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Addiction warning: Don’t make fear of COVID an excuse not to go to rehab

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COVID is a great excuse not to go to rehab, but it might just kill you.

Yes, COVID-19 is a serious contagion, and the numbers are staggering: More than 610,000 deaths over the past 18 months, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and 35 million recorded cases. Despite the political and cultural arguments surrounding it, COVID-19 is a pandemic that has upended American life as we know it, and in a small percentage of cases, is deadly.

Medical experts, like those at the Mayo Clinic, readily acknowledge that “most people who have coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) recover completely within a few weeks.” However, they add, “some people – even those who had mild versions of the disease – continue to experience symptoms after their initial recovery. These people sometimes describe themselves as ‘long haulers’ and the condition has been called post-COVID-19 syndrome or ‘long COVID-19.'”

There are, however, signs that the year-long global nightmare caused by the virus may be abating. According to NPR, roughly 347 million COVID-19 vaccines have been administered, fully vaccinating roughly 165 million people – almost 50% of the U.S. population. However, because of the delta variant, cases are trending upwards once again, even among vaccinated individuals (who can, despite inoculation and belief otherwise, still contract and spread COVID, although the vaccine is doing a remarkable job at preventing hospitalizations and death).

We’re not out of the woods, but we may very well be turning a corner. And yet … COVID-19 remains a great excuse not to go to rehab for many individuals who need it the most.

An Excuse Not to Go to Rehab: But Why?

Let’s face it: Addicts and alcoholics may need drug and alcohol rehab, but many of them don’t necessarily want that treatment. Sure, they want the misery to go away and the consequences to stop, but by and large, most addicts and alcoholics are petrified of the unknown, which is what sobriety represents. There’s comfort in familiarity – even if the familiar is miserable.

So while they may hate what their lives have become because of their using and drinking, they know it. They know what their days and nights will look like. They’re accustomed to these routines. And while they may even acknowledge that their habits are slowly killing them, in many cases they will choose known misery over unknown relief, because they can’t begin to fathom how life will ever be the same on the other side of a drug and alcohol problem. As Dr. David Sack writes for the website PsychCentral, “Getting sober means replacing your primary coping mechanism – drugs and alcohol – with new, unfamiliar ones. The process can be uncomfortable, particularly for someone who is afraid of feeling in general. Will all of the hard work be worth it? Will sobriety be boring, sustainable? Staying stuck in this fear generally means staying stuck in addiction.”

So there’s fear of change, which is always a convenient excuse not to go to rehab, but on top of that, there’s fear of COVID-19 … which even has a name, according to the Asian Journal of Psychiatry: “coronaphobia,” “an excessive triggered response of fear of contracting the virus causing COVID-19, leading to accompanied excessive concern over physiological symptoms, significant stress about personal and occupational loss, increased reassurance and safety seeking behaviors, and avoidance of public places and situations, causing marked impairment in daily life functioning.”

While those afraid of contracting COVID-19 may be reluctant to use such a term, the fear itself is a very real thing. While precautions certainly need to be taken, and a healthy concern over the contraction and spread of COVID-19 isn’t unwarranted, the fear response is, in many ways, similar to the avoidance of beaches in 1975 in the wake of the release of the movie “Jaws,” which triggered a fear of sharks, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA): “If an individual was obsessed with motor vehicle accidents and researched online, stories and videos of the 100 daily fatalities and the thousands of injuries per day in the U.S., they would be highly anxious to drive and avoid it as much as possible. If media and government officials showed images of horrific car accidents and reported on the daily motor vehicle death count, as much as they do COVID-19, there would be an escalation of driving phobia throughout the country and countless numbers of people would stop driving.”

Yes, COVID is real. Yes, the deaths are real. Yes, it’s OK to be concerned. But it’s paramount, the ADAA adds, to find “a balance between being safe while minimizing anxiety and living life. In the case of COVID-19, we must protect ourselves from the virus and the fear simultaneously.”

