By Brittany Hailer
PITTSBURGH — Angela attends as many as four Narcotic’s Anonymous (NA) virtual sessions a day.
She calls into an outpatient program nine hours a week. She checks in with her sponsor, doctor, counselor, case workers, old friends, and her mother who currently has custody of her children.
Angela relapsed after five years of sobriety before the COVID-19 virus gripped the world into standstill. For the first month of the stay-at-home order, she had no human contact. She filled her days with NA meetings and worked the 12 steps that taught her how to overcome addiction the first time. 12-step programs like NA and Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) encourage members to adopt a set of guiding principles called the 12 Steps.
Following the steps in order has helped people achieve and maintain abstinence from substance use disorders.
“An addict alone is in bad company,” she said. “Being in my own head is the worst.”
Seventeen years ago, an oxycontin prescription changed the course of Angela’s life. She never used drugs or partied in high school or college. She developed a habit seemingly out of nowhere at the age of 30.
Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS) is rare. According to the National Organization for Rare Disorders, it affects one or two people in every 100,000 people per year. Angela was diagnosed 17 years ago while pregnant with her first child. GBS, an autoimmune disease that attacks the nerve cells, causes weakness, muscle pain, and in some cases, paralysis. Six months into her first pregnancy, Angela was paralyzed. She received an oxycontin prescription for her pain. Her doctor told her that the drug was non-addictive. She had a chronic disease, a chronic pain; the medicine was a ticket to a normal life.
But, she got clean. She stayed clean. Until she didn’t.
A little less than a year ago, the stresses of single-motherhood fractured the support structure Angela so carefully constructed post-rehab. Before quarantine, Angela felt isolated. Over time, she began to abuse her anxiety medication, which she’d been taking as prescribed for years. After she slipped, she told on herself. She called her mother and said she’d relapsed. She needed help.
“Somehow I made it through and that’s only defined by one thing–I wanted to make it through. If I keep choosing to do the wrong thing, I am going to find myself very alone. For me, it was black and white. It was going to do very well, or I was going to die,” she said.
Angela’s children are coming back to her, first, in unsupervised visits, and in two weeks, they’ll be re-unified for good. When they’re with her, she’s teaching them, feeding them, making sure the two youngest don’t argue (they’re less than two years apart) all while trying to make sure she is stable, present, and, most importantly, working on her recovery.
“No one person–unless they’re a superwoman–is going to raise three children day in and day out with no help, especially if they’re in recovery, and not break at some point,” she says. “That’s facts. I’m human. When I am doing good, I am a great mother. But I’m an addict and I need that support when things get overwhelming.”
“We need the ability for families to say, ‘This is really freaking hard right now.”
Erin Troup is a licensed counselor who specializes in childhood attachment and family therapy. She emphasized that parenting is stressful under ‘normal’ circumstances; mitigation efforts and recovery are factors that can compound that stress. Before COVID-19, most children spent the day at school, but now during school closures, many families are teaching their children online.
“I’m thinking about parenting during COVID right now. [Before] you could send your kids to school and have a break, but now all the stressors are on you,” Troup said. “The kids are stressed out. I’m thinking and holding in mind those folks who are in recovery and that added stress of parenting. There are minimal outlets, besides what you can get online.”
In light of the COVID-19 outbreak, her organization, the Sprout Center For Emotional Growth And Development, is offering free tele-health check-in sessions for parents or children. Families are experiencing a web of loss, transitions, and stressors which manifest in a host of different behaviors in both children and adults.
“I imagine if you’re just getting your kids back and you’re sitting here going, ‘This is more stressful than I thought,’ who can you tell safely without the fear of your children being taken from you? We need the ability for families to say, ‘This is really freaking hard right now,’” Troup said.
Troup advised folks who are interested in the check-in service to email Sprout Center and request a check-in: “If they feel like they need more intensive therapy service, if we’re the ones who can do it for them, we will. If we can’t we will help them find that resource.”
