In the best of times, recovery from a substance use disorder is a monumental challenge. COVID-19 is adding extra hurdles on the path to recovery. Drug court has been suspended. In-person 12-step meetings have been replaced by Zoom meetings. Also, many treatment centers have closed or are limiting their physical contact. Daily necessities, like internet access from libraries, are no longer available or severely cut back. Lastly, members of support networks may be in quarantine or isolation.
“Resources were taken away overnight with no time to make a plan to replace them,” said Mike Hudson, Director of the Skagit Valley REACH Center in Mount Vernon. REACH is a support center providing an array of recovery supports and services.
People with substance use disorders benefit from a support network of family, friends, sponsors, counselors, and others who help them on their journey to wellness. In order to continue providing services to those in recovery, the REACH Center has remained open but is now closed on Saturdays to allow for an extra deep cleaning, and the number of people allowed in the building at a time is limited to 10. Staff and peers who use the center must follow social distancing guidelines and wear masks, and they are encouraged to wash their hands and disinfect surfaces frequently.
“We felt the most important thing we could do for our participants is to remain open with our regular menu of support services and some form of face-to-face interaction for as long as we could,” Mike said.
Jon Oickle, Regional Clinical Manager at Catholic Community Services Northwest Recovery Centers, says that his organization has moved all group and individual treatment activities to telehealth-based services, though offices have remained open to serve those individuals without online or phone access.
“The social distancing and stay-at-home orders have become a source of significant stress and social isolation for individuals in recovery,” Jon said. “People in recovery may be particularly susceptible to the potential negative effects of stress and isolation, which may increase the risk of relapse.” That’s why he encourages people in recovery to participate in online and phone-based meetings, to reach out to support networks, and to “avoid long stretches of idle time, as this can also be a trigger to relapse.”
The attendance numbers for treatment groups is comparable to pre-COVID-19 figures, Jon said, adding that no-shows for individual sessions have actually decreased “as clients are eager to engage and talk about their current struggles.”
Alan Muia, Executive Director of New Earth Recovery, which operates four recovery homes in Mount Vernon, says his organization is restricting visitors and limiting nights that residents can spend away from their recovery house in order to reduce the risk of bringing COVID-19 into the houses. New Earth Recovery is encouraging the use of personal protective equipment and has adopted stricter disinfecting protocols, as well as set up a quarantine room should the need arise.
Support from family and friends is absolutely vital to recovery, Alan said, especially during times of social distancing. “People need connections, and we, the broader community, family, and friends, can be a lifeline. While patterns may have had to change, we can help people find meaning and purpose in their lives,” he said, adding that the best thing we can do right now for our loved ones in recovery is to stay in contact with them, hold them accountable, and don’t allow them to isolate themselves.
“Isolation, stress and boredom are the perfect storm for substance use recurrence, so this is a difficult time for many,” Alan said. “I think the biggest challenge for most is the physical distancing, which can lead to relational isolation. A vital component of healthy recovery is engaging in community/relationships.”
New Earth Recovery is offering additional opportunities to participate in house gatherings and activities, and is encouraging safe exercise and other ways that residents can work on their recovery and ward off depression.
“Addiction is a disease of isolation, and the present situation makes it difficult for people in recovery to maintain healthy rhythms of connection with each other,” Alan said. “It will help to keep as many healthy rhythms as possible and to create new ones if the others have become impossible.” He recommends attending online support meetings or counseling sessions, starting an exercise routine, or looking into online classes. While there are challenges with pursuing all these suggestions, he says, “moving forward in some area of life is crucial. … None of us can afford to take a long break from life or recovery at this time.”
Mike from the REACH Center added that “recovery is not an event or a finite destination. It is a life-long process that requires major lifestyle changes that must be acknowledged, monitored and maintained. It must also be understood, encouraged and supported by the individual’s personal network and society at large.”
If you or someone you love is in recovery and is struggling right now, you don’t have to go it alone. There are organizations and people who can support you. You can find a list of available resources here and at the site linked below: