The spread of COVID-19 has caused elevated levels of stress and anxiety among the entire world population. As people strive stay healthy and stop the spread of the virus by practicing social distancing, canceling meetings and quarantining themselves, there are many others who rely on meetings to maintain their health. For people struggling with substance abuse disorders and other addictions, isolation can be deadly.
“I remember what is was like for me when I was new(ly sober) and this would be the scariest thing possible,” says Matt Supplee, of East Earl Township. “Because for me to be alone in early sobriety was a dangerous thing.”
Supplee is the event coordinator of the 521 Club, a meeting place in East Lampeter Township for people in recovery to gather and hold meetings. Although Supplee and fellow members of the club were forced to cancel many of their upcoming events, he was one of the members behind the club’s recent decision to remain open for 12-step fellowship meetings.
“It was a tough decision, because obviously we want people to have a place to be able to go, but we want to be conscious about the issues going on,” Supplee says. “We’re in a tough spot. We don’t want to get anybody sick. We have elderly people. But we also don’t want someone to not be able to get to a meeting and overdose.”
The organization reached out to the governor’s office after Gov. Tom Wolf’s address Monday that called for the 14-day closure of nonessential businesses in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.
“The governor’s office just said keep the meeting as small as possible. But they appreciate us keeping them open because we’re kind of in two pandemics if you think about it,” Supplee says. “An elderly person or a person who might have a compromised immune system can make the decision to stay home from a meeting, whereas someone who is one the verge or drinking or using, they need that meeting. So we’re kind of leaving it up to our members’ discretion.”
The club urged members not to hold hands at the end of meetings, as is custom, and use the cleaning products they’ve provided to wipe down all surfaces before and after gathering.
“If you’re afraid and you don’t want to be in public, there are meetings on the internet where you can see people face-to-face through like a Skype-type app. There’s all sorts of different means to having a meeting,” Supplee says. “I’m not going to stop doing this out of fear. I lived in fear for so long. Fear of dying. Fear of using again. Fear of getting arrested. I’m not living in fear today. I’ll be cautious, but I’m not going to let this thing jeopardize my sobriety.”
The 521 Club updates their Facebook page with any information regarding cancellations, and Supplee says websites such as lancasteraa.org offer information on in-person meetings as well as virtual meetings on Zoom, a video conferencing platform.
Scott Theurer, a member of the Lancaster Recovery Alliance, notes the importance of community support to help combat, not only diseases such as COVID-19, but addiction issues as well.
“In Lancaster, we have a very strong community in general and we have each other’s backs, but this illness (addiction) thrives on isolation, so it’s very important that we use the resources that we have out there,” says Theurer, who notes that Lancaster Recovery Alliance’s website (lancastercountyrecovery.com) has many links where people can go for resources.
The resources and assistance that local recovery organizations provide are invaluable for people dealing with substance abuse disorders and addictions, especially those in the early stages of recovery.
“Oftentimes, people in early recovery as also trying to rebuild their lives, so they have a lot to do and it’s harder on them now when systems are being shut down and they can’t access some of the services that they need,” says Theurer, of Elizabethtown. “It’s a very challenging time.”
Theurer notes that while everyone is anxious right now, people in recovery are especially vulnerable, and recognizes people should prioritize self-care.
“We’re trying to help people understand that self-care is very important right now,” Theurer says. “Whether it’s meditation, exercising, church or AA or NA, it’s just really important that we just ramp the self-care up to match the anxiety.”
Eric Kennel, executive director at Compass Mark, the science-based addiction prevention center, agrees that times of heightened uncertainty can be challenging for everyone, but especially for those dealing with addiction issues.
“Be proactive about reaching out to support networks,” says Kennel, of Manheim Township. “That’s really important.”
Compass Mark works with local grassroots coalitions in Lancaster County to provide support programs for people with addiction issues.
“Unfortunately, a lot of those groups are not hosting face-to-face meetings right now, but our staff are in daily email contact with the leaders of those groups and providing resources to them about how they can maintain some of their meeting structures and how they can be thinking about some of the members of the community that need extra support,” Kennel says.
The organization also goes into local schools to provide prevention workshops, but with many schools having to cancel classes, Compass Mark has had to cancel programs too.
“We’re looking as an organization about offering opportunities for kids in our programs to connect with each other virtually through technology,” Kennel says. “Depending on how long this situation goes on, we may be rolling out some of those types of programs.”
In the meantime, he encourages parents to monitor their children’s online activity and keep open communication with them, as well as encourage them to explore new hobbies.
While many events are being postponed or canceled and meetings are being moved online, there are some outreach organizations that are still serving the community face-to-face.
Project Lazarus provides people and recovery centers with the lifesaving opioid-blocking drug Narcan.
“At this time, with the coronavirus, we’re just trying to follow the proper precautions to keep everyone safe,” says Jasmine Heisey, outreach and administrative coordinator with Project Lazarus. “However, I have reached out to any organizations and let them now if they need any Narcan, including recovery houses, that we’re still able to provide Narcan to them.”
Heisey notes that in emergency situations the best practice is to call 911.
“They would get there faster than we would,” says Heisey, of Mount Joy. “We can definitely deliver it for future instances. But if someone needs Narcan right now, 911 is the way to go.”
Whether it’s providing support, resources or outreach, Heisey and others see the work they’re doing as a much-needed resource to the community.
“We’re still here to help people” Heisey says. “Recovery can be life or death, whether the coronavirus is present or not, so in our minds we are essential.”