Sad in the house and I’m in the house sad…
It has been weeks of self-isolation and the stress of fielding so much emotion, information and grief while not being able to leave the house has not eased up. The reality of our daily lives have been transformed so quickly as the virus fucks with our health, our bank balance, our living situation, our relationships, our sense of purpose, our safety – and all this against a backdrop of white people dancing to afrobeats on TikTok. You don’t need me to tell you, it’s a lot, a lot.
We are each responding to these changes in our own way, as is our right. Some of us are relieved at the change of pace and the chance to reflect, refocus and reframe our relationship to capitalism. Some of us are anxious and afraid of the environments quarantine has forced us to inhabit and of what comes next. Some of us are feeling like restless slugs in a circle of salt, reeling from emotional malnourishment and feeling helpless in the face of ongoing loss of control. Some of us are grieving, some of us are organising and some of us are numb.
The pandemic and resulting lockdown have provoked a new relationship with alcohol and/or other intoxicating substances for many. Perhaps a glass of wine after a day at work, a smoke on the weekend, or a pill at a rave is increasingly becoming an unmoderated way to punctuate your day, feel something, feel nothing, ward off boredom or manage anxiety. For others, quarantine has made it hard to manage or exacerbated already-existing addictions. Substance use (the ways we interact with alcohol or any other others drugs such as weed, cocaine, cigarettes, ketamine, heroin, solvents and prescription drugs) and addiction is an issue close to my heart, no less considering that problematic substance use is much higher in LGBTQI+ communities compared to other demographic groups. It is higher still for QTIBPOC, who experience even further stress, isolation and oppression, and more barriers and administrative violence when we try to access help.
I say this a lot but there really is no wrong way to cope and I encourage you to give yourself the gift of refraining from judging, gaslighting or punishing yourself for reaching for whatever comfort, safety or entertainment you can during this time (and always). Maybe you’re compulsively watching videos of newborn babies getting their hair washed or maybe you’ve spent the last month in a k-hole or maybe both! It’s ok – we don’t need to judge it. What we can have a think about though, is how well our coping mechanisms are serving us. This is where harm reduction can be really useful and please forgive me but I’m excited to talk about it because it is the love of my life.
What is harm reduction?
Harm reduction is a mental health framework that was developed in the UK in the1980s in response to the increasing number of HIV cases among drug injectors. Rather than shaming drug users, this radical rethinking resulted in the establishment of syringe exchange schemes, where injecting drug users were able to obtain sanitary hypodermic needles at little or no cost, reducing the spread of HIV.
Harm reduction is now applied globally as a way of engaging with communities and people who may be participating in risky behaviours without shaming, judging, stigmatising them or simply telling them to stop. Instead, it encourages us to support them, listen to them, help inform them of risks and potential safety measures and honour their agency to make choices for themselves. This can be with regard to drinking, drugs, sex, self-harm – anything really.
Now, haters will say that harm reduction principles increase the likelihood of people doing risky things, but they don’t. There are many studies that prove they don’t but also fuck a study and consider it. If we work to remove the stigma and judgement that so often silences and isolates vulnerable people and their coping mechanisms, and listen to them instead, it makes sense that they might feel more cared for and therefore empowered to do what’s right for them with the knowledge, support and resources to be safe while they’re doing it. This feels particularly important when thinking about QTIBPOC who by nature of being othered so many times over are no strangers to judgement, guilt and shame and can so easily internalise the belief that they are not worthy of care.
How can I investigate my relationship to substances?
You’ve noticed that you’re drinking more than you’re comfortable with or than feels good – congratulate yourself for making that discovery and acknowledging it. Seriously, do it. Now try to non-judgmentally investigate your current relationship to alcohol or any other substances you’re using to get the fullest picture you can of what’s happening. You might want to ask yourself questions like:
• How is this substance making me feel? What does it provide?
• How often and when am I consuming it? Is there a pattern? Would it help me to keep track?
