Many people are finding social distancing difficult or lonely. Those challenges can become compounded for people recovering from substance abuse disorders. In fact, the coronavirus pandemic and resulting quarantine conditions have been identified as a “relapse trigger.”
And it has become a dangerous reality for those who struggle with sobriety. The Georgia Council on Substance Abuse estimates that some 800,000 Georgians are in recovery from alcohol and drug addiction.
Jeff Breedlove, chief of communications and policy for the council, joined On Second Thought to talk about his concerns for this vulnerable population.
“Before COVID-19, more people were dying from issues around substance use disorder than anything else in the United States,” he said. “Well, we may be number two now, but we're still number two. That's not going away.”
As someone who is recovering from an addiction of his own, Breedlove says that connection becomes even more crucial in difficult times. That’s why a number of support groups and advocates, including the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse, have launched virtual meetings to provide a safe forum for those in recovery to talk about their struggles and relate to others who may be experiencing the same issues.
“There's been people that have gotten on, they've lost jobs and they just wanted to process that with people. They have a family member or a loved one who has COVID-19, and they just want to talk about it. They are having stress by being in the home with an elderly parent or a young child,” Breedlove explained. “This is the real world and it's a microcosm of what's happening, I suspect, in every family across America. And having meetings like this so that people can go and express their feelings about these situations in their lives — that keeps people in sobriety and that saves lives.”
There have been some issues of people crashing these virtual meetings — an act that has been dubbed “Zoombombing." That even happened in one of Breedlove's groups. But, he noted that the recovery community was not deterred.
“It only made everybody on that meeting stronger,” he said. “No one dropped off. They keep coming back. So, recovery is stronger than COVID-19. Recovery is stronger than some hacker trying to break our community up. That kind of stuff, it's an irritation. It's unfortunate, but it's not going to stop the recovery movement across Georgia or across America.”
And, Breedlove points out, anyone struggling right now is welcome to join these meetings.
“[It could be] anybody recovering from any kind of addiction, substance use disorder — alcohol, narcotics. It can be gambling; it can be an eating disorder; it could be sexual issues,” he explained. “You can be an ally who lost a family or friend to this disease, or to another disease, and just needs somebody to talk to during this time. They're open to just anybody that needs fellowship. They're just inclusive, welcoming and free.”
Breedlove encourages anyone struggling right now to utilize the resources available to them, such as the CARES Warm Line, as well as their existing personal support systems to help them through these trying times.
“My sponsor and I are in touch every single day,” he said. “Sometimes it's by text. Sometimes it's by phone. Don't forget to do those core things that you're already doing. And don't make COVID-19 an excuse not to. So you've got a phone; almost everybody has a cell phone these days. Use that phone to save your life.”
The CARES Warm Line can be reached by calling or texting 1-844-326-5400. More information and resources can be found at the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse’s website.
On the threat of relapse in isolation
We believe deeply that the opposite of addiction is connection. So when we saw COVID-19 beginning, as a peer-led organization — everybody at the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse is in long term recovery — we knew that this was going to be a serious issue for people in recovery. Because the longer that we're isolated, the more stress and the more anxiety that happens through loss of jobs or family members getting sick or whatever that stress may be, the threat of both new cases and active addiction and relapse from people in recovery, it just grows every day. After [Hurricane] Katrina hit New Orleans, they saw a huge spike months afterwards. So […] the storm came through and people dealt with that devastation, but the secondary medical issues of new addiction and relapse were very devastating in New Orleans — and that's what's going to happen nationwide here. Your secondary medical issues of mental health issues and substance use disorder issues are going to be a reality, and they're already beginning.
On the use of online tools to maintain anonymous meetings
We asked ourselves, will people get on a virtual meeting? And the answer is yes, and it's easy, because when they log in, they can put just their first name if they want to. They don't have to show their image on Zoom. They can block that. And we have many people that do that. So there'll be a first name on the screen with no picture. Then we have some people that like the face-to-face contact; that helps them see other people. So it kind of is a great way to serve everybody.
On why it’s important to take secondary health issues into consideration
This is the real world and it's a microcosm of what's happening, I suspect, in every family across America. The only difference between those of us in recovery and those that don't have the privilege to be in recovery is that we have to make sure we're putting our recovery first, as we process this other pandemic. Before COVID-19 more people were dying from issues around substance use disorders than anything else in the United States. Well, we may be number two now, but we're still number two. That's not going away.
On how the closing of treatment centers during the pandemic threatens the progress of the recovery movement
We're extremely worried about it. And that is why the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse [...] is leading the way to advocate for the recovery community. We cannot take a step back. We just can't, because people die when we do. [...] We've got to remember these secondary medical issues that are occurring on the front end today and are only going to get worse as we flatten the curve on coronavirus. Those next phases of medical issues are going to manifest themselves in an ugly and deadly way. And I just have to tell you this: treatment centers closing is just the tip of the iceberg.
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