What’s the Risk?

excuse not to go to rehabWhile COVID-19 may be a convenient excuse not to go to rehab, the virus can’t be viewed in a vacuum. Just as it has thrown all aspects of American society into turmoil, it has done the same with addiction. Consider a December 2020 health advisory from the CDC: “After declining 4.1% from 2017 to 2018, the number of overdose deaths increased 18.2% from the 12-months ending in June 2019 to the 12-months ending in May 2020. Drug overdose deaths during this time increased more than 20% in 25 states and the District of Columbia, 10% to 19% in 11 states and New York City, and 0% to 9% in 10 states. Drug overdose deaths decreased in four states.”

The increases in drug overdose deaths appear to have accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to the CDC, primarily because of “the known disruption to public health, healthcare, and social services as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and related mitigation measures.” But while overdose deaths have spiked, drug use isn’t the only worry that those at risk of addiction face: According to a September 2020 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, “Nielsen reported a 54% increase in national sales of alcohol for the week ending March 21, 2020, compared with 1 year before; online sales increased 262% from 2019.”

More and more individuals are finding themselves with a drinking problem because of COVID-19, and those who already struggled with their alcohol use are finding that their drinking has increased dramatically. In addition to the usual litany of health concerns due to heavy drinking, there are other factors to consider in light of COVID-19, according to Wake Forest Baptist Health: “It can impact your blood pressure, cholesterol level, brain chemistry, blood sugar levels, and hormonal balance. It is also increasingly viewed as a cardiovascular risk factor. Studies have shown that short term stress can actually boost the immune system, but chronic stress, which we are all facing now, has a significant effect on the immune system, which can manifest an illness.”

Left untreated, these problems can do just as much damage – physically, mentally and emotionally – as COVID-19 itself. It’s all too easy to use COVID-19 as an excuse not to go to rehab, but if you’re facing a potential overdose because of your drug use, or you’re destroying your career and your family life because of excessive drinking, then COVID is the least of your concerns.

An Excuse Not to Go to Rehab: No More

So what does a drug and alcohol treatment center offer that’s worth risking a venture out into a COVID-plagued world?

For starters, let’s be real: If you’re addicted to drugs and alcohol, chances are good you’re venturing out anyway. The driving force of addiction is the “getting, using and finding ways and means to get more,” according to the literature of one particular 12 Step program, and while some of you may be fortunate enough to have a dealer who makes house calls and respects social distancing suggestions and wears a mask, chances are good that a great many individuals with a drug problem are doing exactly what they did before COVID to get high: whatever it takes to score.

If you, or someone you love, struggles with a drug problem, did you worry about what, exactly, was being purchased when you bought drugs? Did you ask for a list of ingredients? Did you make sure your dealer was masked up and wearing gloves? Did you stand 6 feet away from any other individuals who happened to be also buying drugs? Did you avoid sharing straws/needles/pipes? Did you have your dealer put your purchase in the trunk of your car, like the hands-free delivery options at grocery stores?

And what about alcohol? Online alcohol sales and package deliveries are certainly a thing, and no doubt a great many individuals now struggling with an alcohol problem drank in isolation, or rather increased isolation, because off COVID-19. But can you honestly say that you haven’t gone to the liquor store … that you’ve avoided bars … that you haven’t been in any social situations where you enjoyed drinking in the past? And what about when your judgment is impaired because of alcohol? Can you remember everything you’ve done? Can you be absolutely certain you didn’t throw caution to the wind and do something while intoxicated that put yourself at risk of COVID?

The point is, COVID-19 may be a convenient excuse not to go to rehab, but if you’re using it as an excuse out of a sense of concern for your personal health and safety, it needs to be pointed out, rather emphatically, that by their very nature, addiction and alcoholism put your health and safety at risk daily – either from a potential overdose or an alcohol-related health complication, or from the byproduct of associating with individuals and taking part in situations that are hazardous to your well-being.

Let’s recognize the fear of COVID-19 for what it truly is, when it comes to getting help for an alcohol and drug problem: A convenient excuse not to go to rehab, but that’s about it.

The problem with excuses, however, is that they work pretty well at helping you avoid looking at what’s causing the most damage to your life. (Here’s a hint: It’s not COVID-19.) And the longer you avoid looking at a drug and alcohol problem … the longer you go without addressing it … the longer you put off getting help … the greater the chance that excuse has of becoming a contributing factor in your eventual death.

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