Being nearly three years sober, I would say that I have a pretty solid foundation of recovery. Even that didn’t prepare me for Covid-19 and the subsequent lockdown, but the tools I have developed over the last three years, and what I have learnt about myself in that time, have done.
Having taken substances from the age of 15 to initially dull my feelings/emotions I didn’t ever think I would be in a place when I would genuinely be able to say I would be ok with my own company, and to be able to manage my feelings for an indefinite amount of time, let alone during a lockdown scenario.
But nearly four weeks in, I can reflectively say that is exactly what my recovery has taught me.
I’m a recovery worker and LGBTQ+ lead for the Bournemouth Service of We Are With You, a national drug and alcohol treatment charity. Thankfully, the government has classified me and my colleagues as key workers so the support we offer is continuing, but it has simply switched to the virtual world.
We are seeing that, irrespective of how long someone has been in recovery, the anxiety and stress of the current time can really shake people’s foundations to the core.
From day one in recovery we are told to reach out to others, to forge connections through meetings and groups, to get a sponsor, and to get some voluntary work within the community - above all we are told not to isolate.
Those in recovery; myself included - have taken a while to readjust to the new norm as our daily routines which have been working so well have totally been derailed leaving so many clients feeling lost, alone with extreme bouts of anxiety and depression which could, of course, ultimately lead to a relapse and in the worst case - overdose; which we have already begun to sadly see with some of the people we work alongside.
Thankfully, our treatment services remain open and we are here to work alongside people during the pandemic. We Are With You are also in the process of setting up an exciting national LGBT+ pilot covering all of our services to make sure people in the community feel understood across the UK wherever they may be, whatever they may be using and however they identify.
Through my own journey and life experiences it is a real privilege to now be able to support my community and work for a charity that really has LGBTQ+ substance misuse issues at the forefront of their agenda.
My working days are 9-5 but my ‘recovery programme’ kicks in as soon as I wake up. This includes prayer, meditation, a daily gratitude list, daily exercise and connecting to fellows either over the phone or via online fellowships meetings. These meetings are a lifeline to many who are stuck inside and often alone.
While online groups can never replace meeting fellows face to face, in some more rural areas the shift to support moving online means people in recovery are feeling more connected than ever. Technology is keeping recovery communities connected in ways no-one thought was possible.
In Bournemouth I facilitate a weekly LGBTQ+ support group which is also continuing online at the current time and continues to be a safe space for people to truly be themselves and identify with others who’ve gone through similar experiences.
Ben Kaye is a recovery worker and LGBTQ+ lead for the Bournemouth Service of We Are With You
One of these people is Martin. When Martin first came into our service he was using crystal meth and GBL regularly at chemsex parties. He says he felt worried about his increasing drug use but feared accessing support as he didn’t want to be labelled an “addict.”
He’s now nine months sober and credits his progress to feeling “seen and understood” in the groups and having others around him who’ve been through similar experiences. “It showed me there was a light at the end of the tunnel,” he tells me.
However, being retired, Martin says he’s finding isolation and the impact this is having on his routines tough. He describes how at the beginning of the lockdown he slipped into bad habits like not showering or getting dressed. This lowered his self-esteem, which could have been a slippery slope as insecurities are what attracted him to chemsex in the first place.
Now he writes down a structure in the evenings for the next day to ensure that he stays active. He admits to having thoughts about using drugs again, but says the availability of online support has been vital in helping him channel his energy elsewhere.
Another client of the weekly LGBTQ+ group is a woman called Shortie, who’s just celebrated her one year sober anniversary. When Shortie first stepped through our doors she was a very angry person. She described how she would drink to deal with her emotions and when intoxicated she would lash out.
For the majority of her life she’d tried to hide her homosexuality, and all of a sudden she was in a space where the mask could come off which she found hugely liberating.
Speaking to Martin and Shortie now, both talk of struggling to come to terms with the enforced isolation intended to slow down the spread of coronavirus. A huge part of recovery is the new social connections people forge, creating new relationships that aren’t weighed down by the past.
Now, social distancing and isolation means many people are left alone with their feelings, without others to bounce off or rationalise with face to face. That could easily lead to someone needing to escape again through drugs or alcohol.
Martin says he knows that chemsex parties are still going on despite government advice, and fears some people may have developed a “fuck it” mentality. If someone’s fallen off the radar, maybe they aren’t working due to the restrictions, it can be tempting to embrace that hedonistic world again.
With chemsex parties still going on it’s also really important for people to know that our needle exchanges remain open to ensure people who are using have fresh equipment.
He says he’s been tempted himself, but instead has accessed the online groups available, including our weekly LGBTQ+ group. Shortie, who is a self-confessed hugger and missing that connection, agrees that the availability of online groups “have been a lifesaver.”
They also agree that all support switching to online spaces could help people come forward to access help as it seems less formal. People don’t even have to turn their camera on if they don’t want to, and it can all be done from the safety of their own home.
If you are concerned about your drug or alcohol use, the enforced speed of life slowing down could be a really good time for you to look at your situation. Treatment services aren’t here to judge or label and are stocked full of people who’ve gone through similar things.
Even though our doors are closed physically, our level of care and support is exactly the same. We have just simply had to change the way we work, and look forward to seeing old clients and meeting new clients face to face again as soon as possible.
My solid recovery programme has really kicked in over the past three weeks, and for that I am extremely grateful. But and I am very aware the work I do at We Are With You is a vital part of so many clients programmes so we will continue to deliver the work needed to the best of our ability.
However lonely or isolated you might be feeling right now, know that support from people who really understand is never too far away...
If you are worried about your drug or alcohol use at the current time visit wearewithyou.org.uk. You can check out the frequently asked questions or find a service which is local to you and give them a call.
There is also a webchat which is open from Monday to Friday 10am to 4pm, 6pm to 9pm Saturday and Sunday 11am to 4pm where you can talk anonymously to a trained advisor.