Athenians recovering from addiction struggle with isolation amid pandemic
People recovering from substance use disorder seek large gatherings, physical touch and normal human interaction to help them stay sober. But in a pandemic, these key elements are hard to come by.
David Ferguson fought a long battle toward recovery after graduating from the University of Georgia and falling into drug addiction. Now sober for years, he says he’s not sure what his journey would have looked like in a pandemic. Ferguson is one of many Athenians in recovery struggling to stay connected to what keeps them alive: community.
“Athens is a big drinkin’ town, and anywhere where there’s a big drinking scene, there is really good AA,” Ferguson said.
Ferguson attended UGA on scholarship and earned great grades. But after graduation he fell into drugs. Thankfully, the people around him were able to help. His mom and brother were both in recovery themselves. They noticed a problem, and they got him plugged in the recovery community.
But that community looks shockingly different today.
“We used to hold hands and we would bow our heads and pray together and we create a sacred circle…and you say a prayer together and then you’re in this safe neutral space that you’re all part of. And I miss that,” Ferguson said.
In a time where large gatherings, physical touch, and normal human interaction is unsafe, most Americans are feeling unsettled. The substance use recovery community is founded on fostering relationships with people to breed accountability. This community is being hit especially hard.
The world is isolating to stay safe, but this precaution may actually be endangering people in recovery. How is the recovery community dealing with the pandemic without bending to the temptation of old habits in a time of isolation?
People working toward sobriety are seeing a major shift in their recovery process because programs like Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous can’t meet face-to-face. Opioid use has continued to rise across the nation and in Georgia as people are living in isolation.
“We tell them like ‘don’t isolate, go to meetings, talk to people.’ Now we’re saying, ‘Oh well you can’t do all that,’ but you still have to try to stay connected,” said Charlotte Martin, a Certified Peer Specialist in Addictive Diseases at Athens Clinic. Martin struggled with addiction herself when she was younger. Once she got sober, she decided to spend her life helping others with a disease she knows much too well.
Virtual AA and NA attendance has skyrocketed and treatment facilities are seeing an uptick, but what has happened to people who can’t find the same community that has kept them sober for days, months, or even years?
In short: they are struggling, but thankfully they aren’t alone.
Athens Clinic is a recovery center that aims to help people with opioid use disorder regain control of their lives. It administers methadone, a prescription drug used to treat narcotic drug addiction. Ali McCorkle works at the outpatient treatment program to help counsel and treat people struggling with opioid use. She also works at a syringe service program where she provides free unused needles to people in active drug use to prevent the spread of diseases in the community.
“Our philosophy is we support any type of recovery. No matter what it is,” McCorkle said. “I have a medication assisted treatment program but somebody might not want to go there, they might want abstinence based treatment, they might want faith based treatment, you know, so there’s all different kinds of things and we just kind of meet the patient where they’re at.”
From McCorkle, I learned that reports of opioid overdoses have drastically increased since the start of the pandemic.
“With COVID in the treatment field we have seen so many more intakes. And we have seen so many more cases of Hepatitis C,” McCorkle said. “We know people are using way, way more.”
Athens Clinic saw intakes rise by 59.4% from 2019 to 2020. So, are opioid overdoses going up because people are lonely, living in isolation? Well, yes and no according to McCorkle.
A quarantined lifestyle could be partially to blame, she says…but not in the way you might think. Loneliness may not necessarily be causing people to use drugs more often, but it poses a danger of its own: accidental overdoses
Before the pandemic, it was encouraged for people to use drugs with at least one other person in the room. That way, there’s another person available to help in case of an accidental overdose. But in a time of social isolation, more and more people are using alone.
Never Use Alone is a hotline that people can call when they’re using drugs by themselves. In case something goes wrong, the operator will send emergency medical services right to the user.
In 2020, the organization received over 2,100 calls, according to Jess Blanchard, a lead trainer and educator at Never Use Alone. In 12 cases, EMS was called and in all 12 cases, lives were saved.
Since the start of the pandemic, Blanchard said the calls have definitely increased.
“I see the trend and they’ve absolutely gone up for various reasons,” Blanchard said. “One being social isolation, and you know people think, God you know, before if they used alone at least somebody would show up at their house at some point but now if I used alone when would somebody even come check on me?”
McCorkle says she thinks there is another reason for an increase in overdoses: it’s a case of buyer beware gone wrong.
Right now, advocates like McCorkle and Martin are speculating that more dangerous drugs like fentanyl are being mixed into opioids. Their working theory is that drug dealers have been unable to get their supplies due to travel restrictions. To compensate, more harmful ingredients are being mixed in, which make the opioids much stronger.
When a person is used to a certain dosage of pure heroin, for example, and then uses that same dose with a little bit of fentanyl, an overdose can easily occur.
“If I go buy a beer, it’s a beer. I can read on the label what it might taste like, what the alcohol content is, where it was bottled, it’s sealed. I know it’s a beer,” Blanchard said. “I go buy, you know, half a gram of heroin, or what I hope is heroin. I want it to be heroin, I mean for it to be heroin, the guy that sold it to me tells me it’s heroin. It’s probably not heroin, not in Georgia anyway. Not on the East Coast. And so I don’t know how to use it, I don’t know how to take it, I have no idea what’s about to happen.”
Advocates in Athens have banded together to find a solution to the increasing opioid problem.
Orion Mowbray is a director of research and associate professor in UGA’s School of Social Work. For the past few years, he has been researching opioid use in Athens-Clarke County. Mowbray says one of the biggest changes since the pandemic has been “how group services are delivered in a substance use setting so, so you know those mutual support groups, AA and NA, a lot of those have either moved online or offer an online component to participate in.”
“And then a lot of facilities, you know, they, they really pivoted quickly to adopt, you know, the recommended health and safety guidelines for how to operate a facility during a pandemic,” said Mowbray.
Athens Clinic is one of those providers. According to Martin, it has seen such an increase in demand for services that it has had to turn people away almost every day in recent months. Although the clinic is unable to provide treatment to everyone, they are doing the best they can to keep people connected.
McCorkle is proud of Athens Clinic’s response to the increased demand, and she commends the entire Athens community for the work that’s been happening every single day since last March.
“I think that everybody’s done a really good job,” McCorkle said. “I feel like everybody’s struggling but, you know, we’re trying to just kind of roll with it and make sure everybody has support.”