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Isolation a struggle for those in addiction recovery

By Elyse Carmosino | April 4, 2020

As the country — and the rest of the world — battles an already frightening health crisis, many of those struggling with addiction recovery have been left feeling anxious and forgotten as the public is told to stay indoors and self-isolate — practices addiction experts, under typical circumstances, warn against. 

“It’s a time of undue stress and uncertainty that impacts people with substance use disorders. It also puts those who are managing their mental health at risk for increased (substance) use as a negative coping strategy,” said Peg Sallade, a Substance Use Prevention Coordinator at A Healthy Lynnfield. “One of my biggest concerns for people trying to manage their sobriety is the social isolation. People in recovery really rely on the sense of community and support that comes with the counseling and groups they’re accustomed to.”

For a population so reliant on structure and positive social interaction, the idea of quarantines or “social distancing” can feel like disaster waiting to happen. 

“It’s awkward, socially, to be apart when you’re really trying to come together,” said

Dr. Heidi Ginter, Chief Medical Officer for Recovery Centers of America. 

She added there are worries about the current lack of focus on the opioid crisis, which she said will ultimately claim more lives than either COVID-19 or influenza. 

“This is turning on a dime because we used to be so focused on the epidemic of opioid overdose deaths. There (used to be) this constant presence of awareness of substance use disorders, the need for treatment, and how deadly addiction can be,” she said. “All of a sudden, all of that press has gone and we’re focusing on social distancing and trying to keep everyone safe from this virus.

“And so it becomes, again, the forgotten disease and the forgotten population.”

Laura Eori is a resident of Rise Above, a sobriety house in Lynn. Even though she’s been sober for three years, Eori said holding herself accountable during the time of COVID-19 is hard. In-person meetings have been replaced with phone calls and video chats, which lack crucial human elements those in recovery heavily rely on when seeking outside support. 

“When you have to see people at meetings and get together in groups, you have that accountability on a regular basis,” she said. “You make connections with people. I mean, it’s still possible to have connections via Zoom meetings and whatnot, but you miss the physical (element) … Now we have to stay home.

“For addicts, including myself, it’s really hard, because you have to sit with yourself, be in your head.”

Eori, 44, added unemployment to her worries after she was laid off from her waitressing job at Bertucci’s in Swampscott March 14 following Governor Baker’s state-wide order for restaurants to close. 

She said not only does she now worry about simply making rent, but her job served as a social outlet and gave her a sense of predictability and structure.  

“Structure is huge for me,” said Eori, adding that even sobriety testing at the sober house has been interrupted, making it easier for those struggling to slip through the cracks. 

“The urine company isn’t coming twice a week (for samples),” she said. “I’m three years clean, so I don’t think I would ever go back there, I pray not, but I’m not sure. The structure is falling … We have to trust one other, test each other and do quick checkups to make sure.”

According to Sallade, those who suffer from substance abuse frequently face more barriers than others generally know.

“One of the things we’re seeing most is increased anxiety,” she said. “Something to consider is that people with substance use disorders also often battle some form of mental illness. The two often come hand in hand.” 

In this time of isolation and uncertainty, Eori said she’s focusing on her faith and staying in contact with those who have her best interests at heart. 

When she feels overwhelmed by what lies ahead, she falls back on the tools she’s learned in recovery to help her through, which include reaching out to her sponsor, her family, and making sure she stays connected with others. 

“I’m really learning what my basic necessities are, like what is the minimum amount I can spend to get through a few days,” she said. “This whole crisis has just caused my mind to be on the unknown. I have to sit here and worry. I don’t know what’s next. It just seems like they’re enforcing stricter and stricter guidelines. I’m like, ‘what am I going to do with myself?’ Am I going to be able to stay clean?”

Now, with the unknown stretching into weeks and possibly even months, all Eori can do is focus on tackling recovery day by day. 

“Right now I don’t have the financial stability to move out, but at the same time, I stay grateful for being here, especially during this time of COVID,” she said. “I feel as though with the structure here and the accountability I have, it’s helping me to stay clean.  

“I can’t wait to get back to work. I’ve never missed work so much, or being able to go to church or go to meetings. I can’t wait to be able to do those activities again. Being stuck in this house, it’s just not healthy, but at the same time, I’m grateful I’m in sober living. I’m at the right place at the right time.”

Sallade said those who struggle with addiction can help themselves during this time. “One thing that causes stress and anxiety is this sense of being unstructured, this change of schedule and routine … To establish a new routine, even though it may not look like your old one, helps with that sense of normalcy.

“There’s never a wrong door to accessing help or resources. (Be open to) creative ideas, because in these times, we’re all doing things a little differently, a little creatively.”

Those struggling with addiction can reach out to any of the following resources for assistance:

MA Substance Use Help Line – (800) 327-5050

Interface Referral Line – Mental Health Counseling – (888) 244-6843, Monday through Friday; Free for communities that contract with William James College

Alcoholics Anonymous Online – Intergroup Directory of online audio/video meetings seven days a week.

SMART Recovery Online – A community where participants help one another recover from addictive behaviors.

Narcotics Anonymous Online – Holds meetings in various time zones using multiple platforms.

In The Rooms Free – Weekly online meetings for those recovering from addiction and related issues.

Al-Anon Family Groups – Electronic meetings for anyone affected by alcoholism in a family member or friend.

Allies in Recovery – Online support for families dealing with a loved one’s addiction, using the evidence-based CRAFT method (Community Reinforcement and Family Training); Free for Massachusetts residents. – A phone app for sobriety.