ST. PAUL — For Lauren Pearson, inpatient treatment was the easy part of her recovery journey.
Other than the six days she spent detoxing at Hazelden Betty Ford’s Plymouth center, the 20-year-old recovering cocaine addict mostly liked the residential program. By the end, she was elected unit leader by her peers, and a supervisor tapped her to tell her story to a visiting psychology class from Apple Valley High School.
She continued to follow the recommendations of her program when she was discharged in late February, moving into a sober house and beginning Hazelden’s day treatment program.
Her days were filled with group therapy, counseling sessions, meetings, walks to see friends who lived in nearby sober houses, trips to Rochester to see her mom and visits to a dog park with her brother.
Then, about three weeks later, the coronavirus pandemic hit Minnesota, and Pearson’s recovery regimen came to a screeching halt.
Her day treatment program closed and shifted online. She could no longer show up at narcotics anonymous meetings and hold hands with fellow addicts as they recited the Serenity Prayer; those, too, had gone virtual. Visits to sober friends’ houses were out, as were trips to see her mom.
These days, other than walks with her housemates, whom Pearson says she feels extra grateful to have right now, she is largely confined to her house. The change has taken a toll on her mental health and intensified her urges to use.
“It’s like the feeling of being isolated is bringing back what it felt like when I was using, when I would be in my bed not doing anything other than texting someone to bring me drugs,” Pearson said. “It’s just really hard, and for me, when my mental health is deteriorating, the ruminating thoughts are like my downfall.”
Fallout straining recovery efforts
Pearson is not alone. Several recovering addicts and alcoholics, as well as local providers who support them, said the pandemic is taking a particularly hard toll on the recovery community. Maintaining sobriety often depends on community, structure and personal accountability.
Much of that was turned on its head when businesses closed and services shifted online to help slow the spread of the virus.
Karla Juvonen is an author from White Bear Lake who quit drinking in 2013 and wrote about it in the memoir “From the Brink of the Drink: A Personal Story of Tribulations and Triumphs of Alcoholism.” The mother of five now runs a health care recovery meeting and serves as sponsor to recovering addicts.
Though she’s not having serious cravings of her own, she’s witnessed the fallout from the pandemic push others to relapse. She is particularly worried about the newly sober.
“I am just so frightened that these newcomers are not going to make it and I can’t see them and I can’t look into their faces and know they are OK and offer that real true connection,” Juvonen said.
Lydia Burr, director of clinical service at Hazelden Betty Ford in St. Paul, said the pandemic fosters isolating behaviors, which are an anathema to recovery.
“Addiction is a disease of isolation, so having a … system in place right now that makes people stay home really has the potential to activate people’s diseases because they can’t leave the house to go to meetings, or to come to appointments. It’s forcing them back into habits of isolation which people generally have to work really hard to break,” Burr said.
Recovery help goes virtual
Hazelden and other recovery support programs around the metro area have been filling the gaps virtually, though Hazelden’s residential treatment center remains open to new patients.
All of its outpatient programs, though, are now online, according to Samantha Moy-Gottfried, the organization’s communications and public affairs manager.
Some 1,500 people were transitioned to the virtual format, and Hazelden has seen a 10 percent jump in new admissions since the pandemic. It’s also started offering a one-day virtual family program at its residential sites.
The leader in the treatment and recovery field saw a need for online services long before the pandemic and started working on an online platform about a year ago, said William Moyers, vice president of public affairs and community relations.
Hazelden coincidentally planned to release it around the time the pandemic hit, but with the virus afoot it accelerated its rollout.
The platform “harnesses the very best technology along with the core fundamentals of our clinic model and the 12-step approach to recovery,” Moyer said, adding that the virtual platform — called RecoveryGo — vastly widens Hazelden’s reach, noting that interest in the platform, which is less expensive than in-person programs, has “exploded.”
“Now people in Minnesota and the other six states where we are licensed to operate … can come to Hazelden without physically coming to Hazelden. … They can do it with their computers or their phones,” Moyers said.
Other providers, such as the Minnesota Recovery Connection, have switched to video conference calls or regular phone calls to stay in touch with clients. The nonprofit provides peer support to people in recovery.
Not the same as in-person support
It’s better than nothing, but it’s not the same as in-person meetings, said Wendy Jones, Minnesota Recovery Connection’s executive director.
“People are taking advantage of the virtual support, but we have had a lot of our peers reporting people returning to use,” Jones said. She added that in addition to the loss of in-person support, the pandemic has taken other hits on people in recovery.
Many people work in the service industry and have lost employment during the pandemic, for example. Others lost jobs while they were using and are struggling to find new ones.
Some have been forced to shelter in place in environments not supportive to their sobriety.
“Having this disease has already made the life around you pretty fragile, and having something like this happen really exposes that fragility,” Jones said.
Nina Marchessault, 23, can relate. She racked up lots of debt during her addiction to heroin, and her dental health nosedived.
She wants to get a job so she can start paying back her bills, but she can’t find one right now, and the dental work she’d been getting done had to stop. She’s attending her outpatient program online, but she’s not interested in doing virtual narcotics anonymous meetings as the format feels less meaningful for her.
She didn’t get a tea tag when she hit 90 days of sobriety a couple weeks ago the way she did at her 60-day milestone.
“It kind of feels like life has stopped … It’s just hard every day,” she said.
Ramsey County judge offers support
Ramsey County District Judge Nicole Starr has started posting YouTube videos to encourage participants in the county’s treatment court whom she typically sees in person every week.
In one, she suggested writing letters or making a list of things that combat boredom to a participant who sent a question asking for advice on how to handle loneliness and fear right now.
She is hopeful the recovery community she sees through the program will get through this, adding they have what it takes.
“I think a lot of folks in recovery have been training for this moment,” she said. “The recovery experience is about being mindful of what is uncomfortable and being able to hold two feelings at once, worry and anxiety and hope. They are constantly working to accept life on life’s terms and, boy, is this ever one of those experiences where you’re reminded of that.”
Starr also encouraged those in the program to remember that “this too shall pass” and that she has their back.
“Every day and every minute they are sober and safe, I am proud of them, their team is proud of them, and they should be proud of themselves too,” Starr said.
Hope and help within reach
Other providers and members of the recovery committee echoed Starr’s comment, saying that while support looks different right now, it’s still there for anyone who wants to commit to sobriety.
With that in mind, Burr encouraged anyone thinking about quitting to do it.
“No matter what is going on there is never a better time than now to start your recovery, and there is help available and there is hope even in times like this,” she said.
In addition to Hazelden and Minnesota Recovery Project, several other organizations and nonprofits are offering virtual support.
Those in recovery offered additional suggestions, such as finding creative ways to stay social, being gentle with oneself, talking walks and reaching out for help when you need it.
“I know if I use I am going to die. I know that for a fact, so I’m keeping myself busy and surrounding myself with friends who I know will keep me accountable,” said Valyncia Manheimer, 34, of Minneapolis.
Marchessault is clinging to that perspective too.
“I am grateful that I am sober right now because I couldn’t imagine being in active addiction right now. That probably wouldn’t end well,” she said.