Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
Jennifer Birmingham hasn’t had a drink in nearly two decades.
Still, at a time like this, she can’t help but wonder.
“What if I was all alone and my mind started doing that spin of, ‘Nobody would know if I had a drink right now. … Nobody’s ever going to know.’ It’s scary,” she said. “…When things seem hopeless, it piles up, and it piles up quick.”
With thousands of people out of jobs and stuck inside on stay-at-home orders amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Birmingham worries about those who are new to recovery or can no longer go to 12-step meetings and have access to the resources that help keep them sober.
In recent weeks, hundreds of Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings have been canceled, reduced to a five-person limit or moved to an online platform like Zoom.
The Bernalillo County treatment center in Southeast Albuquerque has cut its patient capacity and plans to divert overflow to shelters or elsewhere. Many have taken to Facebook groups geared around recovery to vent about their isolation or job concerns, come together for support and find meetings online.
But Birmingham said she’s seen a lot more people posting about relapse.
“I’m terribly concerned for people,” she said. “Just watching some of the posts online, if you’re lonely to begin with and being forced to be isolated – what if there’s nothing else to turn to?”
Missing human contact
Debra K., central office coordinator for Albuquerque AA, said the organization has never been in such “extraordinary circumstances.”
“We’re all out there trying to support each other, because this is very hard for an alcoholic – not to have a face-to-face, one-on-one meeting,” she said. “That’s what we do. … Sharing our experiences and our strengths and our weaknesses and our hopes and how to get through this.”
Debra said hundreds of AA meetings were shut down around March 13 and since the stay-at-home order, dozens have gone to Zoom.
According to AA’s website, some in-person meetings are still going on in Albuquerque, but Debra said they are restricted to five people, so “it’s kind of hit-and-miss.”
Debra still sees gaps in the system: those who don’t have a cellphone or computer or live in remote communities.
“We’re all here to do the best we can with what we’ve got right now,” Debra said.
Those who facilitate AA meetings over Zoom say they are trying to keep things as normal as possible, mailing anniversary chips – using gloves and sanitizer – to celebrate people’s recovery and texting members to check in regularly. Members and facilitators are grateful to have the ability to meet over Zoom, something that wouldn’t have been possible decades ago.
Birmingham has attended a few Zoom meetings but said it can be hard to share when people can talk over one another and time limits are set on sessions.
“It’s a way to meet. It’s probably not the most effective, but it’s a way to meet,” she said.
Birmingham, now a deputy chief at the Law Offices of the Public Defender with 19 years of sobriety under her belt, said she worries about the newcomer in these trying times.
“If I was new in recovery, left to my own devices like this, I don’t know if I would’ve had the tools that I do now,” she said.
Birmingham said “face-to-face” meetings make it easier to find a sponsor, get coffee with others in recovery and have the contact that is missing from a computer screen or phone line.
“Being able to have somebody give you a hug or hold your hand through some difficult times – … that’s lacking,” she said. “I can’t reach over to somebody that’s really struggling and put my arm around them and say, ‘It’s going to be OK.’ ”
Forced to close
Mateo Duran tried to keep it going as long as he could.
The 43-year-old was one of the last NA meeting facilitators to shut down.
“I was like ‘I still want to provide a service for someone’ – still keep the doors open as long as I possibly could,” he said.
Duran took precautions, having members wear a mask and gloves as they practiced six feet distancing.
On March 24, they closed their doors.
“The rooms of Narcotics Anonymous have always been open, always,” he said. “Like always. They never shut down.”
An employee at an opioid dependence program in town, Duran now works from home and facilitates NA meetings over Zoom, but he has already felt the effect of shutdowns.
“Even though we’re meeting online and on the phone, it’s not the same as meeting in person,” he said. “Human connection is human condition. We need human interaction, and that’s what’s effective in those rooms, and that’s what I’m missing in those rooms.”
In Duran’s house, anniversaries are “a big deal” and usually the whole family will go out to dinner or a movie to celebrate. This year, they gathered in the kitchen and had ice cream cake to ring in seven years of sobriety for Duran.
He said others have not been so lucky in isolation.
“I had a sponsor of mine relapse because of being at home all the time. It’s hard,” he said, adding that he hopes the required isolation doesn’t go on too long.
“I’m concerned because we’re going to lose a lot of people that are fresh in recovery,” Duran said. “Some of them don’t have phones and internet. People that are high risk – coming out of jail, coming out of homelessness – they have nowhere to go.”
Amid all the worry and negativity, Duran said that anyone feeling hopeless should consider that a couple months of isolation is nothing compared to 22 years of heroin addiction, jail stints and homelessness. When Duran got clean he was facing prison time and stage-2 liver failure.
“There’s still that stigma out there that drug addicts, that there’s no hope for them, and that’s a big lie,” he said. “I’m evidence that recovery does work if the person is willing to do whatever it takes to get clean.”