to note that many people who suffer from addiction also have co-occurring psychiatric disorders (depression, bipolar disorder, PTSD, anxiety, etc.) In many cases, these illnesses precede a person’s fall into using drugs or alcohol. Instead of therapy or proper medication, people use drugs and alcohol to deal with their psychiatric symptoms.
It is possible someone reading this right now is an addict or alcoholic. You might feel like the only way to deal with the stresses of this pandemic is to use drugs or to get drunk. You might feel like you have no one to support you. Your depression and anxiety could be at increased levels. You might feel like there is no other way.
But there is a better way.
Perhaps you don’t have a problem with addiction but you know someone who does. It could be a family member or friend. You might have put a lot of time, energy and love into trying to help an addicted person.
But it seems like nothing is helping.
Here’s the good news: drug rehabilitation centers have been deemed essential in New Jersey. As such, they continue to operate and admit new clients. Telephone helplines and hotlines continue to be staffed with people who are willing to listen to you if you call.
My own story of how I was finally able to get into recovery after years of destructive drinking could occupy every page of this newspaper. So, I am not going to write about all of it. But I will give you some highlights. As you read these, think about whether you or someone you know can identify with some or all of it.
Feelings of worthlessness — despite what you think, you are worth getting better. That person staring back at you in the mirror whom you do not recognize is but a shadow of the person that you can become.
I won’t be able to stop. I’m not strong enough. You probably can’t stop if using only your own willpower. That’s why we ask for help. There are people who will show you the way out. It’s not rocket science. Do exactly what they tell you to do and do exactly what they do. They got better. So can you.
I’m too embarrassed. Pride kills more addicts than almost anything else. A big part of successful recovery is learning how to get humble. If you want to get better, you must find a way to arrest your pride and ego. You’re not perfect and you never will be. Accept that.
I don’t need 12-step meetings. Perhaps not. But what do you have to lose? 12-step meetings like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous have helped millions of people. They can help you, too, but you have to be open-minded and teachable. Remember, you don’t know everything.
It’s too much to think that I can never have another drink as long as I live. That is indeed daunting. So don’t think of it that way. Instead, promise yourself every morning that you won’t have a drink just for today.
No one is expecting you to conquer the world.
During this time of pandemic, it has become necessary for those of us in recovery to address our addictions in different ways. In-person meetings aren’t happening right now. But there are thousands of meetings still happening online.
As I mentioned, drug rehabilitation facilities are open and accepting new clients. You can visit www.aa.org (Alcoholics Anonymous) or www.na.org (Narcotics Anonymous) to find information on meetings, tools and resources. In New Jersey, call the addictions hotline at 844-ReachNJ for 24-hour assistance.
A special note to the families and friends of those suffering from addiction: it is nearly impossible for someone who isn’t an addict or alcoholic to fully understand the disease of addiction. You may feel as if you have failed a loved one because you don’t know how to help them. You may even blame yourself for what is happening.
Please don’t do that!
You have not failed. And you’re not expected to completely understand. Listen, be there and love. Reach out to people who do understand and who are willing and able to help. In addition to the resources available to addicts and alcoholics, there are also resources that can be provided to family members and friends. Al-Anon is just one example and they can be found at www.Al-Anon.org.
I know what it’s like to be in a crowded bar and feel completely alone. I know what it’s like to walk into a liquor store with tears in my eyes because I know I shouldn’t be there. And I know what it’s like to walk in anyway.
Together with my friends in recovery, we work together to help others get better. Everyone in recovery has a unique path which led them to where they are. Whether your problem is with alcohol, drugs or both – please know that if you feel like no one will understand and no one will get it — we do. We’ve been there. If you think that no one will listen — we will.
Help is available. Recovery is possible. Reach out and someone will be there. All you have to do is take the first step.
The writer, Sean McDonald, is a resident of Kearny and is an alcohol & drug counselor at Turning Point, Inc., Paterson.