Staying sober isn’t easy under normal circumstances. With social structures disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, maintaining sobriety will be challenging. “Anxiety, depression and social isolation are triggers for substance abuse,” says Dr. Kevin Caputo, chief behavioral officer and chair of the psychiatry department at Crozer-Keystone Health System.
Adhering to restrictions on social gatherings issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, local healthcare networks suspended their in-person, 12-step recovery meetings, as did Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and other organizations. “The opposite of addiction is connection, so when we are told to sever connections, it’s incredibly difficult,” says Brian Corson, founder and executive director of MVP Recovery, which runs a network of sober living facilities in Delaware County.
But AA, NA and Philadelphia-based Unity Recovery established new digital recovery group meetings. Corson urges people to utilize those digital meetings. “It will be difficult to manage your individual recovery during this time when people are talking about the end of days, so it’s really important to stay on schedule and attend meetings,” he says.
Local healthcare networks are quickly addressing a technology gap in all mental health services, which have long depended on in-person sessions. Telephone appointments are available and video sessions are in the works. First, healthcare providers must comply with HIPAA laws and guidelines issued by states, health insurance companies and other governing bodies. “But if you are in crisis, do not hesitate to reach out for help,” Caputo says. “We’ll get you the care that you need.”
In-patient drug and alcohol treatment centers remain open while adhering to CDC guidelines. At Caron Treatment Centers and Recovery Centers of America nationwide, group sessions have been restricted to 10 people and family visitations have been suspended, as have deliveries of personal items. Staff and patients are heavily monitored for symptoms, and new patients must undergo extensive screening before being admitted.
There is a silver lining to being in rehab during this pandemic, though. “We are a sub-acute hospital setting with full medical facilities and we are a self-contained facility,” says Luke English, clinical director of RCA in Devon. RCA’s gym remains open, and art and music therapy, Reiki and other services are continuing.
It’s the same at Caron Treatment Center in Wernersville. In addition to having access to extensive campus facilities and activities, Caron has 10 physicians, most with critical care experience and privileges at Reading Hospital, which has COVID-19 tests. “We are well equipped to get our patients through this crisis,” says Dr. Joseph Garbely, Caron’s executive vice president and chief medical officer.
But experts agree that staying sober will be challenging for people who aren’t in treatment facilities. Many people are at home with family members with whom they have unhealthy relationships. They may also be confined with people who are actively using alcohol and drugs. With gyms, coffee shops and other gathering spaces closed, escape is hard to find. “Communicate with people you live with,” Caputo says. “State your needs, set ground rules and ask them to be active participants in your sobriety.”
Income loss and restricted access to alcohol and drugs present other challenges. “An individual may know that they shouldn’t leave the house, but they may put themselves in harm’s way to seek substances,” Corson says.
Alternately, individuals may try to go “cold turkey” without medical supervision. Garbely urges people with substance abuse issues to get medical help and not detox independently. “This is not the time to avoid treatment, this is the time to get it,” Garbely says.
English points out that most people in recovery have been through situations as dire as the current pandemic. “A lot of our patients have been through extreme adversity and survived,” he says. “They come out stronger for it, and that’s what we want for everyone.”
The organization is hosting Zoom meetings, including special meetings for men, women, members of the LGBT community and other people with individual needs.
The Narcotics Anonymous website has a list of options for addicted individuals to meet either online or by phone. It also includes instructions on setting up virtual meeting services like Zoom.
Unity Recovery offers five virtual recovery support groups each day, as well as a once daily support group for family and loved ones.