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What is the COVID-19 pandemic like with a substance use disorder?

  • Alcoholics Anonymous chips Photo by Chris Yarzab—

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 4/24/2020 12:09:51 PM

“Everyone’s stress level is through the roof. At the grocery store, calling for an oil delivery – everyone is tense, short, impatient. I have started saying that everyone’s defects of character are on full display. Mine are too, but I have a program that helps me change my behavior and make better choices,” Grace F. said.

Grace is the chairperson of the New Hampshire Assembly of Alcoholics Anonymous, and in a recent question-and-answer session with the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript, she explained what it’s like to get support with a substance use disorder while the whole world is turned upside down.

The New Hampshire Alcoholics Anonymous chapter is encouraging members to attend virtual meetings and obey the state’s emergency stay-at-home orders.

What are some ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic is uniquely affecting people with substance use disorders? Are people more likely to relapse right now?

Regarding relapse – we have no way of knowing if more people will relapse, or not. Only time will tell. I think it is definitely harder to get sober right now. People are losing their jobs, kids are in remote learning (which, I hear, is difficult!), money is tight, wait times to get service on the phone is through the roof – and presto there is the wine aisle at the grocery store.

In our 12 step program, step one is admitting we are powerless over alcohol. That isn’t easy – we have been used to running the show (badly!) and don’t want to admit we can’t just beat this disease through willpower. We try everything before AA. The virus is a vast lesson in powerlessness. Just one more difficult thing to accept!

That said, many of us don’t handle stress well. Once I got sober and my life stabilized, I eliminated many of the things that used to cause me stress. My life became less “unmanageable.” I’m a bit out of practice dealing with this much anxiety. Good thing I can hop on a Zoom meeting.

For people that are already sober, and are connected to other AA members and a home group, I think the needed supports are there. A home group is the one you “join” in the sense that you commit to yourself and the others members that you will attend regularly. The other members can count on you to show up. You get to know them and they get to know you. Hearing you share every week, they become familiar with your story. If I don’t show up at my home group other members notice and I’ll get a call or text, just checking everything is ok. The bond at a home group is really an important support.

Has attendance changed, either in composition or numbers since AA meetings have shifted to virtual?

I’ve been surprised at how many older AA members I see online at Zoom meetings. I had worried that the technology would be a barrier but we are the types who used to do anything it took to get a drink, and now we are doing whatever it takes to stay sober. We are lucky in that members of a “home group” really bond together. Those with tech skills are reaching out and helping others. We are often on the phone with each other, or on Facebook, so we know how to reach each other in a time like this.

A cool thing is having out-of-towners on the Zoom meetings. We have been inviting friends from far and wide to join us. Also, there are some “seasonal” AA residents that are still away in warmer parts of the country. They are able to join the virtual meetings and remain connected with their NH AA pals.

Do you think there are people that the community cannot adequately support right now, and what do you wish could happen?

It is never easy for a newcomer to “enter” the rooms for the first time. It is a big step to get through the doorway to your first AA meeting. Having to navigate technology is an added hurdle.

Also, information on how to find a meeting changed. The printed meeting booklet is no use. People have to find our website to be able to find information on Zoom meetings. If you are just beginning your recovery journey, you may not know how to find the website.

We are fortunate that we have a 24 hour toll free “Hotline”. The information is passed to AA volunteers who return the call to the person looking for help.

How, if at all differently, is the Monadnock Region equipped to handle peoples' needs right now compared to other parts of the state or country?

The easiest way to answer this is with a personal story. Much of NH is rural, small towns. I live in one of those and getting reliable, high speed internet has been a challenge. Cable service isn’t available on my road. For years I limped along with really slow internet through my phone line. Not quite dial up, but about that bad! When the virus hit and meetings began moving to Zoom or other online platforms I was pushed into making a change. I switched to a different cell service and added a JetPack for internet. Not a cheap move, and not a planned move, but there was no choice in order to get the speed and Gigs needed to be Zoom every day.

Being spread out across small towns may make it easier to maintain social distance, but it also means fewer social services. Many town offices are closed so it isn’t as easy to reach out for local help.

Many AA members are in precarious financial positions when we get sober. Luckily, I have been sober for a long time and my life has stabilized. But I do worry about those newly sober people who used to rely on the computers and WiFi at their local library.

Here are some online and digital recovery support resources:

Alcoholics Anonymous: aa-intergroup.org/directory.php, onlinegroupaa.org, aaonlinemeeting.net.

Narcotics Anonymous: virtual-na.org, na.org/meetingsearch *for country, select “Web”

SMART Recovery: smartrecovery.org/smart-recovery-toolbox/smart-recovery-online. smartrecovery.org/private-convenient-online-recovery-support.

Other resources: addictioncampuses.com/alcohol/apps-for-recovery. sobergrid.com/howitworks. intherooms.com/home. unityrecovery.zoom.us/my/allrecovery

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