7 Tips to Stay Sober After the Chaos of a Natural Disaster

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The U.S. is currently experiencing some devastating blows by natural disasters. The relentless hurricanes and forest fires are obliterating parts of our nation, causing us to feel frightened and fearful of losing loved ones, homes, and our neighborhoods.

Recovery, on the other hand, requires us to strive for balance and structure, to nurture and care for ourselves – how are we supposed to achieve that in the midst of a natural disaster? You can’t pop out to a meeting with the very real threat of rising post-hurricane flood waters. What about those who are undergoing Medically Assisted Treatment (MAT) – how are they supposed to get their prescriptions?

The Very Real Risk of Relapse

How do you keep your recovery safe when the dangers of relapsing are very real both during and after a natural disaster?

With first-hand experience of seeing friends from Texas cope, friends in Florida prepare, and my own experience of living in Portland where a 33,000-acre forest fire is currently raging with populated areas beginning to evacuate, I can tell you that it is entirely possible to handle the stress of a natural disaster without throwing days, weeks, months, or years of your hard-earned sobriety away.

It isn’t easy, but it is possible.

Recovery is hard enough. The challenges it brings are the need to rebuild our lives from the ground up and to cope with everyday life without using. It’s like building a house really: shoring up a foundation, a solid support network to make sure we stay sober, slowly creating the walls of a safe home environment, and building rooms of self-care activities which nurture us and support the entire structure. With our homes built, we can rebuild and repair relationships, then re-integrate into the work environment.

This building process can take years. It took me at least a year to build my home. At times, it felt all too much to handle…it still can during times of stress. But throwing a natural disaster into the mix can potentially tip us over the edge. It has certainly rocked my foundation to watch the wildfires of Oregon – currently the largest wildfire in the nation – grow to exceed the size of 25,000 football fields. It’s just 14 miles from where I live.

A Stressed Brain is a Dangerous Brain

The reality is that the stress caused by disastrous events has been shown to increase the risk of relapse in numerous studies. And there are a number of reasons for this increased risk. First, the huge emotional impact of a natural disaster can cause the body to have a stress response. Stress affects the brain in such a way that it can biologically change, causing us to display stress-related behaviors and experience cravings for drugs and alcohol that we haven’t had for some time.

Additionally, the stressed brain can see drugs and alcohol as a means to escape; we can’t face the enormity of these events, we lose a sense of hope, and we feel lost. In fact, research has shown that natural disasters can be so serious on someone psychologically that they can lead to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – which may be re-lived when seeing other natural disasters, with cases of “Katrina Brain” being reported. In fact, studies have shown that alcohol abuse can continue long after the event of a hurricane. Evidence revealed that survivors of Hurricane Katrina showed increased rates of alcohol abuse, when compared to rates of abuse before the disaster.

Knowing these risks, it’s clear that having a recovery strategy in place is just as important as having a disaster plan in place. On a personal level – and reflected by my friends in Florida and Texas – I know that there are things we can do to stay safe. No amount of alcohol or drugs can solve the problems caused by natural disasters. Abusing substances will only make matters worse – and you’re still left with the disaster once you sober up.

It’s Time to Guard Your Sobriety

Here are seven things you can do to keep your recovery safe during these stressful times:

  • Prepare as much as possible. Obtaining up-to-date information – from TV, radio, or online – is priority. You may need to come up with an evacuation plan, as guided by your local support networks. Whatever you decide, be sure let family members and loved ones know your plans and anticipated destination. In Portland, I have regularly checked news networks for air quality updates and fire developments so I know whether or not I need to evacuate. I am asthmatic, which means that I have to use a mask outside because the air quality has been severely impacted by plumes of smoke caused by the fires.
  • Keep talking. Check in with your support network at regular intervals so you feel supported and have an opportunity to talk about your fears and any other emotions and feelings that may arise. Keeping an open communication line doesn’t mean that you’re weak or failing; it simply means that you’re taking appropriate actions to remain sober.
  • If you are undergoing MAT, check in with your doctor or pharmacist to find out where you can get your medication. There are varying practices across MAT facilities and providers; some allow meetings on site, some phone in Suboxone prescriptions, and some clinics dispense methadone on-site – others do not. It is better to be prepared than to undergo withdrawal symptoms while dealing with the stress of a natural disaster.
  • Continue sobriety and self-care activities as best you can. Even with limited means, you can still focus on your recovery. Try to journal, meditate, exercise, eat healthy, and drink lots of water. (Drinking water is particularly important if you’re near the wildfires; it helps the body detox harmful pollutants you may have breathed in.)
  • Don’t get sucked into watching all the news events going on around the world – that can be too overwhelming. Limit the information to your local area. Also, obsessing over what’s going on outside can be counterproductive – we can sometimes catastrophize. It’s important to keep perspective and evaluate exactly what you do and do not have control over.
  • If you attend meetings, you can attend a range of meetings online. A great resource for online meetings is In The Rooms, which hosts meetings every day. Use them while you still have Internet coverage. When and if you lose Internet service, you can call your support network instead.
  • Consider downloading recovery podcasts. You can listen to these at any time, but they’re especially helpful in the event you lose your phone network or Internet coverage.

I know all too well how intimidating and overwhelming these situations can be. Natural disasters pose a risk in all areas of our lives. But to drink or use – to lose our precious recovery – is futile. Sobriety is the one thing we can protect when everything else feels out of control.



Images: iStock

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