• What, if anything, do I want to change about my substance use?
• Are there any triggers I can identify? What do they look like? What do they feel like?
• How is my substance use interacting with my solitude, or the people around me?
Taking substances safely
Unless you’re planning on stopping immediately, you will probably continue to drink or take drugs in some quantities. How can you do this in the safest way possible considering the increased risks of COVID-19? Ask yourself:
• Am I endangering myself or others to acquire this substance? How can I adjust this?
• Which drinks or drugs have the lowest negative impact on my health? Can I use those instead?
• Am I washing my hands, disinfecting surfaces and preparing my drugs myself? Am I able to test them? Do I have all of my own paraphernalia to avoid contamination?
• What are the financial implications of my substance use? Are there ways to mitigate this?
• What risks am I facing while intoxicated? Am I still able to advocate for myself and socially distance?
• Am I at risk of blacking out or overdose? If I am alone how can I help myself go slowly and/or use less than usual to prevent this?
• If I am with others do they know the risks associated with my substance use and can we come up with a plan for if I need help?
• If I develop Corona symptoms what is my plan for obtaining and using substances?
• How can I take extra care of my immune system?
• If for some reason I cannot get access to my substance of choice, how will I cope? What could I use to take the edge off?
• Am I eating in a way that feels good? Am I sleeping enough, getting enough water and fresh air? What can I do when I am sober to ground, nourish and comfort myself?
Reducing or stopping substance use
The pandemic is likely to be a difficult time for some people to work on adapting their behaviours and coping mechanisms, and for some it might be the perfect time – only you can feel it out for yourself:
• Does anything else provide me with the feeling or sensation that the alcohol or drugs do? Am I able to access it when I have the desire to use substances?
• Can I build a new routine that leaves less space for substance use?
• What can I distract myself with? Can I learn to do something new with my hands?
• Can I remove myself from environments that are triggering or where the substance is available? What boundaries do I need to negotiate for myself to stay sober or safer?
• Is this a good time for me to consider doing deeper work around my relationship to substances? Do I want to find a therapist or an online substance use support group?
• Do I know anyone who has or is going through a similar thing? What will help me feel supported or less alone or anxious?
• What does my support network look like? How will we best communicate?
Be as honest and gentle with yourself as possible, always. There are so many reasons people drink alcohol and take drugs and when those relationships become problematic in any way it can be intensely painful, confusing and complicated. One thing you can guarantee though is that it’s never helpful to build layers of judgment or shame around it. Stay checking in with yourself kindly, doing whatever you can to be as safe and as healthy as is possible for you in this moment, and remember to breathe. Your breath is all yours.
Queer specific substance use resources:
LGBTQ weekly Narcotics Anonymous online meeting
Antidote by London Friend, an LGBTQ run drug & alcohol service
Narcotics support group for queer and trans sex workers
Pieces to Pathways: peer-led substance use support program for LGBTQ hosting online harm-reduction meetings
Misery: QTIBPOC mental health collective and sober club night
General substance use resources:
Online mindfulness-based addiction recovery course (starts April 27)
NHS addiction support finder
Mind addiction & recovery resources
Never Use Alone hotline & Facebook chat
Alcoholics Anonymous online meeting finder
Narcotics Anonymous online meeting finder
Mindfulness for addiction courses and resources by Breathing Space
Harm Reduction Guide to coming off psychiatric medication by The Icarus Project
Other nice stuff for your brain:
A DIY pandemic mental health help guide by varaidzo
Weekly online group therapy for black women and women of colour
Free 20-minute therapy sessions
Coronavirus Mental Health Help Hub by Blurt
Sabah Choudrey’s soothing Covid-19 resource list
Daily pranayama (yoga of the breath) with trauma-informed QPOC teacher Natalie Armitage
Somatic Witch: queer, white therapist sharing good knowledge on Instagram
Crisis Text Line free 24/7 support
London Buddhist Center online meditation
Stress Relief in times of Crisis booklet