Coronavirus and Addictions: So Different?

In Netflix movies, our news media, and our personal lives, we all, more than likely, have seen the destructive power of addiction. Today in America, we’re also seeing the destructive power of the coronavirus pandemic. Like with the pandemic, we’re tempted to think of addictions as the problems of select individuals. Unfortunately, there is lots of evidence that addictions, like the coronavirus, have impact at the family, community and world levels—and both require responses at all three levels of our society.

Regarding addictions, let’s start with Netflix. The revelation of Princess Diana’s battle with bulimia in the recently released season four of The Crown resulted in a Washington Post article that fact-checked the movie version. Diana confirmed in a number of interviews how she turned to compulsive eating and vomiting to cope with her marriage. On her honeymoon, she was vomiting four or five times a day. Over time, it was not a secret from the royal family, yet there was denial and silence.  Her husband, Charles, meanwhile, struggled with his addictive passion for his mistress. He admits to thinking about her 24 hours each day.

As for a media example, the special Thanksgiving Day edition of the Washington Post ran a front-page story on the death at age 60 of world soccer star and celebrity Diego Maradona. Born in poverty in an Argentinian slum, he was gifted as a soccer player and was considered one of the two best players in the world. Yet this was not enough for him, or perhaps too much? He became addicted to cocaine and led a wild and rebellious life that became as well-known as his soccer prowess. His community and the world watched his decline in disbelief and denial.

In the same Thanksgiving edition of the Washington Post, on the Opinion page, Sosha Lewis tells her story of growing up poor in Appalachia and escaping her family’s life of poverty and addiction. She recounts a call from her opioid-addicted brother, Zack, asking for help. Zack saw his friends dying from opioid addiction and feared he would be next.  He asks to come live with her and her husband.  She agrees if he can pass a drug test. He can’t. He dies six month later in a jail cell from a blood clot and heart failure. The police put him in a cell rather than in the hospital when they found him overdosed.

Princess Diana, Diego Maradona, and Zack didn’t know each other, but they had two things in common. They all suffered from an illness that proved devastating or fatal, and no one in their family or community knew how to help them.

The truth, as members of Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon will tell us (if we ask), is that addictions are family diseases. The person with the addiction impacts the family. The family reacts to and impacts the person with the addiction.  Our culture of individualism and self-reliance limits our recognition of the family dimension of addiction, while our inclination to denial limits our attention to the many manifestations of addiction.

Like with the coronavirus pandemic, too many of us want to act like it isn’t happening. Yet addiction is rampant in our communities and continues to spread, even as we hope it will go away. Our denial of addictions is perhaps even worse than the coronavirus.  Our nation is divided about the reality and seriousness of the coronavirus, while addictions are accepted as an individual’s problem. There is not a big discussion or disagreement about how to treat addictions, even though they, like the virus, are killing thousands daily.

When Alcoholics Anonymous was founded in the late 1930s, most members were men. If their marriages survived, they were often accompanied to meetings by their wives. Over time, two distinct groups emerged: Alcoholics Anonymous meetings were for those with the drinking problem and Al-Anon Family groups were for the spouses or other relatives, friends, and members of the family.

Today, there are 115,000 A.A. groups in 175 countries around the world. There are far fewer groups for families—24,000 Al-Anon groups in 131 countries. There are even fewer family groups for those who love someone with an eating or drug problem. It is painfully obvious that our society is more focused on helping the individual person than in providing help for the family or community.

Yet addictions are family and community diseases. Just like the coronavirus, the infected individual can infect the people around them. Often, people seem asymptomatic, but aren’t. The familial effects of alcoholism and other substance abuse move from generation to generation, along with the emotional scars.

It is time to move beyond our individual treatment paradigm and treat the overuse of alcohol, drugs, food, and other behaviors and substances as family and community challenges. We need each other to be and stay healthy. There are lots of resources that offer ways to get help for the person with an addiction and for their family and loved ones. The Twelve Step programs are one proven method. If you are watching someone you love suffer from addiction, consider getting help for yourself from a family program. From my experience, you and the person you love will benefit.

Tom Adams writes on the connections between leadership, spirituality, racial justice, and emotional growth and recovery. His blog posts can be found on his website:

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