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The shuttering of churches and other meeting spaces throughout the region due to concerns about the spread of COVID-19 left members of various recovery groups scrambling to keep up the communities they established to maintain their sobriety.
Advocates and people in recovery worry the self-isolation measures necessary to stop the spread of the coronavirus may actually be putting people in recovery and people with substance-use disorders at risk. Support groups rely on the consistency of in-person encouragement and human contact. People are having to make due with virtual contact, said Veronica Slack, founder of Recovery Journals and member of Narcotics Anonymous.
"We're huggers," Slack said. "And a hug, there's a meaning to that. That's a healing hug that helps us, and we're lacking that human contact right now."
Paul, who preferred to use only his first name to respect his anonymity, has been sober for six years and is a member of Alcoholics Anonymous in Georgia. He's also the meeting coordinator for District 15A, which covers six counties in Northwest Georgia. He said the transition from in-person meetings to online video calls has been a challenge.
"I don't like AA meetings online," Paul said. "You can't sense what a person is going through. You could feel it as a person is tearing through their life. It's hard to describe but with online meetings we'll lose some of that."
People looking for help may not be able to find support networks since the typically advertised meeting — people gathered in a circle of chairs on a Tuesday night — is not happening.
Meanwhile, the places people are isolating themselves can be dangerous. Environments can push people to unhealthy coping mechanisms. The family members someone is staying with or that they feel obligated to check on can be triggering, Slack said.
"People go to these meetings because they need to go to them. It helps them live their life," Slack said. "They are being thrust into behaviors that can trigger a lot of pain and isolation that we work very hard to not have as part of our daily life."
There is also concern the mounting stress of the coronavirus could put people at risk of relapse.
To take part in the Hamilton County Coalition virtual Narcan training for residents in your area, register at https://www.hccoalition.org/save-a-life-training-events. The dates of the trainings are:
Bradley County - Monday, March 30 at 4 p.m. EDT
Hamilton County - Monday, April 6 at 6 p.m. EDT
Polk County - Monday, April 13 at 3 p.m. EDT
Marion County - Tuesday, April 14 at 6 p.m. CDT
Grundy County - Wednesday, April 15 at 12 p.m. CDT
McMinn County - Wednesday, April 15 at 6 p.m. EDT
Sequatchie County - Thursday, April 16 at 1 p.m. CDT
Rhea County - Monday, April 20 at 6 p.m. EDT
"It's stressful for everyone because liquor stores, they're still open," Paul said.
Businesses across the country are shutting down. Last week, a record 3.28 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits, nearly five times the number in 2009 during the worst week of the Great Recession. More than 39,000 people filed last week in Tennessee.
Last year, there were 106 overdose deaths in Hamilton County, with half of those deaths involving multiple substances.
Like other businesses and civic groups, the recovery community is migrating its business to the digital world in a combination of Zoom calls, Facebook Messenger chats and emails.
"Everybody is doing a lot of online recovery groups," said Marty Walker, a coordinator for Oxford House. "If you have stock in Zoom, boy, you made a good choice. Everybody is Zoom-ing and Facebook groups are popping up all over the place."
Paul said that of the 40 weekly meetings in his Northwest Georgia district, four are still meeting in person. Those tend to be smaller gatherings, while the rest have been temporarily postponed or moved to Zoom.
He said it's been difficult to keep everyone on the same page and has been especially hard on newcomers to meetings who are in a crucial point in their recovery.
"We had someone new come in the other day and say, 'I'm more worried about having a drink than catching this coronavirus,'" Paul said. "Meeting face to face is a way of life for us."
The first stages of someone's recovery are when they are most vulnerable to a relapse. Paul said AA meetings can't shut down and turn away these people, but they will have to be creative in how they meet.
While not a replacement for the power of face-to-face interactions, the online tools are not all negative. Livestreamed meetings and conversations about addiction can make resources accessible to people who might otherwise be wary of showing up in person or who do not have the means to make it to a meeting, especially in rural counties, said Dave Hodges, Lifeline Project regional director.
Hodges likened the shift to virtual recovery groups to telehealth. This is another tool to reach people where they are and give people a softer entrance to the recovery community, he said.
For more information on Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in Northwest Georgia
Visit find.aageorgia.org/meetings/zone/15a or call 478-745-2588.
The AA Georgia hotline is operated 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That number is 423-499-6003.
Local leaders are working with the state to compile a list of resources for people in recovery and those seeking help, Hodges said. COVID-19 is not stopping people from getting into treatment, he said.
The Hamilton County Coalition is holding eight county-specific virtual trainings to show how to use Narcan to prevent overdose deaths. The trainings begin March 30 for Bradley County residents.
Other counties included in the upcoming trainings include Grundy, Hamilton, Marion, McMinn, Polk, Rhea and Sequatchie. Participants will learn to identify the signs of an overdose and how to treat people, then be able to pick up or receive an overdose reversal kit containing two doses of Narcan nasal spray.
"One thing we are aware of is that overdosing will not stop because of COVID 19," reads a statement by Vanessa Spotts, regional overdose prevention specialist.
As the coronavirus pandemic gets worse in the United States, Paul was reminded of one of the mottos AA members use that seems appropriate for everyone today.
"One day at a time."
Contact Patrick Filbin at email@example.com or 423-757-6476. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickFilbin.
Contact Wyatt Massey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.