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Virtual meetings, outreach a COVID lifeline for recovering addicts

By KAREN THIEL

For the Washington Daily News

 

Isolation is being tagged as the biggest enemy of Beaufort County residents who are recovering from addiction, battling disabling behavior patterns and clinging to the support structures that have gotten them this far — so far.

“Stay at home orders create and kill addicts, because addiction takes advantage of any distraction it can. COVID-19 enables people with addiction issues to defer the challenge of focusing on healthy life patterns,” said Matt Lambeth, a clinical manager at Port Health Services.

Lambeth, who oversees three crisis units and four residential treatment facilities in Beaufort and Pitt counties, said the distractions of COVID-19 and related issues make the pull to “use” even stronger because the interference with recovery increases opportunities to fall off the wagon.

He added that even more danger lurks for still-addicted or newly sober persons who are suddenly dealing with the added burden of new issues involving their children.

“They’re not in school. Child care centers are closed. They can’t stay with grandparents who are older and, therefore, face increased vulnerability to the virus,” Lambeth said.

He said the option to choose the safety of an addiction treatment center also can inspire guilt about making the decision to go and focus on just getting well.

Thirty-one-year-old Stella (not her real name) enthusiastically agreed with Lambeth. She said she was addicted to any type of pain meds for at least six years before showing up at a detox just over two years ago. She described staying sober while isolating during the Phase I stay-at-home restrictions as “terrible,” and the sudden removal of her support structures and like-minded program members was jarring and unsettling.

“Narcotic Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous just stopped. So did Celebrate Recovery. Even my Sunday mornings at church. Everything was at a dead halt. If I was a newcomer, I don’t think I could have made it without the safety of meetings. It’s just weird to have two hours of nothing on those three nights when there used to be structure and support. This whole COVID thing threw a huge wrench into everybody’s lives. And this is not just ‘I didn’t get my nails done.’ For us in recovery, this has been life or death — no joke,” she said.

Lambeth noted that, while face-to-face meeting participation was halted, many AA and NA groups adjusted by creating virtual meeting opportunities and increasing telephone contact with their attendees. But one local program kept its doors open for participants who needed face-to-face encouragement — from at least six feet away.

“We felt it was important to provide support, so we did stay open, technically,” said Monica Burns, a Washington resident who is ministry leader for the Celebrate Recovery meetings held at Harvest Church. “We kept our sign up and were available at church during meeting hours. It became apparent very quickly, however, that that kind of gathering was not going to be the way to offer support, so we just tried to regularly be in touch with the people we had means of contacting.”

She said CR sponsors and leaders used phones, Facebook and Messenger for that outreach effort, as well as the Harvest website.

Burns said the decision to resume CR meetings on June 4 included pandemic-related adjustments. Masks are now required. Seating plans have been adjusted for social distancing compliance. The pre-meeting fellowship dinner has been canceled until August at the earliest, and individually wrapped or bottled refreshments replace the homemade offerings usually enjoyed at a post-meeting pause, where members connect with a sponsor or simply share stories of experience, strength and hope. Burns said CR leaders will be exploring “a way of dealing with this if another crisis occurs in the future. One of the ideas is to create some type of Facebook group to share encouragement, and so people can contact us anonymously.”

In the meantime, Stella said she is overjoyed to return to CR meetings.

“I was so happy that first day. I felt like a little kid on Christmas morning. I still do. Human connection is so important,” she said. “I think it’s an issue everybody has, but it’s more important for an addict.”

She said the pandemic has taught her to be more open.

“I don’t want anybody to have to go through that alone. I hope that sharing my story can give somebody hope. I want to tell people ‘Let’s go to a meeting … c’mon, you don’t have to feel this way.’”

For more information about rehab opportunities, contact Port Health Services’ central scheduling department at 252-561-6084 or the 24-hour crisis number at 866-488-7678. Those interested in Celebrate Recovery can contact Harvest Church at 252-833-4894.