'Crisis of Connection': Pandemic Transforming How People Get Help for Substance Use
COVID-19 has disrupted many of the face-to-face interactions that give people in substance recovery crucial support. But some are finding new avenues for recovery that could last beyond the pandemic.
Ashley, who lives on Cape Cod, had been alcohol-free for 10 months when the pandemic reached the Cape.
“I live in a sober house,” she said, “a graduate sober house, and I was pretty concerned, because I have a compromised immune system, so I couldn’t really stay safely in a community, like, setting.”
So she went to her sister’s vacation house in the woods of New Hampshire, alone.
“And I was, like, in total isolation for pretty much three entire months,” she said.
WCAI agreed not to use Ashley’s last name to protect her privacy.
For many people in recovery, connecting with others who’ve been there makes the difference between good days and bad.
Her friends were worried about her being isolated. And she admits she was a little worried, too.
“But it turned out to be actually pretty wonderful,” she said. “I used the time to reconnect with myself. I did a lot of healing things. I did some writing from my step work. It really turned into kind of a retreat.”
She attended video meetings every couple of days and talked to her sponsor and her friends.
In May, she even celebrated her one-year sober anniversary there.
“It was a much different experience than what I was expecting, but it was so awesome still,” she said. “Remaining grateful throughout the whole thing has really helped me just be grateful for where I am, where I am in my recovery, that, you know, I've improved my relationship with my sister enough that she trusted me to be in her house alone.”
Ashley had no trouble accessing support remotely, but not everyone has been doing that.
Some could find it difficult getting back into all the services they received before the pandemic, according to Matthew Libby, a family physician who treats addiction patients in Harwich Port.
“I think sometimes when you've had a habit of continually engaging in group therapy or AA or other services and then get out of that habit for several months, it can be harder than you'd expect to restart that,” he said.
As patients return to on-site health care, he said, they may disclose things that were not evident over the telephone or on video.
“So I expect we'll be finding more people struggling and working to sort of put things back together and help increase support and help in their recovery,” he said.
Some service providers say they’ve seen relapses, although it’s hard to know if someone would have relapsed without the pandemic.
Dan Gates of the AIDS Support Group of Cape Cod said that in mid to late March, he saw an uptick in relapses among people in long-term recovery.
“Suddenly there was this world chaotic event that was really destabilizing for people,” he said. “That part, I think a lot of us underestimated and didn't appreciate how much that would rock people.”
One success he’s seen is helping people keep up with their medication for opioid treatment.
The state obtained a federal exemption allowing providers to give a month of take-home doses to stable patients.
Twelve-step meetings on video are another win, said Gates. Although Internet costs can be a barrier, he said many people find remote meetings extremely supportive. They’re enjoying the newfound freedom to attend meetings based far from home and feel more anonymous.
“Some of these towns on the Cape, you know, the beauty is they’re a small town, but it's also — can feel a little claustrophobic if you're going through anything and trying to work on something with any level of anonymity,” he said.
In addition to meetings, people have connected with remote counseling. The AIDS Support Group does counseling and risk assessment by phone. They can even deliver Narcan to a person’s house, something they weren’t doing before COVID-19.
With all these options for treatment, Gates said it comes down to one thing: connection.
“I forget who said it, but, you know, the opposite of addiction is connection, right?” he said. “That is the antidote to addiction on some level, is to be connected. And this COVID-19 has been a crisis of connection for many people.”
And yet the pandemic has created new ways to connect — innovations that are transforming how people get help.