The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic has affected everyone in some way – many of us are unable to work, unable to find access to child care or other important resources (one friend of mine has even been barred from doing laundry in his building). For some, like someone I know of who runs a milk delivery company, the pandemic is like an early Christmas present. Significantly and unfairly, the pandemic most adversely affects those who are most vulnerable: people living in or close to poverty who are out of work, people who are homeless, and those at highest risk to develop illnesses.
An important, but often overlooked group impacted by COVID-19 coronavirus are those who use substances. That includes those who rely on alcohol, cannabis or other drugs for medicinal or functional purposes (such as anxiety management), injecting drug users who rely on access to safe injection sites, and users of a variety of other substances for whom access has now dried up or become increasingly unreliable.
Imagine having to go device-free for a week, or longer – no phone, TV, computer, or other screen. For many of us this would involve literal symptoms of withdrawal, as we have become accustomed to using screens to cope with negative emotions, stress, anxiety, and to connect with others. I’m willing to bet you couldn’t, or wouldn’t, pull it off. A substance user’s drug of choice likely serves a similar function and is very likely quite painful to suddenly lose access to, without any sense of choice or control. My colleague very kindly reminded me of the difficulty some people will go through losing access to substances during a very uncertain and stressful time, and I feel sad to think of the number of us that will go through painful withdrawal symptoms (physical pain, uncontrollable anxiety or panic, and severe depression are just a few) and as a result will be forced to find other ways to cope.
People are incredibly resilient and will generally find ways to get through difficulties whatever the cost. I wanted to talk a little bit about the ways we can cope with difficulties, even in the face of withdrawal from something as mild as social isolation or as severe as substance addiction. Recovery from substance dependency involves building recovery capital, which is a blanket term referring to resources (both external and internal) that allow us to slowly build up capital – a wealth of other ways to cope. There are hundreds of examples, but some key themes are relationships with others, health (physical, mental, and emotional), strategies and tools, and a relationship with oneself.
Substances can be an effective tool in the short-term, but they have shortcomings: they don’t tend to last very long, they take a physical toll, and they can keep us away from some opportunities for the growth that comes from going through difficulty with the right support. Substances are considered part of passive coping, just like video games, junk food, and ignoring a problem. Passive coping is not bad, it is an important resource and we don’t want to overuse it. Active coping is also an important resource: exercise, diet, certain types of social support, therapy, learning, and other health behaviours fall into this category. Simply put, active coping is anything we do to directly cope with a difficulty, and passive coping tends to avoid the implications of a difficulty. The trick is striking a healthy balance between the two.
If you have recently lost access to substances or access to other important habits, I’m really sorry – you didn’t get to have a choice in the matter; an invisible and seemingly uncaring force made the decision for you. That really, really sucks, and now you’re stuck managing as best you can. Some that I have talked to will use tools such as exercise or meditation to achieve another type of “high,” and focus on emotional, spiritual, or intellectual pursuits when they have the energy to do so. When they don’t, they will use whatever means necessary to get through the really hard moments: sleeping a little more, indulging in TV or video games, venting to friends, or eating a little extra sugar.
You will find a sample list of different coping tools and a couple resource links at the bottom of this article. However, I’m not really here to give a bunch of advice, as everyone is different, and there aren’t any one-size-fits-all solutions. If you want help taking care of yourself right now and want to talk about creating a short-term plan, let me know and I can help with that. But you know yourself best, and you know what will get you through this better than anyone else does, and hopefully you know when you might need to seek support. Mostly, we just want to say that whatever your situation, we are thinking of you and rooting for you to get through it, because there is a lot of uncertainty and difficulty for a lot of us right now. Always feel free to reach out, and most of all, take care of yourself.
Tips for the “Green Zone” – when we have some energy or motivation:
- Don’t overdo it – quality over quantity. Give yourself a realistic and short amount of quality time (say 15 minutes) to spend on something that your ideal version of yourself would do: go for a walk or a run, listen to some music, do yoga, spend some time reading, writing, singing, or drawing, complete a short work task, organize your cupboards – whatever. When you’re doing this, try to let all your focus rest on the activity at hand. Here’s a quick video tip from a children’s book I’m a fan of.
- Try meditation. Focus for a few minutes on your breath, and spend some time being curious about yourself: how do I feel at this moment? What physical sensations do I notice? Do I feel anything towards myself or towards those sensations? Try to avoid positive or negative judgments during this time, and if they arise, just notice that they are there. The goal is just to be, to observe yourself internally at that moment.
- Spend time cooking yourself a healthy meal from scratch, and eating it without any distractions, focusing on how good it tastes, and feeling good about yourself for putting the energy in to make it. If you can, even better to share it with someone.
Tips for the “Yellow Zone” – when our stress is present but manageable:
- Notice what thoughts and feelings are coming up with as much compassion as possible. Imagine the things that are happening internally are happening to someone you really care about (real or imaginary). What would you tell them? How would you want to care for them? Try to identify a small way you could care for yourself in that moment. If all else fails, take some deep, slow, breaths.
