As you might expect, in the wake of COVID-19 sober livings have diligently adapted their services to support their community, which can range from in-house clients, after-care clients,  and alumni to staff. If you’re completely new to sober livings, feel free to peruse past articles that explore what to expect at a sober living, as well as other options for transitional living if sober livings don’t feel like the right fit for you. While everyone is urged to take precautions in maintaining physical distance amongst themselves at a sober living, I also encourage residents to think about the ways in which this pandemic is offering the opportunity to engage with other kinds of space, namely one’s internal space or bandwidth. Much has been said about how this pandemic is an opportune time to be still and get to know ourselves on a deeper level, but it can be just as easy to fall into old habits and ways of thinking and doing that may not serve you despite being chemically sober. Learning how to navigate internal space is a key skill that can strengthen your recovery, which will ultimately inform how deeply you can show up for the community around you.


How Sober Livings Are Adjusting

Virtual alternatives to forms of community support outside of a sober living, such as nearby recovery meetings, have swiftly been put in place, offering even more options for those who want to explore recovery in other parts of the country or world via online platforms. Unfortunately, some sober livings have had to reduce the number of available beds in order to adhere to health precautions and have needed to downsize in other ways to maintain operations as smoothly and efficiently as possible while addressing hygiene safety. Those that are still open and operating are doubling down on their disinfectant and cleaning practices, decreasing movement in and outside of the facility, moving staff and case management meetings to virtual platforms when and if possible, as well as virtualizing tours of the space. Facilities are following recommendations from the CDC and acquiring testing for the virus in addition to taking nightly temperatures for all clients. Hygienic measures will vary from place to place, so do your research and don’t be afraid to reach out to the facility with any questions before choosing a facility. You can read more about what Avenues is doing to provide a safe environment for all of our residents on our COVID-19 information page.


Paradox of Structured Space

In early sobriety, a healthy amount of structure is needed for one to stay away from obsessive and compulsive thoughts that may arise around usage. While a sober living can assist you in creating that structure, the onus is on you to decide how much of it actually works for you. You can troubleshoot and learn from when days might be overloaded with activities or ones where it feels like not enough is going on. In recovery, I’m learning to respect my rhythm, no matter how different it may look from those around me. In a sober living where you are surrounded by so many people, you may need to additionally advocate for your own space as opposed to living with others in independent living. If you need to share a room with someone else, get accustomed to taking up your own space, whether that means tuning them out with headphones and a sleeping mask, or simply asking if you can have the room to yourself for a certain amount of time. Setting external boundaries with others takes on a new significance under a pandemic when tensions might already be high from feeling uncertain or out of control around one’s circumstances and the world at large.


Break from Living Accommodations

While many sober livings are advocating that their residents not leave unless absolutely necessary, it’s still important to take a break from living accommodations in order to not get stir-crazy. Being near and spending time in nature would be ideal to recalibrate the body’s nervous system, however, this isn’t always possible for those residing in sober livings in a large city (or it might take a while with public transportation to get there). Taking some time to go for a leisurely, socially distanced walk or to do some outdoor exercises in the park can be just the needed respite from the confines of a sober living. While outside, practicing mindfulness using your five senses–noticing colors, smells, sounds, the feeling of your coat against you, the taste of your hot drink–can be soothing and grounding. It might sound deceptively simple but could calm your nerves, especially if you are prone to overthinking and either worrying about the past, future, or other matters out of the realm of your control. If outdoor conditions are unfavorable, finding a cafe or working space with good ventilation and air circulation can be an option but use your judgment. Just be sure to keep your mask on if you’re not drinking or eating, as it is not advisable to stay in closed spaces.


Grounding in Your Body

Using somatic experiences to bring yourself back to your body–such as deep belly breathing, stretching slowly, or easing tension in your shoulders, jaw, or stomach–can do a lot to not only acknowledge your physicality, but create internal space as well. When I’m rushing through the day, cramming one task or activity after another, it’s hard to feel embodied and present. This can happen in physical stillness, too: I could be rushing from one thought to the next the moment I wake up or as I try to fall asleep or scroll through my email. This frantic flip-flopping from one item to the next can be incredibly taxing on not only the mind but the body as well. There is joy to be found in stillness and quietude as scary or uncomfortable as it may sound. It’s a muscle that, with time, will strengthen to the point where hectic moments and drama may start to feel far from your experience at a sober living. 

It might be helpful to have an alarm set on your phone every couple of hours to remind you to breathe. Or if you’re trying to stay away from your phone, try to bring awareness to what you might be thinking at any moment of the day. Is it obsessive, compulsive, or addictive? Is it something you need support around? How can you get that? Perhaps writing it down can help your mind feel unburdened from this soul-sucking pattern of thinking. In The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle reminds me that humans, whether recovering from substances or not, are addicted to thinking more than anything else. How can you work to not identify with your thoughts or body, but simply compassionately acknowledge their presence? 


The catch-22 of residing at a sober living during a pandemic is that it’s best to stay in quarantine but you are in a space where clients will be moving in and out. However, one is less likely to feel the effects of social isolation in congregate housing, especially living with people who, too, are committed to living a substance-free lifestyle in addition to a virus-free one. As sober livings do their best to reduce the risk of exposure for everyone in their community, it’s up to residents to make the best of their emotional and psychological circumstances and advocate for their internal space as needed. When you take care of this need, you will be able to see and extend that spaciousness towards the other clients and staff around you. Recovery is about asking for and accepting help when needed and sober livings, even in a pandemic, are a great step in that direction as you move towards claiming your space in sobriety and beyond.