Many therapists are providing sessions via tele-health and insurance companies are covering those sessions. Bryan Bass-Riley is a licensed professional counselor who specializes in individual and family therapy emphasized that many insurance companies are also waiving co-pay fees for mental health appointments and sessions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There are a lot of counselors who will make special arrangements for people who don’t have insurance. Don’t be afraid to call and ask about that. Mercy Behavioral Health and Western Psych often have resources for people without insurance,” he said.
Bass-Riley has witnessed relapses as a result of the pandemic and many of his clients are on medicaid. They also do not have unlimited data on their cellphones or they pay-by-the-minute for phone calls. People without unlimited access to the internet and technology can’t regularly participate in virtual meetings because of the digital divide.
“What for me, as a pretty privileged professional person, is a kind of opportunity, is pretty devastating for someone in a lower socioecomic class,” he said.
“Because of the scare, a lot of people are fearful about going to rehab. The number of people attending rehab is down. Rehabs are still open.”
B, (who requested to remain anonymous because he is a part of the Alcoholics Anonymous fellowship) said that AA teaches its members, “The primary purpose is to help the still sick and suffering. The reason we exist, our whole reason for being there, is to help them. How do they find us, now?”
Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous transitioned onto virtual meetings across the globe as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
These meetings have been a lifeline for both those in long-term recovery and those who are new to the program. B misses the newcomers and encourages anyone new to sobriety to call into the AA and NA meetings because, not only would it help the individual on their own road to recovery, but it gives people like B a sense of purpose.
The digital divide still exists when it comes to these meetings, however.
For members who have physical disabilities, the online transition has allowed for better access. B said he can only spend so many hours a day on his feet because of his disability: “A lot of times I had to choose between going to the grocery store or a meeting.”
But now, because online meetings are available hourly each day, he’s attending more meetings than he has in years.
A, another AA member who requested anonymity, echoed this new found accessibility. She wrote to the Pittsburgh Current:
“For me, attending Zoom meetings has greatly increased my sense of fellowship and strengthened my recovery. I have multiple disabilities, and have not been able to attend meetings consistently for a couple years, so Zoom meetings have afforded me access I never had before…What a gift! I’ve attended meetings where other members connect not only from their homes, but from nursing facilities and from hospital beds. I’ve also seen this working for single parents and caregivers that can’t leave the house, normally, etc. These meetings have made community possible in ways it has never been before. So, my hope is when we return to “normal” that a good percentage of these meetings stay in place for those of us with barriers, beyond COVID-19.”
Dr. Sandy Davis, a private practitioner in Shady Side, has specialized in addiction for the past 35 years. She emphasized that right now is “wonderful” time to get sober and urged those struggling to seize the opportunity. Liquor stores and bars are under restriction and rehab center numbers have dropped.
“Because of the scare, a lot of people are fearful about going to rehab. The number of people attending rehab is down. Rehabs are still open. They can go for an evaluation. They’re practicing social-distancing, there’s tons of hand sanitizer and masks. Hop onto a Zoom meeting and tell someone you’re new to recovery,” Davis said.
Mike V., an AA member who requested anonymity, has 22 years of sobriety. He said that following the 12 steps of the AA program has equipped him to handle the COVID-19 shutdown and echoed the importance of letting go of control in chaos.
“I don’t worry about things I can’t control very much. I don’t sit around and stew about things. This forced isolation is a time where everything in your past comes up. I am used to examining that and being with that…If you’re doing a 12 step program and your mental and spiritual condition are pretty good, that’s an advantage for a situation like this. I don’t feel the need to escape into an alternate reality,” he said.
NA and AA meetings open and close with the Serenity Prayer, which teaches those in recovery to accept what they cannot control. According to Davis, this principle isn’t only applicable to addiction but also, the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference,” Davis said.
If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, please call SAMHSA National Helpline Confidential free help, from public health agencies, to find substance use treatment and information. 1-800-662-4357
Brittany Hailer is a reporter for the Pittsburgh Current, where this story first appeared.