Millions of Americans struggling with addiction rely on the support of groups like Alcoholics Anonymous. But due to the strict social distancing measures of COVID-19, many groups have suspended face-to-face meetings. The changes in procedure have some experts worried that people in recovery may be at risk.
Dr. Phil Mulvey, an associate professor in criminal justice sciences at Illinois State University, studies the experiences of disenfranchised individuals.
“I know the AA model is based upon, focused on, community. By nature so many individuals who are living with addictions are isolating by nature, so that’s definitely a concern in times like these for those that are already predisposed to isolate to not have that physical community,” said Mulvey.
The sense of community fostered by group therapy is a key component of recovery. Groups provide a safe space for those living with addiction to bond over shared experiences. And they’re especially important to people new to recovery who depend on the accountability and stability that regular meetings provide. For those in recovery, the COVID-19 crisis threatens to disrupt an essential sense of normalcy and routine.
Mulvey also worries about the effects of heightened anxiety surrounding the crisis on vulnerable individuals.
“I think about just for the normative experience, and just how much anxiety we’re all feeling more in our daily lives now, and thinking about someone who’s already living with a major mental illness or addiction issue. Often their anxiety levels are already at a higher level. A situation like this can only exacerbate that experience,” said Mulvey
Matt Mollenhauer is the chief clinical officer at Chestnut Health Systems in Bloomington, which offers a range of addiction treatment services. Mollenhauer agrees that people in recovery find themselves at increased risk, though he said he believes we have yet to see the full scope of the problem.
“Right now, we’re in this early phase and everything feels novel. We’re all kind of getting used to it and the risk for folks isn’t maybe quite huge yet. I worry about when the novelty wears off and the isolation is a couple weeks deep, whether or not people have taken really active steps to somehow stay connected to the recovery community or their sponsor, I think will be really important,” said Mollenhauer.
Mollenhauer said a typical recovery program is premised on the idea of social support. The key to maintaining critical connections during social distancing is to make more services available through phone and video-conferencing platforms. Mollenhauer estimates that in response to coronavirus restrictions, 80-85% of Chestnut’s outpatient services are now being performed remotely. This shift allows existing clients to continue treatment – including group therapy – and offers new clients the opportunity to be screened over the phone.
“We’re going to ask clients where their need is. So sometimes that’s telephone based. Others feel more comfortable with the video or have a little bit more sophistication around their ability to be in that space. We’re early in the mix. The early reports are that some clients really like it,” said Mollenhauer.
WGLT interviewed some members of the local recovery community and found mixed reactions to the distancing measures they’re now forced to navigate. Honoring the anonymity at the core of many recovery programs, the names of those interviewed are withheld.
One woman, a young mother in her 20s, said she feared remote connections may not be enough to aid vulnerable individuals.
“Early in recovery, newcomers rely on their sponsors for that in-person connection. Sometimes it’s coffee, sometimes it’s dinner, sometimes working out. Without that, sponsors virtually don’t exist anymore because aside from a phone call, they can’t do anything,” said the woman.
Early in her own recovery, she sad she didn’t always have access to devices or the internet. And when she did, she would often use online meetings as a means of concealing relapses.
“I would sit in online groups with the page open,” she says, “and be smoking meth at the same time,” she said.
A local man in his 60s and a longtime member of AA agrees that newcomers face a greater risk. As those who attend the most meetings, newcomers will suffer without that face-to-face contact. But he says the real work of recovery takes place at an individual level.
“Recovery is about getting a full understanding of your condition,” he says. Individual pursuits like reading are an integral part of recovery. “And there’s a whole host of online information available,” he said.
Mollenhauer, of Chestnut Health Systems, acknowledged the increased importance of the role individuals will have to play in their recovery.
“I hate to put it this way, but there’s some added pressure put on clients or those in recovery right now and that pressure is obviously their own health. But it’s going to take extra effort to reach out and stay connected,” said Mollenhauer.
That extra effort is something Vera Traver, senior case manager of YWCA Labyrinth has seen firsthand. Labyrinth is an outreach program that offers services to formerly incarcerated women in McLean County. Many of the women Traver works with are in recovery from drug or alcohol addiction. When social distancing measures went into effect, Traver said most of her clients began using Zoom to attend their meetings via video conference. Inspired by their example, Traver followed suit.
“I’m also in recovery and it’s been absolutely wonderful. I’ve taken a trip across the world from sitting inside my living room and it’s been amazing,” said Traver.
Traver is new to the technology. She ended up in an international meeting on her first try. She considers it a happy accident. It gave her the opportunity to meet people from all over the world, all of whom were adjusting to the recovery process in our new shared reality. Traver described meeting one man who was recently diagnosed with COVID-19.
“He just explained how the Zoom meeting was basically saving his life. How he would probably be going crazy, but seeing all the different faces just reassured him that he’s not alone,” said Traver.
It is precisely these kind of human connections, forged across the spectrum of space and experience, that unite people in the journey of recovery. They are also the kind of connections that Dr. Phil Mulvey said can unite us all as we navigate the uncertainty of our present situation.
“All these individuals that are quite very vulnerable in their lives, it’s very scary. But it’s important to also understand that it’s very scary for all of us. This is something that none of us have ever experienced in our lifetimes and don’t really know quite how to have a good grasp of or to get a handle on. So just talking about that experience can go a really long way and the shared empathy in that it’s a very scary time we live in. And we’re going to get through it, but it’s going to take awhile,” said Mulvey. “There’s a lot of uncertainty in the world right now and just talking about that experience with each other can be quite fulfilling in the sense that we share our human experience.”
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