In 2014, I wrote an article for Addiction Professional titled “Solving a Challenge to 'One Day at a Time.'” I explained how the classic slogan of 12-Step recovery can prove difficult for survivors of unhealed trauma. Because traumatic activation of memory is stored in our midbrain, which does not operate on a rational time scale, living in the past or projecting fear into the future can be normal. In my trauma-informed teaching on the 12 Steps, my intention has never been to eliminate the slogan “one day at a time.” I advocate using mindful living and other meditation skills, in addition to trauma-competent clinical work, to help people more fully embody the slogan as a solution.
Nothing in my nearly 18 years of recovery from addiction and a dissociative disorder has allowed me to so fully embrace “one day at a time” quite like the present context in which we find ourselves amid COVID-19. I run a business focused on training other therapists in trauma-focused modalities, and I keep a busy international schedule as a result. This week I was supposed to be flying to London to teach a two-day course on clinical aspects of dissociation, then off to Dublin for two more workshops. Instead, I’m hanging out at home, mostly in comfy clothes, preparing to teach these courses online via a videoconferencing platform.
My business manager and I are scrambling to provide our students and members of our learning community with the support resources they need to transition trauma-focused therapy to telehealth. We have spent a great deal of time looking at my usually packed calendar for the year and pondering what we needed to cancel and move online, and when I might be able to travel or offer in-person trainings again.
The sheer reality is that we do not know.
We do not know what is happening from one day to the next in this COVID-19 reality, let alone being able to plan for months out. As little as 10 days ago I was sure all of this would come and go and we could proceed with our rather large April expressive arts retreat, an annual event that has become like Christmas to many in the Institute for Creative Mindfulness community. Now it’s clear we have to get creative and even transition that to an online event.
Speaking purely for myself, this new reality is good for my recovery. Like many recovering folks who got sober and well learning to embrace “one day at a time” principles, the realities of work and growing a business have required that I do some serious planning ahead. Over the years I’ve posed the question to my sponsors and therapists: How do I balance staying in today while also needing to be sensible and make future plans for life, especially where my business is involved?
While I’ve gotten sage advice over the years about the importance of both/and living that necessitates balance, it’s still been a struggle. As I’ve gotten more successful I’ve longed, at times, for the early days of my recovery journey where the objective for each day was simply to stay alive. Actively suicidal and battling addiction when I put on a backpack and made a move to Europe in 2000 (where I ultimately got sober), I immediately knew that having no set plans and just seeing what each day brought was how I would survive.
COVID-19 is returning me to those early days. Even though I’m a different person than I was then and have more resources, I still have been in need of getting back to the same basics. I don’t know if my business is going to fully survive the economic impact of the pandemic, or if it’s ever going to look the same. I don’t know when my wandering soul is ever going to be able to travel again. And I’m definitely not sure what’s going on in my personal life as it relates to relationships and friendships, some of which are strengthening while others seem to be taking a hit during this stress. And it’s all OK. I don’t have to drink or use. I can rest into the knowing that all I have to do is my best for the given day that’s in front of me.
I fully recognize my privilege in having the ability to work from home and having the technical mastery and resources to transition so much of my world online. Many do not have this luxury, so I would be interested to hear the perspectives and experiences of other voices in recovery. I am aware of the challenge that “social distancing” is leaving on folks in recovery who are now needing to rely on technological platforms to connect for meetings, or even one-on-one. When I first realized just how extensive the social distancing requirements would become, my first thoughts went to people in addiction or mental health recovery, as isolation can be deadly for us. It’s so very important that we check on each other and continue to assist people in connecting online for meetings if that is available to them.
And there is a possibility that newer, different connections can be formed through all of this chaos. I have engaged in some brilliant one-on-one conversations this week with sponsees and recovery friends alike who I may ordinarily not have the time to fully connect with in the frenzied schedule of my life. I took several long walks this weekend with my 15-year-old son (technically my former stepson who I help to raise), something I’ve felt too exhausted to do in the past year. His mother and I are close (we even call each other sister ex-wives), and we commiserated on the struggle of being grounded workhorses (she is a hair stylist affected by closures in our state). The connections are like balm to me during these times.
I also had the great joy of watching my 78-year-old sponsor learn, with the curiosity of a child, how to use Facebook Live for the first time to get our home group together on Saturday morning. His ability to adapt truly impressed me and brought a massive smile to my face.
Adaptation, flexibility and creativity may be further cultivated by this crisis, and we may end up learning new things about ourselves and that ever-changing process that is life. When I lived in Bosnia-Herzegovina, serving as a humanitarian aid worker from 2000-2003, I met some brilliant people who had survived the siege on the capital city of Sarajevo from 1992-1995. For three years the city was blocked off from the outside world—the only substantial supplies getting in were those from United Nations relief efforts, kind journalists or black market enterprises. People figured out how to do amazing things in order to survive, including boiling down grass and extracting its enzymes to make a cheese-like product to spread on stale rolls obtained from relief bins. People generally had to stand in line for hours to get these bread products, risking getting bombed or shot. While it’s important to acknowledge the feelings of disappointment and struggle that may be coming up for all of us as a result of COVID-19, thinking of Sarajevans during the siege gives me perspective.
I have so much more to work with in my life today than grass. Unless something major changes, that will continue to be the case throughout this crisis as people work tirelessly to bring us food and supplies. Most importantly, I have my recovery, and I have today. As I’ve learned in the last several weeks navigating personal challenges, professional stress and the COVID-19 reality, nothing else really matters.
Jamie Marich, PhD, LPCC-S, LICDC-CS, REAT, travels internationally to teach on topics connected to trauma, EMDR therapy, mindfulness and the expressive arts. She maintains a private practice in her home base of Warren, Ohio, where she operates the Institute for Creative Mindfulness, a training program in EMDR therapy and expressive arts therapy. She is the author of six books on trauma recovery.