Overcoming the ‘cocktail for relapse’: Recovery During the Pandemic

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CLARKSBURG, W.Va. – The pandemic has affected everyone in different ways, but for those who are actively recovering from substance use disorder, it could mean the difference of life and death.

“If you think about it, a lot of people weren’t able to work at this time and as a result they isolated,” said Richard Southall, Counselor at Harrison County Community Corrections, “They had very little communication and connection with other people. Suddenly they get a check for 1,200 dollars or they get their unemployment check, a large amount of money combined with isolation, combined with boredom, even extended stress, that can be a cocktail for relapse.”

Those who are out there isolating and at home thinking that there’s no way that they can get help right now, this is just deadly for them.

Tina Clark, Recovery Coach, Greater Recovery and Community Empowerment

At the Clarksburg Mission, staff explained that admissions to detox and treatment stopped at one point during the pandemic for about three weeks. 

“We have someone who is out on the street, who’s been on the street, who’s ready for a change, especially with COVID, that limits them even more in places they can go,” said Desi Underwood, Ministry Coordinator at the Clarksburg Mission, “and there’s a window of opportunity when they’re ready for that change, and if they won’t have a bed for seven days, that could derail the whole thing.”

But, those services are currently open and taking residents. Sober living homes are also taking applications, but are requiring a basic screening—asking questions about if they’ve been out of the state, and checking their temperature.

“Recovery doesn’t stop, so we don’t want to stop, but we’re definitely taking precautions,” said Andy Bailey, Program Manager at the Clarksburg Mission’s Sober Living Homes.

Almost all recovery meetings have moved to online because of the pandemic, so places like the sober living homes have started holding in-house meetings. But there are some meetings that can’t be replicated in-house. Drug court now meets over Zoom.

“And of course, because drug court is a weekly meeting with a judge and a team face-to-face, and it really carries clout when you’ve got a judge on the stand and he’s talking to the participant in drug court and giving him specific direction. That has not happened in the same intensity so that’s been a challenge.”

Judge Michael Aloi serves as a U.S. magistrate judge in the Northern District of West Virginia’s Federal Drug Court Program. When asked about how a Zoom meeting might take away some of the clout that a judge has over the participants, Judge Aloi said he’s aware of the impact of seeing a judge on a bench, but at the same time, he wants to build a relationship with the participants so that they feel important.

“I think part of recovery is understanding authority. Understanding boundaries and so I represent authority to them and I think it’s important that they understand and respect that,” said Judge Aloi, “On the other hand, I think it’s equally important that they understand that people in authority, and how blessed I am that I have the position that I have, know that they care about them and worry about them and are invested in their success.”

Recovery doesn’t stop, so we don’t want to stop

Andy Bailey, Program Manager, The Clarksburg Mission Sober Living Homes

There are many issues that people in recovery are facing as a result of the coronavirus, but the biggest one is isolation. A common quote in the recovery community is “The opposite of addiction is not sobriety, it’s connection and community.”

“In a lot of cases, whenever someone is using, they hide it from family. They hide it from friends. They are in some cases ashamed of what they done and what they become. But, once someone reaches out, and they are sober, they realize through a sponsor or through an accountability partner that they are not judged. They are supported, and they are loved,” explained Southall, “That gives a sense of self confidence and love they never have had, and that spreads. In the meetings, they say the best way to keep it is to give it away, and I think we also recommend that a person is kind and considerate to others, and there’s a sense of pride with that. There’s a sense of accomplishment, and that’s what we’re meaning by sobriety is community.”

Tina Clark, Recovery Coach for Greater Recovery and Community Empowerment, said that the pandemic is affecting those in early recovery the most because they don’t have those strong connections in the community yet. For those who already have those connections, it’s easier to reach out over phone or the internet. She wants to remind people that even though the nation is in a pandemic, help is out there.

“Those who are out there isolating and at home and thinking that there’s no way that they can get help right now, this is just deadly for them. Isolation is a horrible thing but you can still be with people even though you can’t be with people right now. And I don’t think that everyone knows that,” said Clark.

I’ve been watching them, and how happy I’ve been that some of them have been able to get back to work because I think they realized that not only is work important because it gave them an income, but work was important because it gave them structure. A time to get up, where to go, and it gave them a support people. If you listen to the people who started back to work, they all say how great it was to get back to work, to see their friends. They didn’t realize how much they missed it.

Judge Michael Aloi on participants getting back to work

A good thing that has come out of this situation is that there’s an online recovery meeting happening virtually 24/7 in different parts of the country. That’s a part of the situation that everyone hopes will continue.

“I’ve actually been on 12 step meetings in Dublin, Ireland since this happened, in the UK, in New York, California is where I’m from so I actually got to see a lot of my friends who I’ve know for 12 years and haven’t seen since I moved here 10 years ago,” said Clark, “I think I’ve gone to more social media meetings than I did in person meetings. I was going to about 6 meetings a week before the pandemic started and now I’m going to like 9, 10 a week.”

“I think in a lot of cases, people who have anxiety meeting someone in person, that anxiety might be diminished somewhat when they are able to meet someone on video and in some cases, it can feel a bit safer,” explained Southall

The most important message is that if you’re facing substance use disorder, you don’t have to face it alone. Here’s a list of resources for people of all different recovery levels.

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