How the Pandemic Is a Boon to Recovering Addicts - OZY | A Modern Media Company
Some 12-step meetings have seen increased attendance since moving online.
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WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Zoom has been a game-changer for many in recovery.

By Patti Waldmeir

Addiction has blighted Donna Dibo’s life. Until four years ago, she was addicted to heroin. Now, in the midst of a pandemic that risks pitching millions more into substance abuse, she is raising the 6-month-old child of one ­drug-addicted family member while struggling to find treatment for another.

Still, Dibo — a 39-year-old welder and mother of five in Youngstown, Ohio — says that the pandemic has been a “blessing in disguise” for her and for many recovering addicts.

From New York to Naples, the number of online 12-step recovery meetings has exploded, as a cursory glance at the local websites of programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous shows — the list of Zoom meetings goes on and on.

Recovering addicts and alcoholics say that their meetings have generally seen much higher attendance than before and have given them a tenuous lifeline to sanity in a world turned upside down.

There is certainly no shortage of doom and gloom on the substance-abuse front: As the United States begins its sixth month under the cloud of coronavirus, addiction is proving to be an epidemic at the heart of a pandemic. Overdose rates have risen sharply in many counties, reports suggest, as isolation, anxiety, joblessness — and stimulus cash — have fed the drug habits of many.

Legal marijuana sales have gone up too, which may be good news when it comes to tax revenue for state coffers hit hard by pandemic spending. But the cost in human terms has yet to be counted.

The COVID, it’s either going to make or break you.

Donna Dibo, a recovering addict.

Lockdown has also meant that many opioid addicts are sourcing illicit drugs from unknown dealers or are using alone, which means no one is around to call an ambulance or administer the opioid-overdose antidote naloxone that could save their lives.

But that is not Dibo’s story. She has spent the pandemic attending two to three recovery meetings per day, compared with as few as two per week before.

“The COVID, it’s either going to make or break you,” she says. “I couldn’t keep up with all of the meetings during lockdown. I was able to glide through the pandemic because of them.” Many recovering addicts have appreciated having instant access to what amounts to an online global network of group therapy sessions, available around the clock for whenever the coronavirus crazies strike.

Group therapy

Like so much else, group recovery meetings have pivoted from in person to online during the pandemic.

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Some in recovery — even those clean and sober for decades — say they have doubled or tripled their recovery meeting attendance during the pandemic. Many of these meetings existed as physical ones before but now attract more participants, while some meetings are new. Millions of people around the world use this informal mental-health network to navigate a pandemic that has been every bit ­emotional as physical.

Dibo is a graduate of Youngstown’s “drug court,” where nonviolent criminal offenders are able to avoid jail time by completing judicially supervised substance-abuse rehabilitation. Regular appearances in drug court are required — but during lockdown, they happened via Zoom too, says Youngstown’s drug court ­coordinator, Amy Klumpp.

“The judge was in a T-shirt in his basement and he grew a beard during the pandemic,” she says, laughing, and adds that one addict made her required court appearance while lying in bed and smoking a cigarette.

Dan Pew, a Youngstown drug court graduate and recovering heroin addict, says he has also benefited during the pandemic.

“I’ve connected with way more people by seeing them on Zoom meetings,” he says. “This whole thing has been so double-edged; it’s great and it’s also horrible.”

Pew’s experience working at a local rehab facility has led him to believe that even the $1,200 federal pandemic stimulus checks and the weekly $600 federal unemployment benefits — which funded many drug purchases early in the pandemic — may ultimately have aided some addicts in hitting bottom and seeking help. He has seen many recovering addicts relapse during the pandemic, but he has also seen some turn up for detox afterward.

Now, as many areas reopen for business, the recovering addicts of the world are starting to return to in-person meetings — but this no longer includes hugging and handholding and the other physical expressions of comfort in 12-step groups. Like so many other things, addiction recovery may never be the same. With the boom in online recovery groups, maybe it will be better.

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By Patti Waldmeir

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