DGO tends to be a relatively substance-heavy magazine, writing at length about our enjoyment of cannabis and alcohol in particular. But we recognize that drugs, legal or otherwise, are not for everybody. Which is a large part of why we were curious about how people in recovery from substance abuse disorders are faring during the COVID-19 pandemic.
You would be hard-pressed to find anyone truly thriving during the pandemic, but people in recovery are one of the many groups with a heightened vulnerability to the stresses it has unleashed.
For many, group meetings are a fundamental part of the recovery process, offering spaces where they can find a community that understands the addiction-related challenges they’re facing or just places to vent about what a week it has been.
“Whether you’ve had a substance use disorder or not, if everyone had a group they could just come to and be real once a week, the world would be a damn better place,” said Dan Knapp, a member of the local Young People in Recovery leadership team.
And at least in the traditional sense, the coronavirus took that away.
The pandemic beginsPrior to the pandemic, the Durango chapter of Young People in Recovery, a recovery support organization with chapters around the country, was meeting every week. Attendance at the recovery meetings, which were held at Holiday Inn, hovered steadily between 30 to 40 people up until March of this year, said Candice Seay, national chapter coordinator and local chapter lead with YPR. It was finding success in its mission to provide people with the resources they need to thrive.
Outside the meetings, the organization held social events such as barbecues and potlucks. Its kickball team was looking forward to defending its status as the champions of the city’s recreational league. And one Sunday a month, the members of the YPR community would head to Manna’s soup kitchen to prepare breakfast, mingle, and spread the word that recovery was possible.
But along came the virus.
YPR quickly adapted to a virtual support network and started doing recovery meetings through online platforms.
“We also tried to do some social events like virtual trivia, virtual banana bread baking tutorials, just some activities to keep people engaged,” Seay said. “But we saw a huge reduction in engagement. We went from seeing almost 40 people to having eight to 10 people attend our virtual meetings.”
For YPR, online groups were far less than ideal.
“There’s a huge difference in connecting with people through a video screen versus seeing somebody face-to-face, especially at recovery meetings where people really allow themselves to be vulnerable and talk about some sensitive issues,” Seay said. “It’s just kind of hard to have that same connection virtually. So we saw a lot of people just kind of disappear off the radar. I know that there were a handful of folks that they returned to use. ... Basically what we were seeing was a lot of folks felt disconnected, and they were kind of isolated once again, just because they didn’t have access to the community.”
And it couldn’t have come at a worse time.
Mason Dyar, a member of YPR’s local leadership team and the lead UAS (drone) pilot with Upper Pine River Fire Protection, said there has been a noticeable increase in suicides, substance abuse, and overdose calls to emergency services during the pandemic.
On a personal level, he knew quarantine would be hard for him and other people in recovery.
“You hear about the world going to crap, and it’s like, ‘Okay, this is gonna be hard for me; this is gonna be a trigger,’ because boredom is triggering for me, and for a lot of people, you gotta have a set schedule. So there was kind of this fear of the unknown,” he said.
He quickly found that there wasn’t much he could do to ease his anxieties about the situation unfolding around him. As the number of people attending the meetings plummeted, so did his mood.
“There was frustration because I wanted to help. All of us want to be there for people. And I had like two weeks there where I was just jaded. ... We were really trying, we were putting in a lot of effort and work to reach people. And it comes from a sense of if we don’t see them, then we assume they’re out there relapsing.”
“We know that there’s a pretty good chance if somebody Keyser Sözes ... It’s always kind of a bummer. You don’t know for sure until you do, but it’s something that you think about: if that person who hasn’t been coming to groups is doing okay,” Knapp said.
Everyone felt the effects of the pandemic a bit differently. Knapp used the first few weeks of quarantine to spend time just with himself and the people closest to him for the first time since he entered recovery. It became real for Seay when she realized that she couldn’t travel — one of the main mechanisms for her recovery was using the money she had previously spent on alcohol to see the world — for the foreseeable future.
More formal therapy optionsThat drop off in meeting attendance YPR experienced was not necessarily felt by every local recovery group as a result of COVID-19.
“It has certainly changed how we deliver care,” said Stephanie Allred, a psychologist and senior clinical director at Axis Health System. The nonprofit healthcare organization provides services to residents of La Plata, Archuleta, Dolores, Montezuma, and San Juan counties, including behavioral healthcare such as substance use treatment.
“I think the biggest change for us is we have a lot of group programming. And we’ve had to put all of our groups on video conferencing. So the support is there, that contact is there,” she said.