- Exercise. Get your blood pumping and get moving, this will give you an adrenaline spike to help you get through the next while. If you are tired later, you’ve earned a break! Take a nap.
- Put on some music to match your mood, and paint, draw, or write along to it.
- Call or chat with someone. Most of us have time on our hands – talk (or even vent) about what is stressing you, ask how they are doing and try really hard to listen well. When we share with others, or work hard to understand others, our relationships deepen and we feel closer and more comfortable. If you’re not up for a conversation, just play some online video games together. If you are struggling with something specific, try to find an online chat group that specializes in that type of thing. If substance use is your thing, there are tons of online chat groups full of people who have good advice and good support, all anonymous and for free.
- If you have a therapist, an online session might be a good idea.
Tips for the “Red Zone” – When the bomb hits or is about to hit:
- Breathe. Inhale for 3-5 seconds, hold for 2-3, and exhale slowly for 7-10, like you’re blowing on something to cool it.
- Douse your head in cold water for a few seconds – this activates a survival “dive reflex” that calms the body. You can also try grabbing some ice cubes and squeezing them in your hands, focussing on that feeling and seeing how long you can go before having to let go. It’s pretty hard, and good at redirecting the brain.
- Reach out to whoever feels safe to reach out to, in whatever way feels ok.
- Feel free to use your favourite passive coping mechanism: watch a movie, eat something (preferably deliberately slowly), try to take a nap.
- Imagine or daydream.
- Write or draw – destroy some paper with whatever you’re feeling at the time.
There are countless other things you can do, and lots of online resources for meditation, emotional regulation, practical addiction support. Again, individuals vary wildly, so if you want help creating a specific plan for yourself, feel free to reach out to a mental health professional. We’re in this together, and we’re rooting for you here at Alongside You.
It probably doesn’t come as news that porn use is more widespread than ever, and is being introduced to increasingly younger consumers. This is partially due to increased accessibility and anonymity, a cultural shift towards more open attitudes about sex and pornography more generally, and increased technology use.
What Drives Porn Use
Another reason for this increased use may be that we have seen feelings of loneliness and disconnection rise to record levels. Pornography provides an effective, short-term solution for this that, at first glance, appears to have little risk: it gives us a free boost of the happy brain chemicals such as oxytocin, dopamine and opiates that we typically get in close relationships. Dopamine levels increase to an incredible 200 percent during orgasm. Oxytocin (the “connection” drug) plays a vital role in bonding, creating memories, empathy, trust, and relationship building. It spikes during sex, when we hug or kiss or snuggle, or even just have a good conversation. It also increases sensitivity to naturally occurring opiates in the brain, which makes it very effective for bonding and soothing physical and emotional pain.
Of course, there’s a catch. You can’t really build a “healthy” relationship with pornography. It is a one-way street: dopamine-centred and novelty-seeking, and while a porn-induced orgasm will provide oxytocin and soothe pain, it won’t provide any of those healthy relationship building functions, or make us any less lonely. In fact, it may make us more lonely. This is one reason many people call pornography an addiction: it can create compulsive use that comes at a cost. As it provides effective temporary relief from implicit negative feelings, the brain will learn to direct us towards it compulsively.
How Does Pornography Impact Us
I could spend this post bashing pornography, and rattling off scary stats about how it breaks up marriages and has long term physical implications for the brain (it does, and it does), but I’m more interested in the human factors. Sex is great for bonding, and when used well, it builds intimacy, vulnerability and connection – the opposite of loneliness. Porn, on the other hand, based on vast amounts of research, actually tends to do the opposite: it builds shame and secrecy. It is typically a private experience and taps into some deep-seated urges that can feel very shameful. It’s possible that couples could use pornography in a healthy way, but research tells us that this is far more likely to be the rare exception than the rule.
This post is mostly aimed at men, mainly because I only work with men around these issues. Anyone can struggle with porn use, because it is so, so easy to come to rely on or use it, especially (though certainly not only) when we are feeling disconnected, shamed, or lonely. It’s a brilliant solution, really, but it tends not to solve the problem for future us.
What Can I Do About My Porn Use
Alongside You is running a porn recovery group this fall, for men who would like to be able to talk openly about the role of porn in their life, past and present, and receive support. We aren’t there to judge ourselves but to recognize and talk about some of the things that affect all of us, and, hopefully, feel like we can begin to enter a period of recovery from those impacts. If you or someone you know might be interested in attending, it’s low pressure and low cost (as always, talk to us if money is an issue), and is a great way to feel some meaningful and healthy connection with great people.
If you have any questions, feel free to contact me directly here – I’m always happy to chat. If you would like support for yourself or a loved one, reach out to our reception, and they will help you find something that fits, whether it is at our offices or somewhere closer to home.
