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How People in Addiction Recovery Are Dealing with the Isolation of COVID-19

  • Experts say people who are recovering from substance use are facing serious relapse issues during the coronavirus shelter-in-place orders.
  • They say the self-isolation and boredom that comes with it can be a trigger to relapse into drug or alcohol use.
  • They say that many organizations such as Alcoholics Anonymous have information on how people can connect using social media and other online tools.

Alina Tejera initially feared she’d contracted COVID-19.

It took a few days to get the test results, which were negative. She had a bad case of flu — the first time she’d been seriously sick in years.

But the new coronavirus and California’s resulting shelter-in-place order gives her and others recovering from alcohol use disorders another problem — which is more complicated for Tejera because she lives with someone with the same condition.

“This is a very trying time for everyone, but addicts are particularly at risk,” Tejera told Healthline. “We learn in recovery to reach out and gain strength and support from other addicts. Without in-person meetings, this becomes very difficult. I’ve been fantasizing about getting drunk to escape the reality we are facing. Luckily, I have a strong network of friends from rehab and AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) that I can lean on.”

Those with substance use disorder frequently deal with isolation, which can contribute to addiction. Add general anxiety surrounding a virus and addiction avoidance becomes even more difficult.

Especially while watching someone teeter on the edge in one’s own home.

“(My boyfriend) has been really worried about COVID-19, and has been stir-crazy from sitting at home,” said Tejera, a resident of Oakland, California. “He’s very worried about me. I’ve had flu-like symptoms for the past few days, but it’s been pretty mild. It still majorly freaks him out.”

“On Sunday, I slept until noon and, when I woke up, (he) was obliterated,” said Tejera, who will have 2 years of sobriety in May. “It’s not the first time he’s relapsed, but this was probably the most drunk and destructive he’s been. Needless to say, this added to my own stress.”

The importance of group gatherings

Group meetings through organizations such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous are the first line of defense for those recovering from substance use disorders.

So are meetings with a sponsor and other sober activities.

Online meetings, forums, and talks were widely available before COVID-19 struck.

They’ve increased since as people try to stay home and stay sober.

But having that healthy physical routine of a gathering is vital for those in recovery.

At those meetings, people show up early to make coffee, set up chairs, or socialize. People stay late to chat.

Some schedule meals and coffee together around the meetings. Having something to fill that time can be crucial.

“As recovering alcohol abusers, we are always told to keep busy. Nothing leads to relapse quicker than boredom,” Mike Jacobsen, a blogger in self-isolation in Manchester, England, who does substance abuse outreach, told Healthline. “And being stuck in the house all day is boring.

“I know a guy who is working down in London who has quit his job and moved back home, just in case he does have to self-isolate,” said Jacobsen, who wrote about staying sober in isolation. “He didn’t want to be in a strange city, cooped up in a house, out of fear it would lead to a relapse.”

Trying to avoid relapse

People in recovery are going to greater-than-normal lengths to avoid relapse-inducing isolation, said Bob Forrest, the co-founder of Alo House Recovery Centers and known from TV’s “Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew.”

“I’m dealing with people discharging from our rehab that are scared. They want to stay another month,” said Forrest, an addict who went to rehab more than 20 times before remaining sober the past two decades. “They don’t want to stay alone. The fear is multiplied because you’re going out into a world that’s closed.”

Forrest, who lives in Southern California and fronts rock band Thelonious Monster, said the current crisis can be an opportunity.

“You can text and Skype and have more meaningful conversations now,” Forrest told Healthline. “You can talk to people. Maybe, because we have so much time on our hands, we can talk about some meaningful stuff, instead of the Lakers and the Clippers.”

“People need to sit down in a chair and quietly think, ‘What do I believe?’ Get to the root cause (of addiction) and give yourself a break,” Forrest said. “Try to come up with some answers for yourself. What’s the point of being sober? It’s about purpose and usefulness and being able to sit with all this. Why don’t you use the time to reconnect with the people who mean something to you?”

Fear of the unknown is a powerful problem for those used to turning to substances as a coping mechanism, said Lori Coffey, LSW, LCADC, the national director of operations for Footprints to Recovery treatment centers.

“There is no finite amount of time that we are to endure this new way of life,” Coffey told Healthline. “Living with the fear that we may lose someone we love also causes a sense of helplessness. Individuals suffering from substance use disorder often do so because of a lack of healthy coping mechanisms. Utilizing outside support, even electronically, is essential.”

Seeking help online

The COVID-19 outbreak also has other implications for people recovering from substance use.

“In addition to increased triggers, there are also a limited number of treatment providers that are still accepting new patients,” said Coffey. “If an individual wants help, where can they go? The hospitals are overloaded and treatment availability is limited.”

Many in the field said treatment centers and support groups will likely see an uptick in people needing help.

Alcoholics Anonymous has a web page devoted to online options, including Zoom and Google Hangouts.

Narcotics Anonymous provides similar information on its website.

Joi Honer, the national alumni director for Pinnacle Treatment Centers, offered suggestions on social distancing for those with substance use disorder in a blog on the centers’ website.

“Talking to a person, hearing a voice, offers more of a connection than sending a text or Facebook message,” Honer told Healthline. “Voices can be soothing at a time like this. Consider FaceTime, Zoom, or any other kind of video chat interface that allows us to see each other in conversation, not just hear. It creates a higher level of contact.”

Trying something new

It’s also a great time to start a project or a new hobby.

“Movement is a great tool in recovery,” said Coffey. “No better way to get out of your head and into something with your hands. It also adds value to your day, which will reduce anxiety and depression symptoms. One amazing project we completed at our treatment center was a garden. It became a construction project. The beauty of gardening is that it needs constant love and attention to flourish. It also gives a great sense of accomplishment with each harvest.”

Forrest said a crisis shutting people into their homes in 2020 offers opportunities.

“There’s a 21st century way now of having a relationship, instead of having a relationship with traffic,” he said. “You have to have interactions with people you have a kinship with. For all we say about social media, it can bring people together. Find your tribe.”

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