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Recovery Lessons During COVID-19: The Power of Letting Go

Individuals in recovery uniquely equipped to deal with what we’re all going through now

dandelion blowing in wind

I have a question:

Are you living with a pre-COVID mindset?

I ask because it’s important. It’s important for anyone, but it’s crucial for people in recovery from alcohol or drug addiction. That’s my field of expertise, and I can tell you that one thing that holds people back from living a full life in recovery is the allure of the past. They yearn to go back. Back to the way things were before. Before they developed an addiction, before addiction took over their lives, before they took that brave first step on their recovery journey.

Even that last one. Yes, one thing people in recovery wish – but rarely say out loud – is that they never entered recovery, never had to do the hard work, never had to face down whatever set of circumstances led them to addiction, and never had that moment they realized they had to rebuild their lives from the ground up.

That’s part of wanting to go back to before.

But here’s something I tell my patients all the time: there is no going back to before. There is no going back to how it was. There is only the moment, the choices you make in the moment, and your commitment to make the best choices for yourself today.

Heck, I’m not even going to talk about tomorrow.

I’m sticking with today.

And I want to know what day you’re living in.

Is it some random day in January, before you ever heard of coronavirus, social distancing, infection projection models, ventilators, community testing, or Dr. Anthony Fauci?

Because if you are, I advise you – in my professional capacity as a licensed psychologist – to start living today.

That’s really the best way to make it through this challenging time we’re all living through.

Situational Awareness: This is Not a Drill

I say all this because I’m guilty.

I look back and wish I could go to the grocery store without wearing a facemask. Without wondering if I should be wearing gloves. I wish I didn’t worry about typing my pin on the keypad when I fill up on gas – which I do much less these days. I wish I didn’t have to stay six feet away from my friends and my colleagues. I wish I could go to my gym and take my classes I love so much.

I really wish I’d bought an extra family-size bottle of Lysol in January, because now I’m fresh out.

But all those wishes don’t get me anywhere.

This is something people in recovery know, because they know it’s impossible to go back to before. And they don’t really want to – part of them just wishes they could. People in recovery are generally grateful to be in recovery, despite how hard it is, and they’re thankful they no longer live with the cycles of active addiction.

Unlike most of us, now, who desperately wish we could go back. No matter how well we handle shelter-in-place, work-from-home, managing or teaching (!) virtual school for our kids, or the looming specter of job or financial insecurity, we all secretly wish this whole COVID thing never happened.

I have news for you: in my profession, we call that magical thinking. Magical thinking is not practical thinking. Magical thinking has us believe that somehow, something is going to happen to make the coronavirus pandemic disappear as if it had never happened at all.

That’s never going to happen.

And that’s why we – me, you, everyone – need to drop the magical thinking and add something different: situational awareness.

Accepting the Reality of Today

Scientists agree that situational awareness happens on three levels:

  1. Accurate perception of the world around you: the ability to identify key elements in the environment and define your current circumstances.
  2. Accurate comprehension of your perceptions: the ability to combine your perception of circumstances into a recognizable pattern that helps you define your status, make decisions, and take action.
  3. Accurate prediction of future status: when accurate perception and accurate comprehension combine, you can create an idea of what will happen and how your short-term decisions will play out in the projected future.

Situational awareness, letting go, and COVID-19 all meet in one place: you. Let’s have a look at what I mean by that. I’ll use the three steps of situational awareness to explain:

  1. Accurate perception. It’s critical for all of us (including you) to see clearly that COVID-19 is here, it’s part of our lives, and it’s not going away. To do that, you have to let go of the yearning to go back to before.
  2. Accurate comprehension. It’s critical for all of us (including you) to understand the risks posed by COVID-19. While most people who contract the virus will experience mild symptoms, make no mistake: the virus can be deadly. That’s why you let go of what used to be. You decide to stay at home, maintain social distancing when you do go out, and wash your hands often.
  3. Accurate prediction. It’s critical for all of us (including you) to understand that there is very little we can predict about the big picture situation. This is the biggest letting go challenge you face right now. It’s the biggest challenge we all face. Instead of worrying about what we can’t predict, we focus our mind on what we can: by staying home, you decrease your risk. By wearing a mask when you go to the store, you ensure (as much as possible) that you will neither become infected nor infect others. By washing your hands, you ensure that if you have come into contact with the virus, the soap will kill it before it causes damage.

This is where people in recovery have a lot to teach the rest of us. They’re experts in focusing on one thing at a time and taking things one day at a time. They’re experts at letting go of the past and not obsessing about the future.

That makes them uniquely equipped to deal with what we’re all going through now.

How Recovery Lessons Transfer to COVID-19

This is going to sound like circular logic, but it’s actually a virtuous cycle: people in recovery are experts at letting go because they have to be. When they enter recovery, they must develop an accurate situational awareness in order to move forward. The more accurate their situational awareness, the greater their ability to see clearly and let go of things they can’t control. And the more they let go of things they can’t control – like the past and the big-picture future – the more accurate their situational awareness becomes.

Now, I’ll return to the question I opened this article with:

Are you living with a pre-COVID mindset?

I’ll leave you to answer that for yourself. I can tell you though, that most people living in recovery are not living with a pre-COVID mindset. They know they can’t go back to before, because before does not exist. They’re also not attached to what might happen in long-term future, because they know they have no control over what happens on a global, national, or even local scale.

They know that to move forward with their well-being intact, they have to focus on simple daily actions that keep them safe and healthy.

Recovery – and the power of letting go – taught them that.

Right now, that’s a lesson we can all learn.

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