News of the global COVID-19 pandemic brought warning of prolonged isolation, and eventual promises of a “new normal.”
Those concepts were nothing new for many on the path to sobriety, who oftentimes lean on community support and face-to-face communication to make it to the next day.
Gov. JB Pritzker’s March 20 stay-at-home order required addiction recovery providers throughout the state to think on their feet in order to continue servicing their communities. Although virtual therapy options have in some ways made treatment more accessible, the stress and alienation of the global health pandemic has created new obstacles for others on their way to recovery.
In mid-March, just as the governor’s directives went into effect, Luke Tomsha immediately reached out to people dealing with drug or alcohol dependence.
He issued multiple lengthy messages on the Facebook page or through links to the nonprofit La Salle-based organization he founded in 2017, Perfectly Flawed Foundation.
“I knew that we had to step up and we needed to [be] prepared. I knew this would be a problem for a lot of people who didn’t know what was happening or had a lot of anxiety,” Tomsha said. “I wanted to put out a message that we’re here for them and are willing to do whatever we can for them and their families ... whatever they’re struggling with.”
Tomsha has concerns that people who need medicines to help them avoid withdrawal symptoms may have difficulty getting them, and initially in March, some treatment centers were not taking new patients. He said that situation has improved, but the waiting time seems longer than usual.
Tomsha’s not a proponent of treatment stays for everyone, and instead his group – they’re not therapists or counselors – provides guidance in “smart recovery and peer support.” Smart recovery is an alternative to Alcoholics Anonymous’ model 12-step program, instead focusing on self-empowerment tools.
“We definitely had people reach out and say they’ve relapsed,” Tomsha said, noting he’s glad that users who tried to quit opioids, heroin or other substances thought to call Perfectly Flawed.
Substance abuse and mental health awareness group Live4Lali has similarly moved its services online, offering virtual Smart Recovery group meetings and online Narcan training. The organization’s McHenry County Outreach Coordinator Alex Mathiesen said he worries about the long-term effects the stay-at-home order could have on people in recovery.
“It is sad because I’ve seen this county grow over the past few years we’ve been grant-funded here, and it’s been incredible to watch it happen, and I’m just afraid that this is going to push everything into the back burner and we’re going to lose progress,” Mathiesen said.
Live4Lali will continue to provide virtual peer support, harm reduction education and counseling, safe supplies deliveries, Narcan training and advocacy services any way it can, Mathiesen said. Meetings will take place online via the GoTo meeting app, a link for which is available online at Live4Lali.org/mchenrycounty. Contact-free Narcan drop-offs also are available upon request, Mathiesen said.
“I’ve always said that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety, it’s connection,” Mathiesen said. “And it’s difficult to make connections when you’re not in person.”
Chris Reed, president of New Directions Addiction Recovery Services in McHenry County, has spent years fostering those kinds of connections in McHenry County. Reed not only oversees New Directions, but he also runs organization’s Crystal Lake sober bar, The Other Side, and the Crystal-Lake-based rehab provider, Northern Illinois Recovery Center. He’s additionally opened a handful of sober living homes throughout the area, where between five and 11 people live under one roof as they ease back into everyday life post-treatment.
Expansions to Telehealth amid COVID-19 concerns made it possible for recovery providers such as Crystal Lake's Rosecrance and Northern Illinois Recovery Center to offer virtual outpatient treatment options.
“We have seen an uptick in people who normally wouldn’t have participated in this type of treatment service but they’ve been able to because they can do it from home,” Reed said.
In some ways, the shutdown has pushed service providers to think outside the box and reach people who normally might not have access to treatment and resources such as naloxone training, said Laura Crain with the McHenry County Substance Abuse Coalition. That’s especially important since risk factors for COVID-19, including respiratory problems, tend to go hand-in-hand with substance abuse disorder, she said.
“There’s still an epidemic underlying the pandemic,” Crain said.
On the other hand, those without a nearby support system might feel cut off from the people who motivated them and held them accountable on the path to sobriety.
“Not having that right now – it just sucks, for lack of a better term,” Reed said. “You’ve got people who have made this decision [to recover] and they don’t have access to one of the most crucial components to that.”
Reed encourages people to reach out to loved ones who might be struggling during self-quarantine.
Another important component for people trying to get back on their feet – employment – could be at stake. Much of a $500,000 grant to help people affected by the opioid crisis went to hiring 30 people to work at treatment centers in Dixon, Sterling and Oregon, and to find jobs for people after treatment. But a portion of the grant funds went to hiring a Business Employment Skills Team employee, Kim Doll, to help find employment for people who've been through treatment, incarcerated, are in recovery or for families or individuals greatly affected by someone else's opioid use.
Doll said BEST is in the beginning stages of lining up “second chance employers” so it’s not exactly fair to say the COVID-19 precautions have slowed down the hiring of people who go through the program. She still is looking for more employers, but did note that some may be holding off on hiring anyone this month.
Doll said she has concern that isolation along with an unheralded, sudden leap in unemployment is compound anxiety and fears for people.
Woodstock businesses owner Rob Mutert, recently used a $25,000 block grant to buy equipment for an in-house screen printing workforce program. Mutert's shop, Warp Corps., sells its own clothing line and house brand Max Happy coffee beans. The business prides itself in being a safe, judgment-free spot that hosts a variety of addiction recovery and mental health awareness services. Now Mutert and his team also help workers who are undergoing addiction recovery or struggling with mental health concerns gain work experience at the store's basement screen-printing operation.
“We’re trying everything we can to remind people that we’re here and boy we do need help as well,” Mutert said.
Warp Corps. is continuing to take custom apparel orders for its workforce program, and is offering curbside pickup for coffee bean sales and other merchandise to help fund its outreach services. The business also has taken to regularly live-streaming local bands in an effort to continue providing the community with artistic outlets.
“We are here doing the best we can and if people need support we still have access to resources and collaborating partners,” Mutert said. “We are here and if there’s anything we can do to help our phone is on.”
In the meantime, perspective can make all the difference for anyone, not just those in recovery, Mathiesen said.
“We’ve survived every other day so far,” he said.