The COVID-19 pandemic has created countless excuses to drink: disturbing headlines, shuttered businesses, and isolation from friends and family, to name a few. Sales of alcoholic beverages in the United States rose 55% in the week ending March 21, just as stay-at-home orders locked down swaths of our nation. But for people pursuing sobriety, the outbreak and its challenges have become tests of resilience.
“The mind is a dangerous place that you shouldn’t walk alone,” says Erin Olson, a 40-year-old business owner, mother, and wife. “I’ve especially found that to be true as I maintain sobriety during this pandemic.”
Confronting a growing problem
Erin’s tumultuous relationship with alcohol began at age 13, but she traces the roots of her alcohol use disorder through her family tree, branching out to her brother, father, and late grandfather. Over the years, she watched each of them seize sobriety while her heavy drinking damaged relationships and derailed her goals.
From outside, Erin’s life appeared beautiful—she had a budding career as a hair stylist, a loving husband, and a young daughter. But inside, she could not break the spell alcohol held over her, and it continued to command her life.
In 2017, she realized she could not walk her path alone and entered a 30-day residential treatment program for alcohol use disorder. Afterward, she began regular treatment with UTHealth addiction specialist Michael Weaver, MD.
“From the beginning, Dr. Weaver emphasized that my mental health is so much more than my antidepressant prescription,” says Erin.
“He helps me build on my support network and ensures I’m active in my 12-step program.”
Filled with renewed passion, Erin wasted no time regaining control of her life and opened her own hair salon later in 2017.
Leaning into sobriety
When Erin embarked on her recovery journey, no one could have predicted a virus would upend life across the globe less than three years later.
“With COVID-19, people are anxious about getting sick, keeping their loved ones safe, and maintaining their jobs, all while experiencing isolation from their support groups,” says Weaver. “These challenges may lead people in recovery to self-medicate with the drugs they worked so hard to discontinue.”
Before the pandemic, Erin’s salon was booked out a month in advance, she regularly attended 12-step program meetings, and she maintained appointments with Weaver every three months. While COVID-19 has created obstacles in her path to recovery, including shutting down her salon for six weeks and isolating her from her support community, she is adapting to maintain sobriety.
“I’m leaning into everything I’ve learned from my treatment with Dr. Weaver and recovery program,” she says. “I’m fighting off depressive thoughts, anxiety, and any urge to drink by taking things one day at a time and accepting the reality of our situation.”
Even when her salon closed and recovery programs canceled in-person meetings, Erin gave shape to her days by waking up early to attend virtual meetings and checking in with her program sponsor and the women she sponsors. She also kept her three-month appointment with Weaver by attending a UT Physicians telemedicine visit.
Another way Erin is adapting is by spending more time with her daughter.
“My schedule is usually packed, so I’m grateful for every extra moment,” she says. “I’ve been able to teach her some of the ways I’ve learned to stay positive, like choosing to be grateful, even during difficult situations, and to see the good in life.”
Erin celebrated three years of sobriety in May 2020, following in the footsteps of her brother, who has 12 years; father, who has 34 years; and late grandfather, who had more than 40 years.
The pandemic may be far from over, but as we start uncovering a new normal, Erin has hope for the future.