‘We’re in Two Epidemics’: The Fight to Keep Sober Living Homes Virus-Free
As the world around us reels, 57-year-old Susan McLaughlin bakes cookies.
“Cookies, breads,” she said. “I will experiment because in sober living, even without the pandemic, these girls will eat anything.”
McLaughlin’s been staying in a sober living house in Mashpee for almost two years after alcohol nearly took her life.
Her baked goods draw her roommates into the shared kitchen where they can check in with each other.
If she didn’t have that extra support, McLaughlin says, maintaining her sobriety might not be possible.
“I would have fallen off,” she said, adding after a long pause, “I hate to say it, but I don’t think I could have made it. If I had to sit with myself for two weeks and then go another 30 days… oh my god.”
There are more than 50 sober living homes on the Cape, each with roughly four to twelve adults. For many, it’s an interim step between rehab and independent living.
For the residents, social distancing means attending online recovery meetings, managing sobriety, and coping with unique challenges from their living situations.
“If this spreads the way I think it will, congregate housing is probably the worst thing in the world from the point of view of epidemiology,” said Bill Dougherty, the executive director of Recovery Without Walls. For 15 years the nonprofit has helped women maintain their sobriety.
He says there’s a Catch-22 in congregate housing: to stay sober you have to live in a house full of people moving in and out, but to stay safe, it’s best to be alone.
“For the most part they live four to a room, two to a room, with some exceptions,” he said. “If someone says, ‘you have to quarantine,’ where are folks going to go?”
At Gosnold, the Cape’s largest addiction treatment center, staff are grappling daily with hard questions. To Allie Anderson, chief clinical officer, it’s a delicate balance.
“We are in two epidemics right now. We’ve got the pandemic of the virus, but before this all started we were already fighting a war against opiates and substance use,” she said.
“So our goal is to keep people safe. And without staff we can’t treat patients. If we’re not here, where do they go? Where do they get the help that they need?”
In the last few weeks, Gosnold has increased cleaning regimens, put together early detection and discharge plans, and heavily screened new patients, while being mindful that withdrawal can mimic flu-like symptoms.
If one of the thousands of people they serve still becomes sick, they’ll find a way to quarantine.
“We’ve set aside rooms in all of our facilities for patients [who show] early symptoms,” she said.
So far, no staff or people under Gosnold’s care have tested positive for COVID-19, Anderson said, and they haven’t seen an increase in overdoses or intakes, either.
But Anderson worries social isolation, job losses, and health anxieties could intensify problems for active users and those who are sober.
“There are a lot of stressors going on, and people are lonely and sad, and anxious, and fearful, and we have all sorts of maladaptive behaviors to deal with that,” she said. “In the addiction community, we turn to substances.”
Those stressors, says Susan McLaughlin, can include even mundane things like getting along with your six roommates. They’re all trying to find ways to engage with friends in recovery.
“You know, someone would post ‘I Lysoled my house, who wants to come over?, and we can have an impromptu meeting.’ That caused a lot of tension here,” she said. “It was like no, no, no. “Which part of ‘We can’t go anywhere,’ aren’t you understanding?”
There’s also the challenge of making rent at a time of a soaring unemployment.
“A lot of girls I know that are in sober houses in the area work for restaurants and non-essential places… so depending on the type of jobs they have, this is gonna be tough,” she said.
Despite his misgivings about sober homes, Bill Dougherty said he’s given women a total $3,000 this month for housing assistance. He has another $2,000 in backlogged requests for help, and is trying to raise more with the help of donors.
For as long as he can, Dougherty said, he wants to keep supporting people like Susan McLaughlin so they can stay in, remain sober, and keep making cookies.
More information about recovery:
Cape Cod Alcoholics Anonymous
Community Health Center of Cape Cod Substance Use Treatment
Duffy Health Center Substance Use Treatment
Barnstable County Regional Substance Use Resource Guide
Addiction and Recovery Information