Social distancing guidelines and limits on in-person gatherings affected life for most Americans, but those in addiction recovery felt a tremendous impact.
“The concept of social distancing makes [those with addiction] even more vulnerable because it interferes with many of the support systems that can help them to reach recovery,” said Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute of Health’s National Institute on Drug Abuse in a video blog conversation in April. “There is tremendous concern about these two epidemics colliding with one another.”
The pandemic made it more difficult for addiction patients to access treatment and medication, as many clinics reduced the number of patients they could take care of, Volkow said.
The drug addiction epidemic in the U.S. is broad, Volkow said.
“It’s gone from prescription opioids to heroin to synthetic opioids like fentanyl. And what we have observed ramping up over the past two or three years is an increase in fatalities from the use of psychostimulant drugs,” Volkow said.
She noted the number of deaths from methamphetamine has increased five-fold over a period of six years and deaths from cocaine are going up.
“The reality is that people are now dying not just from opioids, but from mixtures of drugs and stimulant drugs, most notably methamphetamine,” Volkow said.
Addiction is a complex condition, described as a brain disease by the American Psychiatric Association. Addicts compulsively use and abuse substances despite the harmful physical, social or emotional consequences.
“They keep using alcohol or a drug even when they know it will cause problems,” the APA website states. “People with a substance use disorder have distorted thinking, behavior and body functions. Changes in the brain’s wiring are what cause people to have intense cravings for the drug and make it hard to stop using the drug.”
An addict’s community makes a difference too. The number one treatment help for a drug addict is to get away from the people they use drugs with, according to Shane Tidwell, certified recovery support specialist for Recovery Services of Marshall County.
Support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and Celebrate Recovery can help addicts form new social groups through 12-step programs and gatherings with fellow addicts. However, group meetings became difficult with COVID-19 restrictions.
Gary Warner, who has been involved with Celebrate Recovery since 2013 and now is Celebrate Recovery ministry leader at McElwain Baptist Church, Birmingham, said fellow addicts are “crashing left and right during this time. … Most people who have an addiction, it’s either gotten worse or it’s gone full-blown.”
Warner noted that for security reasons, some support groups won’t meet online. Many that do require headphones and being in separate rooms for privacy. Many addicts don’t have the necessary technical equipment.
“They are lost, and they don’t know what to do about it,” Warner said. “They need people who can support them.”
Support starts with understanding, experts say. People with little knowledge of the science of addiction tend to automatically exhibit certain feelings toward those with a history of addiction.
Those outside the recovery community often believe willpower should be enough to overcome addiction, Tidwell said. But addicts and recovery clinicians know that’s not true.
“Addiction is not a moral failing,” Tidwell said. “Addiction is a disease, but it is preventable and treatable.”