Covid-19 and addiction—a secret burden during this pandemic

We’re all in this together, we hear, we read, we tell ourselves as we fumble our way through these extraordinary times. 

Yet how we manage the days that lie ahead will depend not just on our individual circumstances but also on our own personal histories, the life experiences that have made us who we are. 

Sadly many people, like me, will find ourselves with an added battle on our hands. A shameful and secret burden that we’ve carried for so long, and which may have even lightened over time, has reappeared with a vengeance, stoked by the fear and loneliness in which it so often thrives. Addiction. 

Those of us who are struggling with, or even believed ourselves to be recovered from, addiction are arguably one of the most stigmatised groups in society. In terms of services, people with addiction have often received the least investment while simultaneously experiencing the worst cutbacks.

In all honesty, I had little understanding of (or indeed sympathy for) people experiencing addiction until very recently. There is nothing quite like direct lived experience—which in my case nearly cost me my life—to shake off old prejudices and misunderstanding. 

I know how extraordinary lucky I am to still be here, and until these recent weeks I would have argued with anyone who suggested that my old dysfunctional coping mechanism had even a remote chance of rearing its ugly head again.

But who could have predicted the effect that the covid-19 pandemic would have on our everyday life? How could we have known that the ordinary, everyday social connections that so many people, like me, rely on to keep our mental health intact would be curtailed—and so quickly and dramatically too. 

For many people like me, our routines, face to face contact with therapists, and support groups are fundamental to recovery. They provide stability, hope, and (if we’re lucky) some healing to the wounds that lurk beneath our addictive behaviour.

But suddenly we’ve found ourselves cast adrift, and perhaps without even realising it we turn to whatever is at hand to blur the edges of our pain and fear. For myself, the twice weekly drink is worryingly becoming an almost daily “necessity.” And if I’m being honest I probably have enough sleeping/anxiety medication to see me through many months, yet irrationally I still seek to acquire more.

My feelings of shame run parallel to the fear that I might sink once more into the depths of addiction. Yet it is so incredibly hard to reach out for help with honesty. When we are faced with the daily reality of more people dying from covid-19, and so many of those being lost are NHS workers, it feels selfish or even weak to be asking for help. Surely, I sometimes think, if ever there was a need for self-discipline and control it should be now? 

Yet we must remind ourselves that addiction is an illness and one so often borne of suffering. It is a dysfunctional, yet understandable, way of trying to alleviate the pain of past events or present anxieties. People whose addition becomes out of control deserve help and treatment as much as anyone experiencing any other illness, be it physical or mental. 

We can all have a small part to play here. I’ve found that keeping in regular contact with those who know my history is proving to be truly lifesaving. If we can’t meet face to face with those struggling, a phone call or video chat can work just as well. For me knowing I now have weekly phone consultations with my GP in place is hugely reassuring. 

Most importantly, when I took the first step in reaching out, what mattered most was that the doctor first listened and then validated my feelings. Thankfully, my worries that I’d be at best dismissed, at worse chastised, were not realised. I was therefore able to be truly honest, which any person who has experienced addiction will tell you is the first step on the road to recovery.

When we are finally through the crisis part of this pandemic, we will need more than ever properly resourced and robust addiction services. I hope too that this collective experience will lead to a kinder and more compassionate society, where all those vulnerable to addiction are no longer stigmatised but instead offered the help and support they so sorely need.

Rachel Bannister is the co-founder of the campaign group Mental Health- Time for Action and newly appointed carer representative on the RCpsych Council. Twitter @lovebillybragg

Competing interests: I have read and understood BMJ policy on declaration of interests and have no relevant interests to declare.