Addiction is like an abusive relationship. It thrives in isolation.
So, when COVID-19 hit, with the resulting lockdown and ensuing job loss, it was a perfect storm to upend those in recovery.
“Isolation is the biggest enemy to someone in recovery,” said Steve Barndt, executive director of Just for Today Recovery & Veteran Support Services (JFT), located in Lemoyne.
Rather than simply abstaining, recovery is an active approach of tackling the issues that caused the drug or alcohol use in the first place.
An integral part of that process is speaking with others who understand the struggle at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, Narcotics Anonymous meetings, etc., or just hanging out with them. Faith organizations hold about 80 percent of the recovery meetings, and many continue to be closed.
“I go to the gym, work and meetings, and that was taken away,” said Meredith Thomas.
Single, Thomas spent most of her time alone during the shutdown.
“I didn’t feel in jeopardy of using, but I wasn’t OK,” she said.
Zoom meetings and telehealth became available, but online meetings are a tool, and, for many, not a replacement for in-person meetings.
“I connect one-on-one with people so much better than I connect with a large group,” said Thomas, sitting inside JFT’s cozy café, with a couple of guys chewing the fat in the background.
Side conversations and words offer encouragement after meetings and provide a necessary boost. Zoom doesn’t deliver that important social aspect.
“Fellowship is just as important, because you’re building new friendships, because you had to give your old ones up,” said Barndt.
In recovery himself, 18 years clean and a recovery specialist, Barndt understands the vital need for this social connection. When the shutdown happened he said, “We cannot close.”
Those at Gaudenzia, a Harrisburg-based treatment center, also recognized the danger.
“Stress, depression and anxiety are the three main triggers to relapsing or to start to use,” said Matt Null, Gaudenzia’s marketing manager.
Those triggers were in great supply, along with an abundance of isolation. The thought at Gaudenzia: “If we close, people die. Period,” said Null.
Place to Be
Barndt described people’s relief in knowing that JTF’s doors remained open to them.
Meredith Newman was one of those people. We talked in the meeting room in the basement of JFT, where she works in its clothing closet.
“I choose not to put in my mind what would have happened if it [JFT] wasn’t here,” she said. “It wouldn’t have been good.”
After the shutdown and losing her job, Newman came into the center, in tears, because she knew she was in danger of relapsing. She wasn’t alone. Many people came into JFT begging them not to close.
“You saw [relief] in the eyes of people, when they came in,” Barndt said. “[They said], ‘We have a place we can be.’”
Null pointed out that other things conspire against those in recovery, such as lack of accountability to family and friends, since people can’t visit, and it’s easy to say “I’m fine” on a text. Consequences of use such as eviction or job loss often lead people to treatment or away from relapse. But the moratorium on evictions and layoffs placed people in a position to use without those results.
Also, people had money, either from a stimulus check or unemployment, and drugs were readily available.
“Drug dealers don’t abide by COVID restrictions,” said Null.
These factors have led to a rise in drug overdoses. Numbers were rising to similar levels as the opioid epidemic in 2017, when 5,396 people died in Pennsylvania. The state last year had 3,954 overdose deaths as of this reporting. But, with a three- to six-month lag in registering deaths, those numbers could end up much higher.
Despite rising overdoses, Thomas said that the recovery community was divided about COVID and meeting in person. It placed people in a position of feeling like they were doing something wrong while reaching out for help, she said.
Some people even tried to get JFT shut down. Brandt said that he understood that COVID presents risks, but he felt that, for many, substance abuse posed a greater risk.
“We looked at it like, if you get COVID and you’re under 70, you have a 99% chance of surviving it,” he said. “You go out and shoot a bag of Fentanyl, you have a 99% chance of dying.”
COVID also created a perception that treatment wasn’t available or safe.
“But it is available, safe, and we care about you,” said Null.
At one point last year, Gaudenzia’s in-patient facility was at less than 60% capacity and, as of early January, was 70% full.
One bright spot is that COVID has bridged the east and west shore recovery community.
Barndt reported that people from Harrisburg have been attending the meetings, which wasn’t often the case before. People came out of treatment, with no place to go and ended up at JFT.
“It’s beautiful to see how far people have come,” said Newman.
Behind the numbers are people who are trying to survive this pandemic. But it threatens them beyond COVID-19. With added triggers and decreased resources, it makes the uphill climb of recovery seem like Everest with an unknown summit.
But organizations continue the work to help those struggling, blunting the seclusion and stress.
“No matter how vulnerable the world leaves you, you know you have a safe place to be,” Newman said.
For more information about Just for Today Recovery & Veteran Support Services, visit www.jft-rvss.org.
For more information about Gaudenzia, visit www.gaudenzia.org.
Find help for yourself or a loved one struggling with substance abuse at 833-976-(HELP).
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