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When You Lose Your Support System, How Do You Stay Sober In A Pandemic?

Almost exactly one year ago, Jamie M. got some bad news. Her Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor wanted to stop meeting in person for at least two weeks because of the pandemic.

“I just remember kind of getting scared like, “Well, what am I going to do?” Jamie M. said.

Jamie had been sober for about one year after going through detox and 30-day treatment through the Department of Veterans Affairs. She had been going to AA meetings every day. When the pandemic hit, she didn’t want to lose her progress.

“It was just like everybody else,” Jamie said. “How are we going to do this? How are we going to live, work, go to the store ... and of course, meetings?”

Jamie’s AA group started hosting virtual meetings a couple of times per week. She also started attending virtual meetings in New York. She didn’t relapse.

Many people are drinking more during the pandemic. American adults said they are drinking 14% more often, according to a report in the Journal of the American Medical Association. In North Carolina, liquor sales jumped nearly 12% in the fiscal year that ended in June.

Heather Gallagher, a clinical addictions specialist at UNC Medical Center’s Alcohol and Substance Abuse Program, said she has “absolutely” seen a rise in patients in the past year.

“There are several contributing factors here,” Gallagher said. “Isolation, easy access to alcohol and other substances, their recovery support meetings moving to virtual platforms and then these blurred lines between work and home.”

According to Gallagher, the vast majority of her patients now use virtual or phone appointments, which can be more convenient but also present their own challenges. She said there are often more distractions at home, like family members who need taking care of or children who require help with virtual school.

That can make it harder to focus on therapy, Gallagher said, and she worries about her clients who don’t have the privacy to talk freely. Plus, she said, a major part of communication can get lost in a lagging video or phone line.

“A ton is lost there,” Gallagher said. “We know that most communication isn’t in what we say but it’s in how we say it, it’s in facial expressions, in intonation, in all of these different nonverbals.”

Dr. Paolo Mannelli, a psychiatrist at Duke Health, said he has seen 30-40% more patients looking for drug or alcohol treatment.

“In the next decade, we’re going to have to deal with the aftermath,” Mannelli said.

He said that he thinks substance use treatment should be more widely available.

“As part of a ... COVID relief plan because substance use disorders are associated with mental health treatment,” Mannelli said.

A positive development in treatment? Virtual AA meetings all over the world, in places ranging from Iran to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to New Zealand.

“(It’s) at night here (and some patients) are going to an evening meeting in California. And it just works out because of the time zones so that’s one cool benefit,” Gallagher said.

She hopes that by this summer, more people will be vaccinated against COVID-19 and she can start bringing patients back for group or individual therapy in her office. But she would like the virtual AA meetings to keep going, too.

Copyright WFAE 2021.  For more go to WFAE.org

Claire Donnelly is WFAE's health reporter. She previously worked at NPR member station KGOU in Oklahoma and also interned at WBEZ in Chicago and WAMU in Washington, D.C. She holds a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University and attended college at the University of Virginia, where she majored in Comparative Literture and Spanish. Claire is originally from Richmond, Virginia. In her free time, Claire likes listening to podcasts and trying out new recipes.