COVID-19 and addiction recovery: Sobriety is still possible

In a month where people count down the days to Christmas, Mark counts up the days of his sobriety.  

"It’s been a challenge," said Mark. He’s celebrating 15 months of clean living.

At the other end of the same room at The Retreat in Wayzata, Lisa is celebrating seven months without a drink.

"I sought out alcohol," said Lisa. "I would drink anything that has alcohol in it. My preference was vodka and wine, but really anything. Once I got that in my system - any type of alcohol - I would just keep drinking."

With the help of the 12-step recovery program at The Retreat, and a lot of work, both Lisa and Mark have achieved and maintained sobriety in a year where many others have failed due to the extra challenges set by the pandemic. Alcohol and drug addiction was already flourishing when the pandemic began, but the isolation forced by health safety restrictions has made recovery even harder.

"I’m just trying to establish my own footing and continue to get the things I need to treat my recovery properly and give that the attention it needs all the while to live within the guidelines of trying to do my part to keep everybody around me safe," said Mark.

John Curtiss, The Retreat’s CEO and co-founder says the pressure and isolation brought on by social distancing, businesses closures, and job losses have simply led many in recovery to give up.

"We’re seeing a lot more relapses that are happening out there, due to isolated related COVID-19," said Curtiss.  "You know the virtual meetings that people are going to are OK, and they’re helping, but they’re not the same. So there are more people alone who are trying to find their pace in recovery, and it’s very difficult."

Social media, daytime television and YouTube videos showing people at home drinking during the pandemic are only adding to the pressures. 

"The media says, ‘stay at home, drink wine, moms drink wine. Homeschooling and drink wine,’" said Lisa. "It just seems sometimes society does put that out there and that it’s OK to drink right now. What else do we do?  We’re stuck in our house. And so I just used that as a way to rationalize my increased consumption of alcohol." 

A recent CDC survey of 5,400 adults found that 13% had started or increased substance abuse during the pandemic. Additionally, new research by the Well Being Trust and the Robert Graham Center found as many as 75,000 people will die from drug and alcohol misuse and suicide all tied to the pandemic.

Lydia Burr, Clinical Services Director of Hazelden Betty Ford’s St. Paul Campus says one of the challenges for those in recovery is finding meaningful connections with others to stay sober.

"Attending mutual support meetings, working with a sponsor, or finding fellowship after those meetings, as well, whether it’s in the form of getting coffee or a meal or get together. Those are all things that people really aren’t able to do right now."

But many such Mark are finding limited success in the hundreds of support groups that have migrated to online platforms during the pandemic.

"Zoom does a great job at attempting to replace that personal experience," said Mark. "But, there’s a certain energy that comes from sharing a room or space with somebody that we’re not getting."

Both Mark and Lisa know those personal connections will eventually return. For now, the online communities and support groups are helping them stay sober.
"This actually has been the best year that I’ve had in the past five years of attempting to get sober," said Lisa.

For those who have questions about addiction and recovery, Minnesota has a vast recovery network of organizations. Here are some places to start: