Living with COVID Parallels Living with Addiction

By Ken Wells - 10/27/2020


Series One: Blog Fifty-Two

There are few things in life that I always do every day. Yet most days I get out and hit the road for a morning run. Sometimes toward the end of a run I will decide to sprint to the end.  Sprinting for an old guy looks like a brisk jog for a younger guy, I know. Nonetheless, it feels like a sprint to me. When I’m done, I’m usually bent over as I grab my knees, gasping for air. Slowly, oxygen filling my lungs and helps me to slow my rapid breathing as the hot sun forces trickles of sweat to pour down my face. When I am running and panting for air, sometimes I think about what it will be like when the pain and the discomfort will be over. I fantasize about being in the shower and having this part of my painful day over. Usually, these thoughts are not all that helpful in addressing the moment of discomfort. But my racing heart, the burn in my legs and the gasps for air trigger fantasies of wishing it were over. 

My son Sam is an ER nurse. Yesterday, while talking with him on the phone he shared that there was this guy who was admitted to the ER with symptoms of COVID-19. He was gasping for air a lot like I was when I finished my run except where I was able to slow the gasps and moderate my breathing, in panic he was not. It continued unabated requiring medical intervention. No doubt, in desperation, he too, fantasized about catching his illusive breath but was prevented because of the COVID-19 symptoms. I often think of the complaints I read and hear regarding being required to wear a face mask. As best I can gather, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) is reporting that a best practice in addressing this mysterious coronavirus is the exercise of frequently washing your hands combined with wearing a face mask while adhering to social distancing. This is the best known option to avoid COVID-19 exposure suggested by the CDC. It reduces the likelihood of transmission considerably. I told my son of an individual who was objecting to the government requiring that a face mask be worn in public as a threat to his personal freedom.  Sam told me that the government is not the only threat to personal freedom, but, that COVID-19 will take away your freedom to breathe, too. 

Complaints of this nature make me think of objections that I hear regarding limits and interventions around addiction recovery. Often, addicts lament about the need to yield to certain requirements in behavior protesting why they need to comply when others don’t or wishing that they were not addicts and cursing the addiction. For most of us who are addicts, this limited perspective has a short shelf life toward long-term sobriety. It blocks the capacity to surrender to what is and prevents an addict from accepting limitations as a reality of life. COVID-19 is a way for the universe to tell us that we all have limitations and by not respecting this will cost many people their lives. Your limitations in living may not be mine, yet we all must learn to live with limitations. The complicated problem of opening the economy to business versus closing down for the safety and protection of lives will not be effectively addressed by ignoring limitations. For sure, coming to terms with limits is here for generations to come. Addicts who have experienced successful recovery have learned this a long time ago. Whining and complaining about limits, things I cannot do but others might, must surrender to acceptance of the reality that I won’t be able to do certain things and maintain long term sobriety. Unless we as a country and the world, realize that there are limits that we must adhere to, and behaviors that we must give up, we will be no more effective toward addressing a pandemic than an addict is addressing out of control behavior.  

We all wish that the pandemic was over. This we have no argument about. Inconspicuously, we hope that by the end of the year, scientists will create a vaccine, a magic bullet, and make the pandemic go away. Until then, many will discredit scientific research and live as if the science is to be considered with doubt and disbelief. Then when a vaccine is created, we can finally get back to normal from a pandemic that some people think of as a political hoax anyway. Yet, the likelihood of returning to yesterday’s normal is an illusion. The past normal life of anywhere from 165 to a projected 300 thousand families whose loved ones have died have been altered forever. Past normal is history. Facing the reality of family loss, overwhelm of unprecedented grief and tragic trauma will be the new reality in some form for us all. The COVID-19 pandemic will not be leaving us when we find a magic bullet in the form of a vaccine that we all await. Accepting a new way of life with its limitations is the new reality if we as a community and country are going to be able to move forward. Addicts who know long term sobriety and serenity have discovered this sweet spot of surrender a long time ago. Knowing that there are limits and that you will no longer be able to engage in consumption, behaviors and activities that fuel vulnerability to addictive behavior has become a lifestyle for those who have hammered out a life of sobriety and serenity. The battle to let go and embrace acceptance has been addressed and now has produced the result of acceptance and serenity. 

Often, the “special worm” mentality will surface. This is a reference to what I mentioned a few blogs back about addicts not thinking they are a worm (low esteem) or special (grandiosity) but that addicts think they are a “special worm”.  Why do I have to make these adjustments and deprive myself of things other people get to engage and enjoy? The truth is we all have to address our “special worm” mentality. In the United States, like the rest of the world, we don’t get to have it all. We can spoil ourselves with entitlement thinking that because we live in the U.S. we are a “special worm” and that you can ignore what the rest of the world may have to face because we do live in the land the brave and the free. Yet, addicts have had to face the fallacy of this way of thinking in order to survive and capture long term peace in their recovery program. Many recalcitrant addicts have died refusing to face their own limitation. I fear our country will die too if we do not face our limitations, that we cannot have it all indiscriminately. Mark Nepo, in his reflection book, The Book of Awakening profoundly stated that human living can be as simple as a fish. Nosing its way along the bottom, its gills through swimming turns the water into air by which it lives. In biological reality the workings of this exchange are an aspect of mystery. Yet, he says we like the smallest fish, must turn water into air in order to live. For this to be reality he suggests that our assignment in life is to transform our experiences in life into that which is meaningful. So, the challenge with COVID-19 as wells as that of addiction, is how to do I convert meaningfulness from the chaos of pandemic or the turmoil and heartache of broken living from addiction? How do I help the next generation- our children and grandchildren navigate their way in this world and accept the limitations that confront us all in this world? Nepo reverberates the challenge with a clarion call. He writes “Nothing else matters, and just like fish we must keep swimming to stay alive. We must keep swimming through the days. We cannot stop the flow of experience or the need to take it in. rather, all our efforts must go into learning the secret of the gill, the secret of transforming what we go through into air”. This is the process of translating meaningfulness from the mundane, the suffering of addiction and pandemic. May we be the leaders that point the way of “the secret of the gill “for the next generation.  Meaningfulness can only be found by learning to accept and surrender to limitation.

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