For a recovering alcoholic like Greg, there’s nothing quite like being in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.
Sitting in a room with others battling similar struggles can be moving. There’s a unique kinship in hearing others’ stories, in being able reach out with a supportive hand.
“There’s a power there,” said Greg, whose last name is being withheld because of the anonymous nature of AA. “It’s very palpable.”
But as the new coronavirus continues its deadly spread those meetings have become too dangerous to hold. Groups are no longer allowed to gather in the days of COVID-19. Social interactions must take place at a distance.
The impact of the current coronavirus crisis has been felt by the addiction and recovery community, leading to significant changes in treatment, counseling and support efforts.
During one of her recent daily briefings, Dr. Rachel Levine, state secretary of health, stressed that addiction treatment remains open during this trying time. She said those struggling with addiction need to continue to put recovery first, saying she knows this can be an especially difficult time.
“Even during these unprecedented times, let’s not forget that treatment works and recovery is possible,” she said.
“It’s meant quite a lot,” Greg, web servant for Reading Berks Intergroup Alcoholics Anonymous. “It’s changed everything.”
Greg said that all in-person AA meetings in Berks County have been shut down. That doesn’t mean those looking for support can’t find it, however.
The Reading Berks Intergroup website — readingberksintergroup.org — has 28 pages filled with meetings being held online across the country with the video conferencing program Zoom.
“There’s thousands of them there,” Greg said.
Greg said the website also has a section of local AA meetings that are being held online. He’s dropped in virtually on about 40 meetings over the last few weeks, saying he’s found they don’t live up to the real thing but do offer support that can help people through this unprecedented time.
“There’s no substitution for in-person meetings, there just really isn’t,” he said. “What I’ve noticed personally is I don’t have the same feeling as I do when I’m in a confined space with other people in recovery.
“But what everybody is saying online is that it’s good to see the faces. Seeing the faces, knowing we’re all still together, we’re all moving forward and carrying the message of hope. The dynamic is still there.”
Easy Does It
Scott Althouse, executive director of Easy Does It Inc., said the coronavirus crisis hasn’t done much to stifle the supportive housing program. The 50-resident facility is about 100% occupancy despite the pandemic.
But some of what normally goes on inside the facility is being impacted.
The biggest change, he said, is with a resident’s ability to meet with licensed drug or mental health counselors from the community. Before COVID-19, those counselors would come to Easy Does It for face-to-face meetings.
With the Easy Does It facility shut down to visitors, that is no longer a viable option.
“That’s where we’re seeing a lot of changes,” Althouse said. “Most aren’t doing face-to-face, they’re doing Zoom meetings or telemedicine.”
Easy Does It has a computer lab for residents, Althouse said, and recently upgraded its internet connection to provide sufficient bandwidth for all the online meetings.
Althouse said his residents who rely on medicinal treatments like methadone are still able to access them. In some cases, he said, those providing those services are being a little more flexible, providing extra doses so that clients don’t have to continue to show up in person on a daily basis.
Stanley Papademetriou, executive director of the Berks County Council on Chemical Abuse, said the experiences of Alcoholics Anonymous and Easy Does It are emblematic of what he’s seeing in the treatment and recovery community as a whole.
“We’re in kind of like a different kind of territory here that we haven’t had to deal with before,” he said. “This is not a one- or two-day snow shutdown. It’s lasted quite some time, and it’s projected to last a lot more.”
For the most part, Papademetriou said, people are still seeking treatment and recovery services, and are able to get it.
“It’s not like the drug and alcohol system went to sleep here,” he said. “Right now, today, the system is still operating. The long and the short of it is people still need care and we still have a way to get them care.
“We’re not going on all eight cylinders right now, but it’s still working and people are still getting care.”
Of course, Papademetriou said, that doesn’t mean there aren’t challenges.
“The drug and alcohol system is really primarily set up as a face-to-face system,” he said.
Everything from being evaluated when seeking treatment to outpatient services to residential services have always involved in-person interaction. But with social distancing the name of the game these days, that has shifted.
More and more, Papademetriou said, services are being provided over the phone or online. All the providers that work with COCA to provide public health services are offering distance options, he said, and many private insurers are covering it as well.
Federal and state regulations about privacy have been relaxed to allow that to happen, Papademetriou said, easing up on requirements for patients to provide consent in person for medical information to be shared.
“This allows treatment access to happen,” he said. “We can share enough information to make referrals.”
The coronavirus crisis has had a similar impact on treatment, which also traditionally has been a largely in-person experience, Papademitriou said.
“Many of these recovery supports are kind of built on person-to-person contact,” he said. “Sitting in a group talking, looking at each other, shaking hands, holding hands, hugging each other. With social distancing, that kind of gets thrown out the door.”
Papademitriou said that pretty quickly virtual supports have filled the void.
“Technology has really kind of stepped in in a good way,” he said. “It’s not all things to all people, not everyone is using it but it is being used. It’s not the same energy, but at least there’s a connection there.”
The relapse issue
Businesses and schools being shut down, orders to stay at home, a constant stream of stories about infections and deaths — it’s enough to shake even the sturdiest foundation. Those dealing with drug or alcohol addiction are no exception.
“Recovering people are no different than anybody, and all of us are feeling the stress and anxiety of this pandemic,” Papademetirou said.
So far, that hasn’t equated to a big jump in people seeking treatment, he said.
“Anxiety and stress is one of those triggers that could push someone into relapse,” he said. “I’m hearing of some, but not mass, relapses.”
Papademetriou is anticipating a little bump in the number of people reaching out to COCA about alcohol abuse.
Greg, from Alcoholics Anonymous, said that along with stress and anxiety, isolation can be a trigger for alcohol abuse.
“We drink in isolation, most of us,” he said.
But if someone is committed to recovery, he said, committed to the principles of the program, the pandemic shouldn’t create undo danger for alcoholics.
“Anybody who wants to stay sober will stay sober,” he said. “Anybody who wants to drink will drink.”
Times are a bit tough right now, Greg said, but also somewhat transformational.
“I don’t care what the catastrophe is, there are silver linings,” he said.
Greg said Alcoholics Anonymous’ need to rely on technology during the coronavirus crisis has opened up a whole new world. While he said he doesn’t think it will ever replace face-to-face meetings, it adds another tool to the belt that can provide people with better access to help.
“We’re discovering there are so many people who have been homebound, who can’t get to meetings,” he said. “They’re so joyful now that they have meetings to attend. It’s bringing them to tears.”
Greg said online meetings will come in handy for someone who falls ill or, perhaps, is out of town and can’t find an in-person meeting to attend.
“While the situation is horrible, there are some things we’re using now that we can use in the future.”
“I’m thankful we have technology to bridge us through,” he said. “I know that when the dust settles, one of the things coming out of this is there might be some tools we’re using now that we can integrate in.
Papademetriou took a similar, positive outlook on some of the changes that have been forced upon the treatment and recovery community.