A little known fact about me is that I actually have two roles at the Process Recovery Center; one is creative and one is clinical. When I’m not writing or otherwise creating, I facilitate our women’s gender-specific programming. One of the things I’ve learned during my time as a women’s group facilitator is that women frequently struggle with perfectionism and feelings of unworthiness. The idea is that we “are” what we produce. If you think about it, this distorted way of thinking takes root in our biology. For centuries our merit was based on whether or not we could bear children. This mindset is only just beginning to shift. If anything, the pressure has doubled as many women juggle productivity expectations in both domestic and professional spheres.
That’s not to say that men aren’t shaped by their own productivity standards. As a woman – and a female-focused clinician – I am just better able to articulate the female experience. However, I do remember one of my college instructors talking about how women strive for connection and men strive for autonomy. (I can also remember challenging my instructor over such an outdated overgeneralization. I can only speak for myself, but I certainly want to be autonomous… and connection is a critical component of holistic health for everyone.) However, there may be a sliver of truth to this theory. Autonomy is synonymous with self-reliance. How often do men feel pressured to be providers – to be independent and in control? Productivity, from this perspective, means not only to survive, but to project an image of success and strength.
When you take the complexities of gender and sociology – and add substance use disorder to the mix – it’s like throwing a wrench in an already rusty machine. Contending with perfectionism, a struggle for autonomy, or whatever your upbringing may have programmed you to wrestle with, can make getting out of bed in the morning overwhelming. It’s hard enough as it is, but when you become addicted to drugs and alcohol, a productive day suddenly becomes any day in which there are sufficiently available intoxicants. By the time you arrive in rehab – whether you identify as cisgender or non-binary – the shame of “not being enough” (because you’re not doing enough) is off the charts.
The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified our enduring shame. We are coming face to face with ourselves as humans being….not humans doing. There are many reasons why productivity is hard right now (and maybe that’s the point).
1. Our Cogs are No Longer Spinning in the Same Machine – COVID-19 has yanked us out of our classrooms, our workplaces, and our routines. Some people use the terminology “new normal” to describe our current state of affairs, but this is the furthest from normal most of us have ever been in our lifetimes. We are disoriented aliens on a strange planet – one that looks deceivingly familiar but feels “off”. Routine is an important part of the addiction recovery process… but its benefits extend well beyond the recovery community. Until COVID-19 passes, we can’t really determine our “new normal”. We may not want to fit our cogs back in the same rusty machine. While change is an exciting prospect, it also feels exhausting and scary, and the waiting period is the worst. We are stuck in a hallway between two doors, feeling our way along the walls in search of some sense of definition.
2. We are in Survival Mode – It’s hard to be productive when your brain is constantly hijacked by thoughts like, “Oh no! I just touched that doorknob and scratched my face. What if I get sick? What if I die? Did that doorknob just kill me?” To some degree, we are all living under constant threat, and we expend a lot of mental energy maintaining our hypervigilance.
3. We Have ‘Zoom Fatigue’ – National Geographic recently published an article explaining why you may be feeling exhausted if you are relying heavily on virtual interaction. We can no longer depend on non-verbal cues – like body language – so we have to pay “sustained and intense attention to words instead”. In addition, our brains are grappling with something psychologists call “partial attention”.
“Think of how hard it would be to cook and read at the same time. That’s the kind of multi-tasking your brain is trying, and often failing, to navigate in a group video chat…For some people, the prolonged split in attention creates a perplexing sense of being drained while having accomplished nothing. The brain becomes overwhelmed by unfamiliar excess stimuli while being hyper-focused on searching for non-verbal cues that it can’t find”.
4. We are Constantly Bombarded by Negativity – With headlines day-in and day-out like, “COVID Death Toll Surpasses Vietnam War,” it takes more work to maintain a positive outlook. Even one headline, in passing, can activate a stress response.
5. We are Not Superhuman – It is unreasonable to expect yourself to function normally if you are juggling a full-time job (or unemployment), homeschooling, a household, and a partnership – never mind recovery. Even if you subtracted all those factors, it would still be unrealistic to expect yourself to maintain “optimal” levels of productivity. There is only so much your brain – and therefore your body – can handle – especially if you are not getting any self-care.
What Does Productivity Look Like In Pandemic Era Recovery?
People who are choosing to pursue recovery during this pandemic are, in my opinion, some of the bravest. In addition to dealing with the same stressors as everyone else (and the added consequences of addiction), these newcomers are consciously choosing to fight two invisible wars. But the question for many beginners has become, “How do I make progress in my recovery program? What does productivity even look like right now?”
If you’re in early recovery, your task is not unlike someone without substance use disorder. Try to let yourself “be” as you are. The idea of “being” rather than “doing” is more challenging for people in recovery than other populations. Why? “Doing” is an avoidance mechanism. If there are no drugs and alcohol available, staying too busy is the next best thing. Ironically, in order to really progress in recovery we need to learn how to sit still. So, really, moving forward means stopping.
Two more ways to stay the course are 1.) prioritization and 2.) reframing. Your priorities might look like staying healthy, staying sober, and meeting your basic needs. Everything else will come in time. Decide what truly helps. If you don’t get anything from speaker Zoom meetings, attend Big Book discussion meetings. If you can’t focus on reading, listen to a podcast. Don’t exacerbate the shame cycle by beating yourself up over something that isn’t working. It doesn’t matter what other people are doing; if it doesn’t help you, it’s superfluous. When we’re overwhelmed and overstimulated, we need less. Prioritizing isn’t a free pass to do nothing, but a way to get back to the basics.
The self-care app, Shine, also talks about reframing “your reference point for success”.
“This is not normal,” Ashley Cleland writes, “so your reference point for success or failure shouldn’t be either”. It’s okay if you’re not the Picture of Sobriety. You don’t need to write a 300-page moral inventory, learn Portuguese and paint a masterpiece. Heck, if brushing your hair or matching your socks was too hard, that’s okay. You’re sober today – go, you! If you’re not sober today – and you want to get back on the horse – then go, you, too! A journey of a thousand miles can only be accomplished if you’re willing to make a start. Willingness is an overlooked but essential part of a delightfully cliché acronym for recovery success: H.O.W.
Honesty, openmindedness, willingness.
If all else fails, stick with those. Everything else is just noise.
Autumn Khavari is the Process Recovery Center’s in-house writer. She received an education in Substance Use Counseling from Beal College in Bangor, Maine.