Pandemic creates perfect storm for those seeking recovery from addiction

The pandemic has greatly changed life as we once knew it, but one of the hidden effects has been the upheaval it has caused on people in recovery from their addictions to alcohol or drugs.

Several leaders in the Twin Cities recovery community say the effects can be summed up in just a few words.

"The word that immediately comes to mind is 'suffering,' said Tim Walsh, vice president of Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge.

Zack, who has been sober for more than a year had his own take.

"I guess fear would be one thing," he said.

Meanwhile, John Engebreth at Hazelden Betty Ford offered his own perspective.

"The word that comes to me to describe what people are going through right now is 'struggle.'"

That’s because people battling addiction have had to navigate their recovery in an atmosphere where society is isolating from one another to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

"Literally, there are some people who haven’t had a hug since February," said Walsh.

For John Curtiss, president and co-founder of The Retreat in Wayzata, he knew deep problems were ahead when he made a simple observation during the shutdown in March.

"I’m driving to work and I’m finding the Best Buy parking lot is empty, most of the parking lots around here are empty -- but the liquor store parking lot was packed," said Curtiss.

And in the eyes of recovery experts, it was a prescription for trouble.

"We have the perfect storm here," said Tara Tobin of the Retreat. "We have the pandemic, we’ve got addiction, we’ve got mental health, and then we’ve got economic insecurity."

That perfect storm jumps from the pages of new research. Nielsen’s tracking of alcohol sales during the month of March showed beer increased 15 percent, wine jumped 27 percent, and sprits by nearly 32 percent.

The Centers for Disease Control discovered 31 percent of the adults it surveyed this summer were struggling with anxiety and depression related to COVID-19.
In a separate study, RAND Corporation found the frequency of alcohol consumption of adults over 30 grew by 14 percent; women increased their heavy drinking episodes by 41 percent.

"We’re seeing all of that at Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge," said Walsh. 

They’re all part of the unintended consequences of COVID restrictions. They protect us from the virus, but even those in their journey of sobriety say it is difficult to stay focused.

"I drink because I love alcohol," said Lisa who is seven months into her sobriety and living in a sober house sponsored by The Retreat. "But the pandemic was just more of an excuse to stay isolated by myself and not have the opportunity to interact with family and friends and be at Easter with them or at birthday parties. And so I thought that was a better excuse for me to drink."

"It’s hard," said Curtiss. "When you have disease - alcoholism - that requires connection, and COVID that requires social isolation, that creates a whole set of unique challenges."

At Hazelden Betty Ford, they are seeing similar effects of the pandemic.

"We’re seeing sick people get sicker," said Lydia Burr, director of clinical services at Hazelden Betty Ford’s St. Paul campus.

"People are really struggling with their mental health, their depression and with the anxiety. And then there is that added layer of stress that exists in society right now because of the pandemic that is layered on top of that, and it’s really exacerbating the problems that somebody might have," said Burr.

And add to that the stress of the holidays, the pressure can drive many people back to their addictions. But recovery experts stress there is help.

"They need to know they’re not alone," said The Retreat’s John Curtis. "This is a disease of isolation, and when you’re alone in this, it’s a scary, dangerous place to be."

Anyone needing services can contact any of Minnesota’s recovery centers: