‘A perfect storm’: addicts caught between pandemic and epidemic

Bob is a recovering alcoholic and former drug user, living in Alabama with his young wife and their new baby boy. Bob stayed sober and free of addiction for eight years before the coronavirus hit and he lost his job.

With too much free time on his hands, he began drinking and using methamphetamines again. His wife reached out to a local addiction recovery program, and Bob received the help he needed to get back on track.

Bob is doing well for now, but every day is touch and go.

This story is all too common. In fact, the Alabama Department of Mental Health counts those who misuse substances as particularly vulnerable to relapse or overdose due to the pandemic’s disruption of daily life.

Curt Williams, founder and executive director of Youth-Reach Gulf Coast in Summerdale, an addiction ministry for young men, has seen an uptick in addiction relapses and new addiction cases during the pandemic.

“Most [people] that struggle with addiction don’t do well with free time,” Williams said. “They need structure, they need a schedule, they need something to depend on, and COVID-19 robbed us of all of that. And if you don’t have structure around you and a big support base, the addiction [is] just calling back to you. It was a perfect storm.”

Record high

Statistics show the bigger picture of that storm.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Resources’ 2020 annual report disclosed a significant decrease in opioid-use disorder cases from 2018 to 2019 — the first drop in more than two decades. Late in 2019, however, overdose deaths began to climb and continued rising throughout 2020.

Last December, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported more than 81,000 drug overdose deaths nationwide between June 2019 and May 2020. Those totals, the highest ever recorded in a 12-month period, suggest an acceleration of overdose deaths during the pandemic.

According to the Agency for Substance Abuse Prevention, or ASAP, based in Oxford, at least 20% more people in Alabama died from drug overdoses during the 12 months ending in May 2020 than during the 12 months prior.

During that same period, overdose deaths doubled in Calhoun County, said ASAP Executive Director Seyram Selase during a recent virtual roundtable discussion on the opioid epidemic.

“We have a pandemic that is on top of an epidemic,” said Selase. “There’s social isolation because of the pandemic. There’s depression. A lot of people don’t have access to the resources they normally get. We know that all of those things are compounding the issues people are facing, making these numbers rise. These aren’t just numbers — they are someone’s mother, father, uncle, brother or sister. These are real people’s lives that are being lost.”

Rick Hagans, founder of Harvest Evangelism in Opelika, has seen that loss firsthand.

“We buried six [people] last year — six overdose deaths,” said Hagans, whose ministry operates faith-based residential recovery programs.

In fact, Harvest Evangelism’s residency programs for men and women are filled to capacity, and Hagans has recognized the scarcity of in-person support groups during the pandemic. Without meetings like Celebrate Recovery, Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, he said, many struggling with addictions are faced with going it alone.

Increase in applications

At the same time, Williams has seen the crisis unfold in the Gulf Coast area through his work with Youth-Reach.

His organization has received more applications for admission during the pandemic than ever before. Processing those applications takes much longer than normal due to coronavirus testing requirements, Williams noted, and lag time can be all that’s needed for a person struggling with addiction to relapse — to get high again, to reconsider treatment or for someone to talk them out of getting help.

Desperate times

“Many times, these people will call us when they’re desperate,” he said. “By the time [testing is] done, maybe they’ve overdosed or we’ve lost touch with them.”

Williams witnessed two overdoses during the pandemic but said even more people are just one step from being back in the throes of their addiction.

“One young man I know got his [CARES Act] check and spent it on [illicit] drugs,” Williams said. “That [check] could have been a lifeline. But for an addict, ‘money for nothing’ just says ‘hey, go get high.’” Even so, addiction ministry leaders have seen success stories despite COVID-19.

Hagans told of a young woman who earlier this year entered Harvest Evangelism’s Hosanna Home residency program, seeking freedom from her addiction. In March, she gave birth to a healthy baby girl she named Victory. If the woman had not received help for her addiction, her baby might have been born addicted to drugs or might have even died in the womb, Hagans reflected.

“She [named] the baby Victory, and we think, ‘hey, that’s what God gives you’ — an opportunity to have victory in your life, and [for the mom], victory in her baby’s life,” Hagans said.

Helpful tips for people dealing with addiction 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests these tips for people dealing with the challenges of addiction, especially during the pandemic:

  • Take breaks from watching, reading or listening to news stories, including social media. Hearing about the pandemic repeatedly can be upsetting.
  • Take deep breaths, stretch or meditate.
  • Eat healthy, well-balanced meals, exercise regularly and get plenty of sleep.
  • Avoid alcohol and drugs.
  • Make time to unwind and do some activities you enjoy.
  • Connect with others. Talk with people you trust about your concerns and how you are feeling.
  • Take proactive steps to safeguard your health.

Contact the Alabama Department of Mental Health helpline at 844-307-1760 for information related to substance-use disorder resources and treatment or to talk to someone who understands.

Read here how churches can help those struggling with addictions.

EDITOR’S NOTE — Name has been changed.

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