Trauma & Recovery in the Time of COVID-19

Posted by – May 29, 2020
Categories: General
Trauma & Recovery in the Time of COVID-19: A Q&A with Jamie Marich, PhD

The pandemic poses a unique set of challenges for those in recovery: physical distancing and isolation are compounded by economic uncertainty, health-related stress, and complex interpersonal dynamics. Being in community is a vital component of recovering from addiction and trauma, and with social distancing measures in place, many of the existing support structures aren’t accessible in their usual forms. This reality is exacerbated by the fact that our current circumstances are, for many, a source of trauma—and differences in resources, privilege, personal histories, identity loci, and circumstance impact how we’re able to respond to the challenges of COVID-19. NAB touched base with Dr. Jamie Marich, author of the forthcoming book Trauma and the 12 Steps, Revised and Expanded, to discuss recovery in the time of the novel coronavirus; the intersections of trauma and addiction; and meditations and practical wisdom for maintaining recovery. You can learn more or pre-order her book below; read on for the Q&A.

In your book, you discuss a both/and approach. What does this mean, and why is it so important to your work?

In recovery circles, and indeed in many mental health contexts, people tend to think that their approach is the correct approach. We see 12-step advocates do this just as staunchly as 12-step opponents do it, for example. On the mental health side of things, proponents of one therapeutic modality can see [their approach] as a panacea, and ignore wisdom that can be offered from other approaches. Extremist, rigid teachings on health and healing have not been helpful in my experience as a trauma survivor, clinical specialist, and educator. Rigidity is an ultimate sign of unhealed trauma and flexibility is imperative to healing it. So for me both/and, which is a core application of dialectics, is imperative. Two things can be true at the same time—12-step approaches can help millions of people and still be harmful, especially if applied by dogmatic treatment centers or individuals. The answer for me has never been throwing out 12-step work or other traditional approaches altogether, because in and of themselves they can still help people experience tremendous growth and change. We can honor that experience while still being open to critique how we can serve others more effectively and in a more trauma-responsive manner.

You also talk about the concept of honoring the struggle. What do you mean?

To meet people where they are on the journey; to validate their experiences before we try to challenge them into action. To realize that everyone coming into recovery has fought a hard battle and to approach them from this place of dignity.

In the time of COVID-19, how is what the struggle looks like changing? How can the ways that we honor it change, too?

Part of what COVID-19 has revealed for me is that everyone’s struggle is different. Some people are dealing with business and work transitions successfully while living in toxic home or family environments, and other people may be content at home while struggling to keep their business or work life viable. Some people are crumbling from the isolation, and others are thriving in it. I am not a fan of that statement going around that “we’re all in this together” because our experiences of it are all so different. Our levels of privilege may allow us to ride out this storm more comfortably. So I’m more likely to advocate for another saying I see going around: “We’re not all in the same boat, even though we might be in the same storm.” I think there are many parallels here to what it means to honor the struggle…we cannot make assumptions about what other people are experiencing based only on our worldview, which may be colored by the fact that we’re riding it out in a more fortified boat.

The necessity of social distancing—compounded by economic, social, health-related, and political stressors—is changing how we’re able to show up in community. What adaptations can we make to support ourselves and others? What should we try to avoid, if we can?

Adaptation is a sign of health in the wake of a traumatic experience, and I feel that people who are embracing this current crisis as an opportunity to adapt are doing well. I continue to be impressed with my 79-year-old 12-step sponsor and many of the old-timers in our community who have learned to use Zoom and Facebook Live to be able to keep contact afloat and community viable. They inspire me on a daily basis. Of course, a bare minimum of technological access is required for the things that I suggest and experience, which can still be a struggle for many, even in this day and age. Reach out as much as you possibly can, use your resources. I’ve been honored to help out older folks in my life (and some younger folks too) with technology if they need it. Staying in touch is vital to truly make this a physical distancing experience and not a social distancing one. Speaking for myself, I am more socially connected than ever in many ways because COVID-19 has forced me to be, and for that I’m grateful.

What can we do on our own?

I am a huge fan of Loving Kindness meditation for these purposes. In this sacred practice we come into a place of awareness and we offer the following four verses to ourselves (I like to do this with my hand on my heart): May I be free from suffering, May I have physical happiness, May I have emotional happiness, May I have ease of well-being. Then you offer the same verses to someone who is close to you, then to someone with whom you have a neutral relationship, yet experience kinship with as another human being (you might think of someone from the grocery store, or another essential worker for this process), and then someone with whom you struggle (people you actually know, or political/public figures who cause you rage can work). To take it a step further, you then offer the same verses to people living in your town, your state, your country, and in the entire world. For a video of me leading this meditation, you can click here

In what ways might our current pandemic context traumatize (or retraumatize) a person, and what are the implications for recovery?

In sum, unhealed trauma can leave us with messages about ourselves and the world that, if left unaddressed, can impair our functioning even in good conditions. A common belief that trauma survivors are stuck with is “I am trapped.” In thinking of all the ways that the current pandemic can make someone feel trapped, especially if they are sheltered in place with unsafe or invalidating people, it’s clear where new experiences can trigger old symptoms, setting off a storm. For people living in situations where they are not embraced for who they are (e.g., think of the experiences of LGBT+ community members), this impact can be compounded. For individuals who have long suffered the impact of structural or institutional racism, pandemic responses from the government and other aspects of society can amplify their pain. These responses can exacerbate divides and wounds that already seem insurmountable.

Moreover, a huge area of trigger for anyone with a history of trauma is fear of the unknown. Fear of death can also be a big one if the unhealed impact of loss is part of someone’s healing journey. And it’s clear how our current reality, full of unknowns, can be compounding symptoms that survivors already struggle with on a daily basis. The crisis can also present an opportunity. In my clinical practice, I see people doing some amazing work on past traumas based on what our current reality is triggering in them.

Additional resources and recommended reading on trauma-informed recovery can be found here. You can view Dr. Marich’s TEDx talk here. Sign up for pre-order notifications (plus 30% off and free shipping) from here, or find Trauma and the 12 Steps, Revised and Expanded at your favorite bookseller on July 7.

Tags: Jamie Marich
About the Author

Bevin is the associate comms director at North Atlantic Books.