May 12, 2020
Isolation, disconnection and loneliness are hallmarks of addiction. The staff at Rams in Recovery, Virginia Commonwealth University’s collegiate recovery program that supports students in recovery from addiction, was struck by the similarity of coping mechanisms used to heal from addiction and the difficulties of social isolation during the coronavirus pandemic.
So they collaborated to reach a wider audience by publishing an article on Medium to share tips to help people cope. That article, “10 Secrets People in Recovery from Addiction Know that Could Help Us All Survive this Global Pandemic,” has since gone viral, viewed more than 200,000 times. Emily Tompkins, graphic designer and copywriter at The Well at VCU and Rams in Recovery, and Tom Bannard, Rams in Recovery program coordinator, talked to VCU News about what it was like to see their words resonate with so many people.
Why was it important to share the similarities between recovery from addiction and surviving during the pandemic?
Bannard: We had 14 recovery meetings a week on campus and 5 seminars. And what we found was that meeting attendance stayed steady or increased and seminar attendance actually increased after the social distancing started. I think that what a lot of our students in recovery have found is that all the tools that help them get through early recovery, that help them get through their day-to-day lives, are largely still applicable now. The practices that people have developed over time, people are finding have really been crucial to staying sane, healthy and reasonably happy in the midst of this kind of challenging period. We asked, “What are all these tools that we've learned in our recovery journeys that are helpful in this moment?”
I really liked the concept of physical distance but social solidarity. We can't physically be together, but we can still connect. Addiction is an isolating experience. It's a lonely experience. Part of what we need to do to heal is to reconnect to each other.
Tompkins: That's the same thing with the pandemic. It's an isolating experience. And in order to stay healthy, we need to connect to each other. That's number nine on our list, mutual aid not self-help. Mutual aid is what a lot of the recovery meetings are called. So for each bullet point, we have a description of how people in recovery follow that sort of advice. Then there is a paragraph about how we can follow the advice with the pandemic. So I brought in the hashtag that people have been using, #alonetogether, because I thought that was a good description of how we have to still support each other.
A lot of people contributed. I did and Tom [Bannard] did a lot. Linda Hancock, Ph.D, retired former director of the VCU Wellness Resource Center, emailed us and suggested we write an article with tips, relating it back to recovery. I posted that into a Google doc and then everyone gave their input and added stuff. Other collaborators included art professor John Freyer and Rams in Recovery staff member Lauren Powell.
If you're looking for a living example on how to handle the isolation, fear and general annoyance that is COVID 19, why not look to folks who are used to spending every day recovering from an invisible disease trying to kill them.
How did you write the article for a general readership to stay true to these concepts but also explain?
Tompkins: Many of these slogans are familiar to people in recovery, but not all of them are familiar to regular people. I think that served us well because when we're giving advice, we don't want everyone to already know about it.
It was good to have some kind of mysteriousness next to the number and then be able to explain it in the paragraphs below so that people might stay hooked. For example, our number one, “the fight is fixed,” [readers could ask] what does that mean? Well, it means that sometimes we have to give up and accept that some things can't be changed. That's an unfamiliar idea to most people. So we explained that people in recovery from addiction often can't control their substance use once they start using. For some with substance use disorders, there is no such thing as safe use, and they often have a lot of success once they accept this reality.
With the rest of us in this pandemic, we need to accept that it's here and it's happening and we can't just go out to the store and restaurants all the time like we used to. In accepting that and giving up on that goal, we can form new goals for ourselves and learn to cope with all of this and make good decisions for ourselves and our loved ones.
Usually we write for a more narrow audience, but now everyone is experiencing this [social isolation]. When I was researching the title, I found that one good way to pull people in is to appeal to a tribe of people who have a specific experience. I think this article might have done well because it appeals to sort of a tribe of people in recovery from addiction. And then it can be generalized to everyone in the world right now. It's been shared in a lot of addiction circles, but anyone can find themselves in it as well.
People in recovery from addiction aren't just learning to not do a substance. They're learning how to live without needing to escape or hide. I think we could all use that knowledge. I think anyone could take advantage of the lessons that are available. So it is universal.
Bannard: I think the article has done well because the tenants of addiction recovery are universal. As humans, we grow the most from pain. We don't grow from when everything is going great. The coronavirus pandemic is “another darn growth opportunity.” There's something for us to learn within this awful and tragic situation. There are lessons in every [growth opportunity]. It's important to have hope and we have to look for that. People who have experienced addiction, either individually or as family members, have this visceral understanding of how important hope is and how important it is to connect with each other.
What are the numbers regarding how viral this post went?
Tompkins: It's gotten more than 200,000 views total. It's being promoted on the Medium topic page of addiction. A lot of people are sharing things saying, “I learned these the hard way.” It's a lot of people in recovery that are excited about this and promoting it. There was one comment on Twitter where someone said, “If you're looking for a living example on how to handle the isolation, fear and general annoyance that is COVID-19, why not look to folks who are used to spending every day recovering from an invisible disease trying to kill them.”
I'm glad that it's accessible. We're trying to promote mental health and we're trying to promote good practices and reducing people's anxiety, but we're also trying to promote Rams in Recovery. People finding their way to our website is a positive.
Rams in Recovery conducts numerous virtual meetings online every week as well as a scholarship program and seminars.
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