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A Look At Pandemic's Impact On Recovery For Alcoholism And Drug Addiction


Physical distancing has hit people in recovery for substance abuse really hard. Twenty-three-year-old Laura Bratton got sober 2 1/2 years ago. Here's her story of the pandemic's impact on her recovery and her support system in Wilmington, N.C. And a note - we're only using first names to protect people's privacy.

LAURA BRATTON: Zoom meetings were all we had for three months during shelter in place. And at first, I was excited to try recovery online.

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Going to 12-step meetings in different parts of the world and hearing people's stories while I'm eating dinner in my pajamas.

FELICIA: Like, in the beginning, you know, I just wanted to get super spiritual.

BRATTON: Felicia is a friend from my 12-step home group.

FELICIA: You know, you fast-forward, like, three weeks and I'm just sitting in my house doing puzzles.

BRATTON: I get it. Before COVID, I used to go to three or four 12-step meetings every week.

I really don't like Zoom meetings that much.

But after a few weeks online, I went down to just one.

Zoom ID.

Other people started dropping off, too. I helped Jim, a regular at my home group, figure out how to log on to a Zoom meeting, but he didn't love it.

JIM: There are just things you miss - the look in people's eyes, the smiles on their faces.

BRATTON: I wondered if some people were slipping through the cracks. Had they relapsed? Were they OK? Like this one guy I know, Robert, I've known him for years. He's in a court-ordered treatment program, and he was a regular in my home group before the pandemic started. Then a few weeks into shelter in place, I noticed that he'd relapsed. He was starting over, counting sober days rather than months. I called him back in April to find out what happened.

ROBERT: Nothing was open, and there were no meetings going on. And I was really, really contemplating getting high.

BRATTON: Robert told me almost all of his support system shut down - court-mandated therapy programs and drug tests that made him feel accountable.

ROBERT: I didn't want to blame my relapse on COVID-19, but - and I'm not going to, but it was such a big factor to, like, me starting to isolate again. I mean, I still had those people there, but not being able to physically be with them or see their smiles in person or feel their energy just took a lot from me I think.

BRATTON: Why do you think those things are so important for you getting sober?

ROBERT: 'Cause, I mean, I'm an addict and an alcoholic, but, like, at the end of the day, I'm a [expletive] human.

BRATTON: That was April 16, one month into shelter in place. I didn't see Robert in online meetings for the next week, and I worried what would happen to him. Right around that time, I also found out that a few people I knew from my early days in sobriety had overdosed and died. Weeks went by, and I still didn't see Robert. Then in May, a friend told me she'd seen his mugshot online. Turns out he'd gotten arrested. Right after he got out, I called him to see what happened.

ROBERT: Hey, what's up?

BRATTON: How are you doing?

ROBERT: I'm all right.

BRATTON: He said the day after we talked, he'd gotten high again and called his probation officer. I asked him what went on during those three weeks he was in jail.

ROBERT: You're locked in a cell for 23 hours a day. That's, like, their form of quarantine. That makes, like, COVID kind of seem easy. Like, I remember being out on rec one day and I saw this - what's the insurance company that Flow works for - Progressive?

BRATTON: Progressive.

ROBERT: Yeah. They had, like, some commercial where they were, like, all on, like, a Zoom meeting. And, like, I looked at it and I was just like, I could be in a Zoom meeting right now.

BRATTON: Robert's been out of jail for more than a month. I've seen him in Zoom meetings, and I got a call from him a few weeks ago asking to join my home group. As a group, we've been waiting for months until we can all be together in person. And finally, when phase two started, we made plans to meet on the beach.

I'm headed to first home group meeting I've been to in person since COVID started. Yeah. I don't know what this is going to be like at all. OK. So I'm on my way back from my home group. I don't know how I feel about it. Like, no one was wearing masks. And, I mean, people were kind of sitting 6 feet apart, but it feels like we were closer than that. And it was kind of weird. It was like - not a lot of people from my home group were there, and it definitely felt pretty sparse. I'm actually passing the church where we usually have our home group right now. I don't think they've been in that church for a long time. I definitely miss that place.

Here we are, phase two. My home group stopped doing Zoom meetings, and we're trying to figure out what's next. Cases in Wilmington have started rising, and things feel unsafe and uncertain. People in recovery are used to marking time. In the early days after I quit drinking, I remember waiting to hit those markers, the first 60 days, 90 days, as though something will be different, as though being sober won't be quite as much work. Just like with COVID, we want the work to be over, and we want things to go back to some kind of normal.

For NPR News, I'm Laura Bratton.


MCCAMMON: This piece is part of an election year series between Radio Rookies and YR Media called 18 to 29 Now. For more, go to youngamericaspeaksup.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.