Addiction has blighted Donna Dibo’s life. Until four years ago, she was addicted to heroin. Now, in the midst of a pandemic that risks pitching millions more into substance abuse, she is raising the six-month-old baby of one drug-addicted family member while struggling to find treatment for another.
Still, Dibo — a 39-year-old welder and mother of five in Youngstown, Ohio — says that the pandemic has been a “blessing in disguise” for her and for many recovering addicts.
From New York to Naples, the number of online 12-step recovery meetings has exploded, as a cursory glance at the local websites of programmes such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous shows: the list of Zoom meetings goes on and on.
Recovering addicts and alcoholics I have spoken to say that their meetings have generally seen much higher attendance than before and have given them a tenuous lifeline to sanity in an overturned world. I’ve spent much of the past five months searching for silver linings to this pandemic, so Dibo’s is exactly the kind of story I wanted to hear.
There is certainly no shortage of doom and gloom on the substance-abuse front: as the US begins its sixth month under the cloud of coronavirus, addiction is proving to be an epidemic at the heart of a pandemic. Overdose rates have risen sharply in many US counties, reports suggest, as isolation, anxiety, joblessness — and stimulus cash — have fed the drug habits of many.
Legal marijuana sales have gone up too, which may be good news for taxes in my home state of Illinois, where state coffers have been hard hit by pandemic spending. But the cost in human terms has yet to be counted.
Lockdown has also meant that many opioid addicts are sourcing illicit drugs from unknown dealers or are using alone — so no one is around to call an ambulance or administer the opioid overdose antidote Naloxone that could otherwise save their lives.
But that is not Dibo’s story: she spent the pandemic attending two to three recovery meetings per day, compared with as few as two per week before.
“The Covid, it’s either going to make or break you,” she tells me by phone as we chew over the conundrum that some people have thrived during the pandemic while others have withered.
She recalls fondly that she had time to watch movies in bed with her three daughters. “I couldn’t keep up with all of the meetings during lockdown,” she says. “I was able to glide through the pandemic because of them.”
I’ve done volunteer work with recovering addicts and alcoholics for more than a decade, and recently many have told me that, like Dibo, they have appreciated having instant access to what amounts to an online global network of group therapy sessions, available around the clock for whenever the coronavirus crazies strike.
Some recovering addicts and alcoholics — even those clean and sober for decades — tell me they have doubled or tripled their recovery meeting attendance during the pandemic. Many of these existed as physical meetings before but now attract more participants; some are entirely new. Millions of people around the world use this informal mental-health network to navigate a pandemic that has been every bit as much emotional as physical.
Dibo is a graduate of Youngstown’s “drug court”, where nonviolent criminal offenders are able to avoid jail time by completing judicially supervised substance-abuse rehabilitation. Regular appearances in drug court are required — but during the pandemic, those happened by Zoom too, says Youngstown’s drug court co-ordinator Amy Klumpp.
“The judge was in a T-shirt in his basement and he grew a beard during the pandemic,” she chortles, adding that one addict made her required court appearance lying in bed smoking a cigarette.
Dan Pew, Youngstown drug court graduate and former heroin addict, is another of many I’ve spoken to who say that the pandemic has made them grateful to be recovering addicts.
“I’ve connected with way more people by seeing them on Zoom meetings,” he told me. “This whole thing has been so double-edged, it’s great and it’s also horrible.”
His experience of working at a local rehab facility has led him to believe that even the $1,200 federal pandemic stimulus cheques and the $600-per-week federal unemployment benefits — which funded many a drug purchase early in the pandemic — may ultimately have aided some addicts to hit bottom and seek help. He saw many relapse during the pandemic but he also saw some turn up for detox afterwards.
Now, as many areas reopen for business, the recovering addicts of the world are starting to go back to in-person meetings — but this can no longer mean hugging and hand-holding and all the other touchy-feely aspects of 12-step recovery. Like so many other things, addiction recovery may never be the same again — but with this boom in online recovery groups, maybe it will be better.
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