Addiction is an incredibly lonely disease.

Mental health professionals believe that the crippling reliance on substances can stem from feelings of isolation, depression and anxiety. As social distancing takes hold in Minnesota, along with the governor’s order to stay at home, people on the road to recovery are having to quickly adapt to what sober support has to look like amidst COVID-19.

“In addition to the anxiety and stress with the virus, it is even more compounded when they can’t go to their usual recovery meetings where they feel they get the most support,” said Nicole Grams, Steele Waseca Drug Court coordinator. “We are trying to stay connected with them as best as possible.”

A central feature of most addiction treatment programs is community, and for many years that has translated to face-to-face meetings — often in large groups. Statewide restrictions, however, have forced the recovery community to rework the system. In most scenarios, this has meant tapping into technology via conference calls and video chats.

“By converting some meetings to a video chat platform, it allows the participants to see familiar faces,” Grams said. “We’re really pushing as much as we can to connect with others in recovery and we have given them a list of a variety of different virtual meetings they can attend.”

The virtual meetings have replaced most all forms of alcohol and drug addiction recovery sessions, including substance support groups and area drug court programs. In Waseca County, Grams said that they still have in-person sessions, though they do not exceed 10 people in the courtroom at a time. This means that the entire team cannot be present and they can only allow one participant in the courtroom at a time to still follow the appropriate social distancing guidelines.

Steele County has already converted to a teleconferencing court system, allowing for participants to say at home and still have the connection to the program, according to Grams.

“It’s important that they still have that connection for both support and for accountability,” she said. “These are dramatic changes, but we’re trying to make sure that our staff our healthy and that our clients stay healthy.”

In Rice County, the drug court program has moved to teleconferencing for mandated court sessions, but Coordinator Susan Hence said they’ve had to take a bit more of a “relaxed” approached for the time being.

“Community Corrections is responsible for the chemical testing in our program and they are not seeing clients right now,” Hence said. “So we have really had to move to the honor system with that, but we are checking in with all of them daily.”

Hence said that the most important thing that the program is trying to push during the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic is keeping their participants engaged and letting them know that the support they need is out there. She added that they try to continue to provide participants with a variety of resources, including different ways to take advantage of extra time at home that they may not typically have.

“I send them different projects or ways to spend our time so they’re not focused on the fact that we can’t have that contact,” Hence said. “People just need to take this time to reach out and appreciate those who they do have in their support system. Sometimes just hearing some kind words can replace that physical connection.”

While modern-day technology has been able to circumvent some of the obstacles around the social distancing for those in recovery, COVID-19 has presented the community with other hurdles that don’t have as quick of a fix. On Thursday, House of Hope announced that it would shut down operations in all its facilities for both outpatient and residential treatment, laying off all employees effective April 11.

“Due to the economic impact of COVID-19, House of Hope is implementing measures to ensure the financial stability of the company,” said Christ Barnett, its vice president of clinical services and organizational development. “The current pandemic situation has impacted our business significantly, and as a result, we find that we must make some difficult personnel decisions.”

House of Hope has outpatient treatment centers in Waseca, St. Peter and Mankato.

Barnett said that the decision to close the facilities was not impacted by the governor’s stay-at-home executive order, but strictly due to the fact that the company can no longer afford to continue to do business due to reduced numbers from the pandemic. She added that they do not anticipate opening at the end of the current order, but hope to open again in the future. The company is currently working to find placements or transfers to other outpatient facilities for clients that need it prior to Friday.

“This is creating a huge void for the Waseca community,” Grams said. “We are aggressively working this week to bridge those services and get some people to transition to programs in Owatonna.”

It is that lack of treatment that Joe Peterson, a licensed alcohol and drug counselor and who has been sober for 20 years, sees as a concern for newcomers to any recovery program.

“The biggest issue that I see is that it will be so difficult for any newcomer who normally would be coming into a meeting,” said Peterson, who is very involved in the recovery community in Steele County. “Services for the newcomer are a lot tougher to find because they don’t know where to look.”

While the public health pandemic is uncharted territory for everyone, including those in recovery, Peterson said that the journey to sobriety can still be accomplished.

“The secret is not quitting,” Peterson said. “It’s learning to live clean and sober. You have to replace the using behaviors with non-using behaviors. That may be a lot tougher now, but it’s not impossible.”

Peterson encourages anyone looking for additional support during their recovery to find virtual meetings to attend and allow themselves to connect with others living a sober lifestyle. With so many recovery programs based on spirituality, Peterson said that praying is a good place to start.

“It isn’t about asking God to help you quit drinking or quit drugging, “Peterson said. “It’s about asking a higher power to help you stay sober and to remove your obsession with your addiction.”

Positivity is also a big component of sobriety that Peterson believes in, saying positive self-talk can really make or break and individual looking to be successful in recovery.

“I think it’s most important for anybody out there to know that you didn’t become an addict overnight, so don’t try to overhaul your whole life in one night,” Peterson said. “Focus on making one small change at a time. That will add up to big transformation.”

“Just don’t give up,” he continued. “You have to keep plugging away.”

Reach Reporter Annie Granlund at 507-444-2378 or follow her on Twitter @OPPAnnie. ©Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota.

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