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Living with addiction during a pandemic

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

The spread of COVID-19 has forced people all over the county to use technology more regularly to communicate with one another.

This includes those struggling with substance use disorder, who now have to use such online platforms as Zoom to attend meetings run by organizations such as Alcoholics Anonymous.

Marie, who has been sober for 11 years, said attending meetings exclusively online has been a difficult transition.

“For me, I kind of miss the personal one-on-one and face-to-face kind of thing,” she said.

However, she and other members of AA said the virtual meetings provide a much-needed service as many people are stuck in their homes and in serious risk of relapsing. Members are identified only by their first names.

AA is known traditionally for its intimate, cathartic sessions, in which those with addictions open up with others facing the same issue. Now, AA’s website features hundreds of meeting times at different chapters all around the country.

“Suddenly, we as a fellowship have jumped into the 21st century,” said Kristina, who helps organize meetings in Santa Fe.

Kristina has been attending AA meetings for more than 20 years, but said everyone is still figuring out how to conduct meetings online.

“For everybody that I know, the first couple of Zoom meetings have been a little weird,” she said. “It reminds me of being a newcomer.”

The transition has, in fact, come with some growing pains.

There are over 100 virtual meetings a week in Santa Fe alone, but Barry, another AA volunteer, said getting information to newcomers can be near to impossible.

“A fair number of people aren’t in the loop or aren’t asking around enough to find out about the meetings,” he said.

The technology itself can also be a barrier, he said, especially in a city like Santa Fe.

“We’re dealing with more of an older crowd in Santa Fe, so a lot of people are not incredibly computer-proficient,” he said. “You have to walk them through the process.”

Zoom meetings across the country have also been subject to hacking, raising concerns about the security of the web service.

Joost, another AA member, said he has friends who attended meetings in other states that were hacked. The hackers gained control of the chat and began writing disparaging remarks about those with substance use disorder.

Zoom now requires passwords for most meetings, which Joost said could be another barrier to new members who do not know anyone with the password.

Despite the challenges, all members interviewed for this article agreed that online meetings are vital to those who need help with their addictions.

“This (pandemic) allows for more of an out for people, unfortunately,” Barry said. “An alcoholic’s mind is a terrible place to spend time.”

Barry also said people in the program have called him and said the stresses from the coronavirus pandemic have tempted them to start drinking again.

During the pandemic, there has been a reduction in AA meetings at prisons and jails, where 65% of inmates have some sort of addiction, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Kristina said she used to hold AA meetings at the New Mexico State Penitentiary in Santa Fe County and the Springer Correctional Center, but visitors are now prohibited. She said she and the facilities are trying to develop a way to provide meetings to inmates.

Santa Fe County spokesperson Carmelina Hart said the Santa Fe County jail has started holding Narcotics Anonymous meetings over Zoom, where four inmates can attend at a time.

Treatment centers have also modified their procedures. At Santa Fe Recovery Center, CEO Sylvia Barela said they are still accepting new patients, but everyone is screened for symptoms of COVID-19 beforehand. Visitors are not permitted.

The center has a small tent outside its building where patients are screened. Barela said, so far, four staff members and one patient were tested for COVID-19 because they were symptomatic, but all results came back negative.

Currently, around 50 patients are housed at the treatment center, Barela said, meaning the facility is only half full.

While those living with addictions may be at risk during the pandemic, Kristina said those who have gone through the struggle of recovery are positioned to adapt to a changed world.

“There comes a moment in your life when you realize you can never be the same and you have no idea what that’s going to be like,” she said. “It’s a major life change that we’re all walking through together – and we know how to do that.”

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