This past March, as COVID-19 found its way into Alaska and Gov. Mike Dunleavy began mandating closures of businesses and cancelation of events, residents were told to not gather in groups and to avoid close contact with each other. This created unique challenges for all Alaskans, but especially for those working to overcome drug and alcohol dependencies.
“We’re told to get a new life, find new friends and we do that,” explained North Pole resident Bonnie Blaydes, who is deeply enmeshed in the Fairbanks recovery community. “And we’re told not to isolate. COVID-19 tells you to isolate. The number one key for people who relapse is isolation.”
For those in recovery, and for the agencies and groups who assist them, the onslaught of new legal requirements left many scrambling to adjust their procedures while still addressing a need that has been, if anything, amplified by the sudden pandemic and its accompanying economic fallout.
“You mix a financial crisis and job losses and all those stressors in folks’ lives, a lot of times people turn to self-medicating,” said Karl Soderstrom, who founded and heads True North Recovery in Wasilla, which manages both inpatient and outpatient facilities and also engages in extensive community outreach programs.
This thought was echoed by Mark Weaver, vice president of Palmer's Fallen Up Ministries and a peer support specialist with Set Free Alaska. “Some people have handled this better than others," he explained. "There have been some people who have relapsed or struggled with their routines changing and not being supported in ways they are used to. Change is hard. Whether it’s good or bad, change is hard.”
The changes have been ordered from the top, and even with long established agencies, they've required some quick thinking. Julia Luey, vice president of treatment services Volunteers of America in Anchorage, which serves at-risk youth, said that with governor's orders, “We’ve had a multitude of restrictions come our way. It took some time for our patients and staff to adjust to the new settings.”
Among the things VOA did was shift to tele-health for outpatient services. Providers like VOA had previously been barred from using this tool by law, but Luey said the state quickly lifted this restriction. She added that some of the kids they serve have shied away from this option, but others have embraced it.
A big problem for those in recovery has been the limitations on gatherings. For several weeks, meetings of more than ten people were prohibited, putting many programs in a bind. Meetings are a core component of many recovery programs. This is where those struggling with addiction can join with others in the same place and talk openly about their journeys, encouraging each other along. It's an approach with a proven track record. In Fairbanks, Blaydes, who overcame decades of drug use dating back to her childhood and who leads meetings at North Pole Worship Center, said, “It’s their family. It’s how they stay clean and sober.”
Here again, technology has played a key role. Debbie Bourne, a peer support specialist at Bridge of Fairbanks, which operates under the Interior Alaska Center for Non-Violent Living, said the same platforms that businesses have been using with employees working from home have been employed to keep meetings running, even if they aren't in person. "We had a billion Zoom meetings," she said. "Once we got over that initial feeling weird about it, it actually worked quite well.”
However, Blaydes pointed out that for many who are seeking help for the first time, access to communications technologies and laptops and tablets is sometimes lacking, especially if they have been homeless. “When you come into recovery, you don’t have Facebook, you don’t have any of that. So we try to hook them up with Messenger.”
In Palmer, Weaver said the abrupt halt to meetings took a toll. “There have been relapses. There have been people who aren’t supported in ways that are healing and healthy for them. Recovery’s really about connection and accountability and having support systems around you. And addiction’s really about isolation. With the social norms changing we’re expected to isolate, that’s problematic for people in recovery.”
Still, Weaver added, “We really tried to operate as close to what we would our regular Celebrate Recovery events.” This meant keeping the online meetings on the same schedule as in-person ones, and celebrating peoples' milestones through group chats. “Even though we’ve had some obstacles along the way, a lot of people have stepped up and helped support people in different ways. We’ve tried to keep it as normal as we could.”
While Zoom and FaceTime meetings have been helpful, keeping personal connections going has also been important. People with many years in recovery have taken it upon themselves to reach out and be available to others. Bill, a longtime resident of Alaska who asked to remain anonymous, lives along the road system where services for those in recovery are limited. In the absence of local meetings, he put out the word that he’s available to take calls whenever needed. “There are a couple of people I’ve been reaching out to who I’ve worried about, who might fall back into that pattern, but they’ve been good so far," he said.
For Bill, who has been sober for a decade, this is a means of continuing his own recovery, and of paying forward the gift he felt he was given by those who helped him get back on his feet. “I feel I need to be there for someone else," he said.