Allred said the response to the switch over to virtual rather than in-person group meetings has been positive. While inadequate internet or technology has prevented some people from participating, Axis has been able to provide them with one-on-one, in-person care. When it comes to participation, she said numbers have remained steady.
“I think we’ve certainly lost some people because they don’t have the technology. But we’ve also made it easier for some people to participate. We’ve got patients who have transportation barriers and time barriers and being able to participate virtually from home has helped them take advantage of those services,” she said.
In-person, socially-distantIt’s difficult to know how the pandemic has affected local 12-step recovery groups unless you’re in one — after all, most encourage their members to practice anonymity in the public media and respect each other’s confidentiality.
On March 17, the Animas Alano Club, which provides a physical location for 12-step groups to have their meetings, stated on its Facebook page that it would not be “closing or refusing to honor our agreements with the groups holding meetings at our location. Groups can make their own decision on meeting schedules, formats and times.”
“I do know a lot of other groups met in person, you know, inside throughout the entire deal,” Dyar said.
Meanwhile, as the temperature warmed up in time for the summer, YPR began experimenting with a new way of meeting in person. In June, they began holding meetings at local parks.
“We’re doing our best to implement best practices and maintain appropriate social distancing, providing masks, having sanitizer — and with that we’ve definitely seen an increase in engagement,” Seay said. “But numbers are still down because I think there’s a lot of different opinions on COVID.”
Some holdouts do so because they disagree with the mask ordinance, she said, while others are more worried than others about catching the virus because they live with people who are especially vulnerable, such as elderly grandparents.
“We spend a lot of time — and we actually lost one of our leadership members — discussing our responsibility for keeping people safe,” Dyar said.
That said, the recovery group meetings are back up to 12 to 15 people, and growing.
“A couple of group members just flat out did not want anything to do with virtual meeting. And so they’ve kind of returned to the group now that we’re able to meet face to face,” Seay said. “But we’re worried because things are not really getting better with COVID. Schools are going to be opening up — we’re kind of thinking that there could be a spike with COVID. And between that and then colder weather ... we’re going to be forced to retreat back indoors because it’s not like we can have an outdoor event when it’s 15 degrees outside.”
Extra activities and silver liningsUntil it’s forced to do otherwise, YPR plans to take advantage of the good weather and continue having its recovery meeting every Thursday. The chapter is also adding a yoga series, also in the park. Adding activities for people in recovery to do together — as long as they’re not exposed to the virus — can only benefit the community.
“Substance use disorders can be very isolating,” Allred said. “That’s why groups can be so powerful. It’s really up when people feel like they’re not in this alone, and so some of these organizations and groups are helping reduce that sense of isolation.”
Another silver lining is that groups like YPR have been enjoying a greater degree of unity with alternative support groups as they increasingly work together to support members of the community going through recovery.
“I have seen historically where different groups have had some level of misunderstanding that could lead to people thinking or feeling one way or the other about a group that they’re not a part of. And we’ve definitely lately done a really good job of just saying, ‘Hey, let’s get involved with each other and understand each other’s groups a lot better,’” said Knapp. “It’s always better to just have more perspectives and more people involved. We have the same goal, which is to get our lives back and help other people to do the same thing.”
Even just within Young People in Recovery, the coronavirus pandemic has inspired members of its 60 chapters to interact with other chapters for the first time and share how they were experiencing things differently in California or Ohio than here, Seay said.
“Durango is this weird bubble where we just don’t really experience it on the same level as other places.”
Some of the organization’s chapters were just in the process of starting up when COVID-19 hit, complicating everything and making the process of launching a support group that much more challenging. And as Knapp points out, this era of extreme politics isn’t helping the situation.
“It’s been a shot of steroids into the powder keg that is the political spectrum. People are freaking out about so many different things and everybody has an opinion, and that’s making it even harder to be socially distant and have a stay at home order put on you Because where do we go? You immediately turn to social media and the outlets that we have to connect with people, and it got really messy and still continues to be,” he said.
But even when it looks like the world is falling apart, it’s not impossible for both individuals and the groups they’re a part of to grow.
“I think that some of the organizations that are really killing it right now are the ones that are saying ‘Okay, this is a lot of adversity, but it also is breeding great opportunity. We’ve probably seen people get more educated on things that are really uncomfortable in the last few months, than in the few years prior, and recovery is no different,” Knapp said. “It’s really important to be empathetic and understand everybody’s journey is different. But realize that this is a really great opportunity to help educate other people.”