Recovery In The Time Of The Coronavirus

Brian said he doesn’t consider online meetings a substitute for in-person interaction, especially with people from different backgrounds than his own. “It just doesn’t feel as real to me,” he said. “I go to meetings with people from pretty diverse backgrounds, people from all different walks of life,” Brian said — a contrast from his professional and personal life in the Seattle suburbs. “It’s nice to go to meetings where everyone is not just in my little socioeconomic bubble.”

Islam pointed out that meeting online, using software like Zoom Meetings, is “pretty privileged. Not everyone has access to the Internet and laptops.” Meeting halls that cater to diverse, low-income, and older people — “the old dusty, crusty places that have been around forever” — are “a blessing,” he said. “Those are the places that people gravitate to as the newer places shut down.”

AA members frequently describe addiction as a disease of isolation. “The most dangerous place for an alcoholic to be is alone in their head,” Alysse said. Professionals who work with people with substance use disorders say that as the number of opportunities to meet with others in recovery goes down, the risk of relapse and life-threatening behavior — overdosing or drinking to dangerous excess — goes up.

Andrea St. Clair, the client care coordinator of Seattle-based A Positive Alternative, a non-12-step treatment program that includes in-person support group meetings, said stress and isolation often lead to relapse. This is especially true for people struggling to stay sober while worrying about their next paycheck and taking care of kids at home. “I think it’s kind of a perfect storm,” she said.

Her group is now holding meetings online or by phone. Over the past few weeks, St. Clair said, she’s noticed that “we’re hardly getting any calls from people seeking treatment” — a sign, she worried, that people who need help with addiction are delaying or deferring at exactly the point when they are most vulnerable.

Another organization with a recovery support program that relies heavily on in-person meetings, Seattle’s Recovery Cafe, shut down one of its two physical locations on Monday and is trying to decide whether to keep its main program office open. The organization ― which director David Coffey said caters to “people who’ve been traumatized by homelessness, addiction, and other mental health challenges” ― requires members to attend weekly accountability sessions called “recovery circles” to retain membership benefits, which include access to hot meals, classes and a computer lab, along with connections to resources like case management and medical care.

During a visit last Thursday, the Recovery Cafe’s usually bustling headquarters seemed hollowed out. About a dozen people sat at individual tables spaced six feet apart in a large front room, attempting to shout conversation across the distance. Nearby, a staffer dished up food from a steam table that ordinarily operates as a self-serve buffet.

Coffey said he’s trying to stay open as long as possible for people healthy enough to keep coming in. “Whenever there’s a crisis in this country, the people who suffer the most are the people who live on the margins,” he said. “As we debate whether or not to stay open or what to do, we’re really asking, ‘What’s the least worst option?’”

Islam considers addiction itself more dangerous to his health than the coronavirus. “The ultimate weapon for recovery from addiction is other addicts,” he said. “The way my disease works, it’s always a matter of life and death for me.”

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