Having a child with an addiction can be one of the most terrifying things as a parent. Depending on the level of the addiction, it can mean different things. Sometimes our kids start with curiosity and dabbling in marijuana. Sometimes it’s a harder drug like cocaine, ecstasy, MDMA, or even heroin. Sometimes it’s all of the above. You might notice the subtle changes – maybe their grades are slipping a bit, or they’re staying out later with friends, or they’re not as interested in hobbies they used to enjoy. Sometimes it takes a more significant turn and they stop their hobbies altogether, stop going to school, or even stop interacting with the world on a grand scale and isolate themselves in their room, hardly ever coming out.
I hate to say it, but this isn’t going to get any easier with the legalization of marijuana coming in July. I’ve spent a great deal of time in the past months speaking with various agencies about this, and although it will still be illegal for minors to consume marijuana, the legalization is most definitely going to change the landscape, and in significant ways. While I’m not going to go into that today, what parents should know is that this isn’t going to get easier; it’s going to get more difficult.
So, how can you help your teen? That’s a huge question and we’ll be writing more about it in the weeks and months to come, but here are three things that I think parents should know that will hopefully help.
You are right to be concerned if your child is using substances.
I’m often surprised by how nonchalant people are with alcohol and marijuana and teens. It’s not uncommon for teens to try these two substances, but I am concerned by how unconcerned many parents are that their teens are using these two in particular. In my experience, they have almost been filed in the “benign,” category of substances. While they are potentially better than crack cocaine, MDMA, or heroin, they are far from benign and I want to highlight one particular reason: brain development.
Our brains are constantly changing and developing, even into adulthood, but the most crucial time period is from the time we’re born, until approximately 25 years old. Yes, our brains are still developing up to the age of 25. Even more important, as highlighted in the article I just linked to, is that the part of the brain that controls rational processes is one of the last to develop, and doesn’t fully develop until the mid-20’s. This means that the part of the brain that might help a teen work through whether drugs are a good idea isn’t fully functional until well after high school is over.
The take-home message here is two-fold: using substances as a teen has the potential to negatively impact brain development, and the part of the brain that might help them understand this and make good choices isn’t fully functional until they’re 25.
What you do matters.
As parents, one of the most important things we can do is help educate our children on the impacts of substances, and this needs to happen before there is a problem. Now, I get it. It’s an awkward and even scary conversation for some parents. It’s not totally dissimilar to having the “sex talk,” which is equally awkward and equally important. However, it’s also our responsibility as parents to have the discussion. If we want our kids to make good choices, they need the information in their repertoire before they need it, not afterward. If you don’t know enough to educate your child on substance use, please start by educating yourself. There are many resources online, and many community groups that can help. Most importantly, make sure your child knows that if they run into difficulties with substances, they can come to you for help and make sure that they know they will not get into trouble if they ask for help.
An equally important thing to know is that our kids watch what we do and are impacted by the example we set. If we aren’t using substances responsibly, we really can’t expect our kids to and we can’t expect to have credibility when we’re speaking about it with them. To push this even further, we may even be using substances in what we feel is a responsible way, but our kids may not understand that – this goes back to the brain development part. I’ve worked with many families who bring teens in with concerns about their substance use, and when I speak with the kid, it comes out that the parents likely have substance use issues that aren’t being dealt with. As parents, we need to lead by example. This increases the likelihood that our kids will make good choices, and if they run into trouble, that they will seek appropriate help.
Finally, if you’re in a situation where your kid is using substances and you’re having a hard time dealing with it, get help for yourself. It’s heart-breaking, it’s stressful, and it’s lonely because often we feel the need to hide our difficulties as families and hide what our kids are struggling with. Even more so, it’s hard to see our kids in pain. If that’s the case, reach out to get some help. There are community resources available, and it’s something we do a lot of work with and we’d love to help you if you’re in this difficult place.
Focus on the relationship.
Sometimes it’s all we’ve got. It’s also where we get any foothold and any credibility with our kids when they’re struggling. Remember, if your kid is struggling with substances, there is always a reason, and it’s not as simple as “peer pressure.” Peer pressure is a misnomer. Sure, sometimes it happens but in my experience, it’s rarely the reason kids are using substances. People use substances as a means to manage pain, and teens are no different. Be it mental, emotional, or physical pain, this is most often the reason and we need to be sensitive to that.
If your kid is struggling and they won’t get help, be there for them. Sit with them, express your love for them, express your concern for them and your desire to help. Avoid condemning them, shaming them, or anything that resembles this (and this is hard). Your kid will not turn around and stop using substances because they hear you say that drugs are bad. They may turn around, however, if they hear you say that you love them, and you’re worried about them, and you’re there to help when they’re ready. And, as I mentioned above, until they’re ready, I’d highly recommend you seeking help for yourself while you’re waiting for them to come around. It’s a tough road, and sometimes a long one while we wait for our teens to be ready for help.
If you’re on this journey with your child, whether they’re a teen or an adult, know that you’re not alone. You’re not alone in your suffering, and you’re not alone in feeling lost, and maybe even hopeless as you watch your child suffer. We’re here to help.