Addiction is a disease often times born from underlining issues such as mental illness or personal trauma. Isolation, detachment and loneliness, however, can exacerbate it. While I have not fallen prey to a substance abuse disorder and all the evils that stem from it, I do know what it’s like to experience soul-crushing solitude; a desolation that seems to engulf your mind while emotionally alienating others.

On October 1, 2019, the day after my birthday, I was diagnosed with cancer. I had just turned 37 years old and had two small children at home, one of whom was still nursing. Regrettably, I was forced to face a hideous reality, where my death seemed imminent. I was in denial, angry and heartbroken. I couldn’t sleep or eat, and the anxiety I had suffered from for the last two decades reached a height it has never seen before. I fell into a wormhole of quiet discontent and lingered in its toxicity. On the exterior, I held it together as best I could, never revealing too much to either my family or friends. Internally, however, I was drowning. At night and while driving I would implode, and it didn’t matter how much support or love I received, for I always felt alone.

It wasn’t until I began therapy, meditative prayer and surrounding myself with others like me that I began to slowly crawl out of the black hole that was my despair. Ultimately, human beings need one another. We need to feel a sense of solidarity with individuals who can empathize, relate and put our struggles into perspective. When stripped away from the bond we form with our peers, we can be left feeling disoriented and desperately lonely.

So much of addiction treatment and recovery are reliant on connectedness, on group support and on face-to-face interaction. But now that so many of us are confined to our homes, the former routines we once leaned on so heavily for sanity are either changed, limited or completely gone. And now unhealthy habits have started to emerge.

A recent study conducted by Alcohol.org, an American addiction centers resource, revealed that alcohol consumption is escalating during this pandemic, with 1 in every 3 Americans drinking during work hours. And according to a press release issued by the California Consortium of Addiction Programs and Professionals (CCAPP), peer reviewed studies along with contemporary research suggests substance use and its related deaths could rise as much as 100 percent over the next two years.

Without a doubt, these are unprecedented and scary times. That’s why it’s not only important to understand addiction, but to learn the signs of relapse and how it can possibly be avoided.

Understanding Addiction

The National Institute on Drug Abuse defines addiction as a chronic, relapsing disorder characterized by compulsive drug seeking, continued use despite harmful consequences, and long-lasting changes in the brain. Considered both a complex brain disorder and mental ailment, addiction is a medical illness caused by repeated misuses of a substance or substances.

It’s a complicated and multifaceted health issue that affects more than 2 million Americans. In fact, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 1 in 5 people ages 12 and older have used an illicit drug at one point in their lives.

According to a 2016 report released by the U.S. Surgeon General, this national problem has cost the country more than $400 billion annually in criminal justice involvement, health care services and loss in economic productivity.

Prevention strategies are in place, however, for those who do engage in substance misuse. These include prescription drug monitoring programs (PMDMPs), which are statewide electronic databases that gather controlled substance prescription data; naloxone, a FDA-approved opiate that serves as an overdose antidote and prevents deaths; and referral to treatment for substance use disorder, which happens once a person accepts their problem and recognizes they need help.

Signs of Relapse

During this time, when in-person check-ins are few and far between, we must stay vigilant of our loved ones, who are recovering addicts. Here are some signs to look for:

  • Poor eating or sleeping habits
  • Declining hygiene
  • Talking to past friends who still use
  • Constant lying
  • Bottling up emotion
  • Skipping or avoiding virtual support meetings
  • Romanticizing past substance abuse
  • Relaxing on self-imposed rules

If you believe your loved one has relapsed, offer your support and empathy. It’s important to create a safe, judgment-free and honest environment. Be firm, hold them accountable, but also encourage them to return to treatment. There are virtual options during social isolation.

Staying Sober during COVID-19

If you or your loved one’s sobriety is being challenged, know there are preventatives measure that can be done. It’s imperative to:

  • Maintain a schedule
  • Get enough sleep
  • Exercise
  • Set a date and time to consistently connect with friends and family
  • Meditate so you can focus on staying present
  • Engage in virtual meetings
  • Pick up a hobby or be creative
  • Be honest

Being truthful is particularly important because as addiction expert Tim Ryan, the star of A&E’s 2017 “Dope Man” special, says, “You’re only as sick as your secrets.”

For me, my loneliness only eased once I started talking about it and sought help. For you, it may be the same. So if you’re thinking of using, drinking or self-harming, please reach out, there is help all around you.