Many people in active recovery say the period when they were using drugs was the loneliest time in their lives. Now, with social distancing in place due to the coronavirus, they’re experiencing isolation again, but this time with the added pressure of trying to stay sober.
By the time Barlow Harlin was 32, he had spent the better part of a decade doing three things: taking care of his aging mother, working as a sound engineer and drinking, alone, in his apartment.
“It got so bad that I would have moments, like, I contemplated the fact that I may not wake up tomorrow because of how much I'm drinking,” he said. “It's kind of scary to get to that point when you're drinking so much that you realize that you may end up killing yourself with alcohol, but yet you still don't do anything about it.””
It was a relationship with one person that saved Harlin’s life. In recovery he learned that interpersonal connections are essential to maintaining his sobriety.
“Because when we isolate addicts and push people away, a lot of times we create our own problems that we think...the public doesn't care about us. But when you get into recovery and you get sober, whether you realize it or not, you depend on other people to support you,” he said.
Laurie Theeke, a loneliness researcher at West Virginia University, said health professionals now identify loneliness as a health risk when it comes to chronic illness, which includes addiction.
In West Virginia, she said, adults average three or more chronic illnesses. Her team reviewed 31 studies measuring either loneliness or social isolation in people with substance use disorders..
“We do know that people with loneliness specifically and substance use problems have more social anxiety, have more depressive symptoms...And we know that this is a time that they may have lower ability to self regulate or control,” she said.
Harlin worked sound for live concerts, so he often had to be on tour for weeks at a time. He had a tour coming up, and he wanted to detox beforehand so that he wouldn’t end up going into withdrawal on the road. A few days before his crew was to take off, he tried to quit drinking cold turkey.
“I just ran out of whiskey one night and I was like, ‘Well, this is gonna be it. I'll just quit drinking. It's convenient.’ And so I did,” he said.
What came next was what he described as the worst withdrawal experience he’d been through.
“I physically could not function. I could not eat.and I was so exhausted from trying to throw up that I couldn't even stand up anymore,” he said. He was getting calls from his boss. “And I just couldn't even respond. I mean, I [didn’t] even know what to say.”
Harlin had never missed work. So, when his boss couldn’t get a hold of him, he knew something had to be seriously wrong. His boss knew about his history with alcohol, ao he got Harlin’s address from one of his employees and showed up at his door.
“I get a knock on my door. And I'm like, well, shit,” he said. “I've got the windows all shut, the curtains are drawn and then I'm in there naked and I got my boss banging on my door.”
He tried to hide but his boss didn't go away.
“The next thing he did was he started breaking in my window,” Harlin said. “ I lived on the second story of the building.”
After scaling his building, Harlin’s boss clothed him, carried him out and drove him to the hospital. He’s been sober ever since.
For school, work or virtual playdates he world is using online platforms to interact with one another. But Theeke said virtual sobriety meetings might not be the perfect solution to loneliness, but they can help. She said the most important thing anyone with a chronic illness can do right now is to stay in touch with their health care providers.
“Don't hesitate or think that you can't connect with someone, we do have ways to connect with you virtually where you could do a video visit, see your provider, at least having some face time is important. Check in with your provider, and get additional help if you need it,” she said.
Theeke said after patients have sought the help of their healthcare providers, then they can start to factor in how they should use technology to reach out to their support networks.
“And then thinking about, is this a time where if you're in recovery, you need to be a little more proactive? Do you need to more frequently attend like virtual meetings?”
Theeke said substance use or not, we are all figuring out how to stay connected in this pandemic. She said we each have to adjust what we’re doing, day by day, to see what makes us feel less lonely.