Craig Murray, a recovering drug and alcohol addict in Austin, Texas, relapsed once before. While dealing with the stress of multiple jobs, a new marriage, and his wife’s miscarriage, he stopped going to Alcoholics Anonymous and checking in with his sponsor.
“I was isolated, and instead of reaching out, I started drinking again,” said Murray, who leads a Celebrate Recovery group at Austin Oaks Church. The COVID-19 pandemic poses a double threat to people in drug and alcohol recovery: They could get sick from the disease, but they could also relapse into addiction because of the isolation the pandemic has created.
The Providence Network housing and recovery program in Denver serves 200 people a year. Each of the six homes in the network houses about 20 people. When the city ordered residents to shelter in place, the program’s staff canceled house meetings, began using FaceTime or Zoom for one-on-one counseling, and split the family-style dinners into two separate meals, one at 5:30 p.m. and another at 6:30 p.m.
Staff member Rachel Hambley said she has seen increasing depression and anxiety in the home where she serves since the order took effect: “One of my ladies today was talking about how her visits with her kids are now virtual, and it seems like everything she has worked for is pointless.”
Providence Network co-director Jennifer Sheedy said morale is falling among those who were gaining momentum in their recovery: “Now everything has crumbled for them—isolation and unemployment have replaced connection and career-building.” The behaviors the government is encouraging—staying home, minimizing contact with others—usually signal relapse to the staff.
The pandemic also puts the additional stress of diminishing funding on the programs that serve people in recovery. Private donations and resident fees pay for Providence Network, which receives no government grants. Donations are holding steady for the most part, but most of the residents have lost their jobs, taking away about 30 percent of the organization’s revenue. Executive Director Derek Kuykendall said the organization decided not to evict anyone, but nothing has filled that hole in the budget.
Adult and Teen Challenge USA, a nationwide Christian-focused addiction recovery group, had four staff members and three participants test positive for COVID-19 by March 31—all with mild symptoms. Gary Blackard, the organization’s president and CEO, said donations have not dropped significantly, but canceled fundraising events will leave the group down an estimated $9.5 million in revenue if pandemic protocols continue through May. He hopes the federal stimulus package will offset some of that loss through forgivable loans and increased tax advantages for charitable giving.
Despite the challenges, Blackard said the coronavirus has brought about positive changes, too: “We’re seeing a spiritual growth in a lot of our centers right now as people are really leaning on the Lord.”
Kuykendall agreed: “In a weird way, this has really bred some opportunities for conversations that under different circumstances we would not be able to have” about things like life, death, and eternity.
When Austin Oaks Church temporarily closed down, the Celebrate Recovery leaders decided to continue meeting through the videoconferencing app Zoom. The first meeting was on March 16. Fifty participants clicked a link to hear worship music and a lesson. They then joined nine different Zoom groups to discuss the lesson and share prayer requests. Some previously active members came back now that they have time on their hands. But, Craig Murray said, “it’s always better in person. Everything else is just a substitute.”