Weaver praised those who have long term histories in recovery and who are willing to take calls any time, especially since this often means a disruption to their regular routines. “Those calls rarely come between 9 AM and 5 PM Monday through Friday.”
He also pointed out that when an addict reaches out for help, those in the recovery community need to act quickly, as the person might change their mind and pull back the following day. But he said that even amidst the pandemic, people are there and poised to help. “When that window opens and people are ready to try this, we know how to rally.”
An even tougher problem has been getting people into residential facilities. Even under the best of circumstances, this can be challenging, since there are never enough beds to meet the demand. With a highly contagious and sometimes fatal virus circulating, people entering treatment first need to establish that they are not carrying it.
In Palmer, Set Free Alaska has been assisting people with fourteen day self-isolation so they can be admitted to facilities. This includes groceries and other needs, as well as support with remaining sober during the transition.
Over in Wasilla, True North does medical checks for new patients. “We haven’t stopped folks from getting in," Soderstrom said. “It’s super important for folks to know that they still have access to treatment and they can get the help they need, regardless of the COVID-19 circumstances.”
At Volunteers of America in Anchorage, kids being admitted to group homes are eligible for the COVID-19 test. “That’s great, but it’s also putting on an extra 48 hours until we can put them into care," said Luey. "But we’ve been creative making sure they’re receiving interim services and support and just wrapping around them as much as we can.”
In Fairbanks, Sam Bush is an independent living specialist at a women's recovery house run by the Interior Alaska Center for Non-Violent Living. She said the residents have been able to adapt to distancing from each other and added that the state has been very helpful as the agency works under trying circumstances.
Outpatient work has mostly been easier, but some avenues have closed off. When overdose victims show up at Mat-Su Regional Medical Center, representatives from True North have in the past been brought in to talk with them and let them know what resources are available in the community. This ended when medical facilities had to strictly limit access. Soderstrom said the agency has switched to telephonic meetings, but the loss of in person contact has somewhat reduced their effectiveness.
Despite the additional hurdles, people in the field have maintained their determination and optimism. Intimately familiar through their work with challenges and setbacks, they keep forging forward, even as the pandemic throws new monkey wrenches into their processes. While the old joke says ‘rehab is for quitters,’ the one thing those who have devoted their lives to helping rescue people from drug and alcohol addiction won't do is quit.
True North, which is entirely staffed by people in recovery never turns anyone seeking help away, and Soderstrom stressed that this commitment has not wavered. Weaver emphasized that, “There are people who will answer their phones 24/7. There are resources available. The places you would normally go to for help, just because the operations are different doesn’t mean there’s not people who are willing to help.”
Even as the health mandates have been rescinded and agencies are beginning to resume more normal operations, there's an understanding that if the virus surges, the state could return into lockdown. And someday a different pandemic could emerge. So the lessons learned these last few weeks need to be applied to the future.
In Fairbanks, Bush said that while coordination between agencies has always been good, COVID-19 has exposed the need for a master plan between all of them for handling future crises like this one. Alyssa Bish, development and communications director at Volunteers of America said, “We’re recognizing that the populations we serve have had their safety catches pulled out from underneath them and we’ve worked to centralize those resources.”
Despite the challenges, Weaver said he's been impressed with how people have come together, and inspired by how quickly the recovery community has been able to meet the challenge head on. “I’ve tried to encourage people to look for the blessings in this,” he said.
VOA's Luey said being able to use tele-health has actually helped her agency broaden its net much further afield, reaching kids beyond Anchorage, and hopes the state doesn't reverse the order that allows recovery programs to use this tool. "Where and when we can lift the red tape to meet the need is so important. The need won’t go away once the pandemic goes away."
Anne Benson, another Palmer resident active in recovery communities, said even with the pandemic, people seeking to escape addiction needn't give up. “Just because you’re struggling doesn’t mean you’re failing," she said. "Often times we have to find out what doesn’t work before we find out what does. Have hope. That stands for ‘hold on, pain ends.’”
In Fairbanks, Blaydes concluded by saying that, no matter what, those needing help will get it if they ask. Even if another lockdown is ordered, she said, "The key thing is stay connected. Give COVID-19 the finger and do it on your phone.”