The spread of COVID-19 is changing the way all West Virginians live their daily lives, but for those in recovery from substance use disorder, this new normal could mean more challenges maintaining sobriety.
Michelle Akers, who heads the Southwestern Regional Day Report Center in Boone, Lincoln, Logan and Mingo counties, said the pandemic is adding stress to an already burdened system.
“The people that we work with, those in recovery, they’re in tough situations when everyone else is having a good day,” Akers said. “We’re dealing with a pandemic on top of an epidemic. We know we can’t stop what we do, we can’t. People need us, but it is having an effect on us.”
Frankie Tack, coordinator for the addiction studies minor at West Virginia University, said the environment brought on by isolation, something everyone is being urged to practice to help slow the spread of COVID-19, can be harmful for people struggling with addiction.
Suddenly, people are finding themselves with a lot of free time, Tack said. Routines are broken. Some may be facing financial struggles as businesses have closed and jobs are lost.
“These are difficult times for everyone, generally speaking. Humans are pack animals, we’re not loners. When we get isolated, that tends to be hard for us,” Tack said. “It’s especially difficult for folks in early recovery. A central feature of addiction is isolation. The deeper people get into addiction, the more they isolate.”
In the early days of recovery, counselors and addiction specialists urge people to develop consistent routines and find positive, healthy hobbies to fill empty time, Tack said.
Now, these things aren’t as accessible.
“When you’re somebody who is early in recovery, you’re trying to do everything you can to not use substances, but now you’re confined to your home. All those triggers, all those thoughts come back. It’s dangerous,” Akers said. “What you normally could do to connect people with their community, or stop from relapsing, aren’t necessarily immediately available.”
People in the recovery community are working to adapt, though, Akers said.
At the Day Report Center, they’re trying to have group therapy sessions over video and phone conferencing. They also have at least two people at the center’s office, in Logan, to answer phone calls and potentially questions for those who need it.
Akers said they’re spending a lot of time brainstorming with clients on activities to help them fill the time. Francesca Gray, director of Charleston recovery house Recovery Point, said at her facility they are organizing daily activities to keep the residents busy. Last week, they held a dodgeball tournament. They’re keeping with a schedule, Gray said. There are scheduled classes — now done by those at the house or over the internet — and then structured free time.
“We can’t have any downtime, that’s incredibly important,” Gray said. “We’re figuring out new ways to do all of this, but I think, so far, we’ve been successful.”
For Akers, Southern West Virginia presents its own challenges. In their video conferences, many can’t call in because of poor broadband and cellular connectivity at their homes.
Some don’t have phones or computers, Akers said. There are people they’ve lost all contact with, and with no idea when isolation or the threat of COVID-19 will end, Akers is worried.
She believes that, in coming weeks, they’re going to see more relapses as people struggle with the pandemic. Relapses are normal in recovery, Akers said, but in today’s environment, they can’t be handled in the same way.
Gray said she’s expecting the same as this continues. Whenever this ends, Gray said, she won’t be surprised to see more people seeking recovery services.
“The last thing we want to see is relapses and potential overdoses. People have worked really hard to get to four months of recovery, six months, even a week, and something like this could really set people back,” Akers said. “That’s something that we are worried about, we’re cognizant of it and we’re trying to be so connected, to give people options, during this time.”
Those in recovery who are part of the Day Report Center can still connect with their recovery coaches regularly over conferencing, Akers said. And while the contact is great, Tack said there are things lost by not having face-to-face, in-person contact with support systems while in recovery.
Other people can help those in recovery stay balanced, Tack said.
“You notice things when you’re actually with people — your body language, your responses to certain things or behaviors — that you just can’t sometimes over a video,” Tack said. “Lots of needs can be met that we may not even think about when you’re with other people. Now, it’s easier to sort of become invisible — especially if you are struggling.”
Akers said that’s why they’re keeping their facility partially staffed. If someone walks in needing emergency help, they can get it to them. And, if someone who is still in active addiction wants to enter recovery over this time, they can assist them with that, too.
So far, Akers said, there hasn’t been any trouble finding beds for people who need them. She worries if this will continue being the case, though, if the pandemic continues for a long period of time.
Tack said anyone looking to get into recovery now shouldn’t wait. Even while COVID-19 is changing the way communities work, it could be a breakthrough moment for someone to seek help, Tack said.
“Addiction is an acute, medical need. It’s a very dangerous medical condition, and the one message I’d like to send is don’t wait. If you need medical care, addiction treatment, whether it’s a relapse or anything else, let this be your moment. Don’t hesitate,” Tack said. “Start the process, and know that you are just as important with your acute medical need as anyone else is.”