Friday, February 19, 2021

Recovery during the pandemic; maintaining sobriety during a year of social distancing

By Lorraine Glowczak  

“The effects of the pandemic have been very hard for those of us in recovery, who support each other in maintaining a life free of alcohol and/or drugs,” said Laurie (To honor her privacy, we will only use Laurie’s first name). “Addiction is a disease of isolation. Even if people are around, emotionally you feel alone. For myself, a closet drinker with a definite problem getting sober, desperation led me to a 12-step recovery program.”

Laurie went on to say that it was the love and support of a group of people who accepted her and didn’t judge her missteps that helped her discover and stay on the path of sobriety. Laurie shares her experience about staying sober during a time when public gatherings are prohibited for the safety of all involved.

“There is no one to hug, no one to share meals with, no one to have discussions with, no one to sit and share feelings with.”

According to “Medical News Today”, numerous studies have found that alcohol and drug consumption has increased during the pandemic, and dramatically so for people with depression. With the concerns regarding the increase among those who were not struggling to stay sober, leaders in the field of recovery have become extraordinarily concerned for those experiencing substance use disorder and have taken a closer look at possible increases in accidental overdoses due to the required social isolation.

Gordan Smith, State of Maine’s Director of Opioid Response said that although there have been recent increases in fatal overdoses, studies indicated that the increases began during the final quarter of 2019 before COVID.

“There is something more going on than just the impact of social distancing,” Smith said in an email interview. “Although social distancing likely has had some negative impact, we do not have hard evidence on that point currently and are taking several aggressive actions addressing the increase.”

Cumberland County District Attorney, Jonathan Sahrbeck, who oversees the Rehabilitation and Diversion Program with Coordinator Stephanie Gilbert, states that supportive environments and systems are very beneficial in maintaining a person’s recovery and he suspects social isolation is having a major impact.

“Hard data is very valuable in helping us identify a problem and taking positive action, but the lived experience should not be ignored and is a significant factor to consider,” Sahrbeck said. “It is very clear to me as a result of working with the Rehabilitation and Diversion Program that the loss of support systems can lead to relapse and fatal overdoses.”

Although there is currently no firm data available that points to social isolation and overdose – the “lived experience” of recovery during the pandemic speaks to the challenges. It is for this reason that Laurie, who has been in sobriety for 30 years, is willing to share her story.

“I am a retired nurse who lives alone in a small home I love, in the middle of the woods,” she said. “Luckily, I am an introvert, so when we were told to stay at home, it wasn't too big of a change at first. But it soon became clear that not having contact with others in recovery was becoming difficult. I was used to stopping by the recovery center for a coffee and visit a bit with whoever might be there.”

Laurie said that the isolation was also having a negative impact on her PTSD, with increasing anxiety, depression, and panic attacks.

“Before getting sober, I would use alcohol to calm the effects of a PTSD attack,” she said. “But the people I met in recovery with the addition of a spiritual path helped me when alcohol was no longer an option. At moments during the pandemic when my PTSD became unbearable and I began to find myself becoming more vulnerable to having a drink, it was the people at the recovery center who were there for me and helped me stay on the road of recovery.”

But after the recovery center closed due to the pandemic, a virtual support system was immediately put in place.

“Zoom meetings were set up that were and still are available every day,” Laurie continued. “Different kinds of meetings were developed to meet the needs of as many people as possible including phone calls and texts. I'm incredibly grateful for all of the virtual contacts but I miss seeing someone in person. I have no family in the area, so don't have a "bubble" of safe people. I struggle more with the PTSD.”

Laurie’s two sons reach out to her virtually and they meet on Zoom every few weeks. She also has a rescue dog who she enjoys loving and giving attention, but still the days of recovery during the pandemic continue to be a challenge.

“Sometimes I stand outside and realize I have seen no one for days,” she said. “I've even ordered from Amazon so the mail delivery person would drive her jeep down my driveway with a box and we'd chat a few minutes as she worked. Just that little bit of company is precious. When times are difficult, it would be so easy to go buy some wine, and no one would know. Thank God I know what would happen if I did that! And have friends who have the same fears and loneliness and struggles that support me and others to remain sober.”

For those who may be having the same “lived experience” during this year-long social isolation, Laurie offers these final words.

“For anyone who is feeling isolated and struggling during this time, know that there are people going through similar struggles who care and will be there for you as much as physically possible and that it is the right thing to reach out to either your primary [care physician], a hot line, a recovery center or a trusted friend. We need each other for support now more than ever. Remember you aren't alone......reach out. Someone who cares will be there. We're in this together.” <

Help available

If you find yourself struggling to maintain sobriety, whether during the pandemic or otherwise, there are a number of resources available:

** Maine Crisis Hotline, 1-888-568-1112

** The Intentional Warm Line, 1-866-771-9276

** Portland Recovery Community Center, 207-553-2575,

** Lakes Region Recovery Center, 207-803-8709,

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