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Staying sober in a pandemic

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Health

Staying sober in a pandemic

The coronavirus outbreak creates challenges for recovering addicts and the ministries that serve them

Danielle York, a 34-year-old from Denver, is a recovering alcoholic. She remembers drinking “from the time I woke up until I went to bed.” But the alcohol made her sick, so York tried to change: She completed several rehab programs but always slipped into old habits when she returned to her former environment and friends. Eventually the state took her two children. 

A year ago, she came to Providence Network, a Christian residential program with six homes in the Denver area. There, York became a Christian, found a job at a marketing research company, and settled into a routine: church on Sundays, group meetings and counseling appointments on weekdays, and visits with her kids on Saturdays. 

“It’s been amazing. [Providence Network] saved my life,” she says. “I never thought I could stay sober for a year.” 

But halfway through her rehab program, the coronavirus pandemic hit. Recovery ministries have lost funding and now must limit in-person gatherings. Yet drug and alcohol addicts need these programs more than ever.

When Denver’s shelter-in-place order took effect March 24, Providence Network stopped accepting new residents and took precautions: Instead of family-style meals, residents ate in two shifts. Celebrate Recovery and one-on-one counseling moved to Zoom, the online meeting platform. Staff members restricted visitor access at resident homes, except for essential things, like plumbing repairs. 

York lost her job on March 17. Suddenly, instead of a highly structured week, she had time on her hands. She now goes to the store and visits her kids, but the rest of her life—church services, counseling, probation classes, meetings with the other women in the house—takes place online. She spends her days alone in her apartment, trying not to think about drinking. “When you don’t have a schedule it’s hard, because your mind plays with you,” she says. “You’re stuck in your apartment thinking, ‘No one would know.’”

Social distancing requirements are short-circuiting Providence Network’s ability to build community. Executive director Derek Kuykendall says the recommended behaviors (“stay home, go in your room and don’t come out”) are symptoms his staff usually associates with relapse. “Isolation is the enemy of recovery,” he says.

Some Providence residents have already relapsed since the shelter-in-place order began, although it’s impossible to identify a direct cause. Like York, many residents lost jobs, and that introduces financial instability, disrupts routines, and removes a source of purpose and responsibility.

Some addicts use drugs or alcohol to feel calm in stressful times, so the pandemic may be tempting them to use. People fighting addiction might despair as they see their progress—keeping a job, building a routine—disappear.

Danielle York is focusing on one day at a time. She gives herself a goal for each day, whether it’s working on her notary license or going for a walk outside: “I have faith that everything’s going to be OK. … I just need to keep going because this will end, and life is going to continue.”