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'The Disease Does Not Stop': San Antonio Students Take Addiction Recovery Online

Carson Frame / TPR News
OLLU PhD student Lydia Hamner shares her thoughts during an online meeting of the Center for Students in Recovery.

The COVID-19 outbreak has strained the social supports and routines that help recovering addicts stay clean — and put new people at risk. As more cities and counties in Texas issue shelter-in-place orders to stop the spread, some in recovery are finding new ways to connect and maintain sobriety. 

A screen full of faces — a scene that’s becoming common everywhere. 

Students from Our Lady of the Lake University took part in a virtual Zoom meeting in late March. COVID-19 has forced their fellowship meetings — normally held at OLLU’s Center for Students in Recovery — into a new format. 

These students are navigating addiction and recovery in a new landscape, one ruled by social distancing and its downstream effects. 

“If you could please join me in a moment of silence, after which we'll recite the serenity prayer,” said Rebecca Gomez, the meeting chair. 

The students repeated her words, their voices echoing in virtual space.

“God, grant me the serenity

to accept the things I cannot change,

the courage to change the things I can,

and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Power in Routine

Many in the meeting felt powerless because of COVID-19. The routines of their daily lives had been disrupted, connections changed, and sobriety tested. Some reacted to San Antonio’s newly issued shelter-in-place order. 

Gomez said addiction thrives in situations like this.

“The isolation... really feeds the disease and continues to keep people from being able to get healthy." 

OLLU PhD student Lydia Hamner  joined the meeting late because of technical difficulties, reminding everyone in the meeting that life online isn’t the norm.

“I literally had to pull out another computer to make this happen,” she said, laughing. “Speaking of powerlessness: I had no power over that. It was driving me crazy!”

The weeks since the outbreak have been punctuated by setbacks for Hamner. She lost her job waiting tables at a restaurant on the San Antonio River Walk when social distancing measures grew more restrictive. Her other work, as a mental health awareness training coordinator, was put on hiatus until April. 

Hamner said she’s had to reevaluate her hard-driving nature. 

“I'm trying to forgive myself for not meeting my standards, and not being as productive as I would like to be,” she explained. “I've had to really dial back as far as not being so hard on myself. I'm powerless as to what's going on. I can't control it.”

Hamner told the group she’s experiencing higher levels of mental distress, and has a “massive fear factor” about not being able to support her family. 

“So, in this period of adapting and adjusting... I've been in my stress, in my depression….and I wake up and I want to drink.”

Hamner combats those urges by remembering everything she’s accomplished sober, she said. But with San Antonio’s new rules about staying home, many of her tools for managing stress and staying connected are off limits. 

“As far as using, I think that the hardest part for me, in my recovery is... I go to church on Sunday. That's my stronghold. So, I can't do that,” she said.

The gym is out, too. Hamner has found herself in a lot of online meetings in her newfound free time. Which helps, to a point.

“It's been challenging to accept the fact that I have to find ways at home to look inward. Instead of giving all the power to other things to make me happy, right? I need to find it within myself,” she said. 

Taking Recovery Online

Stress, anxiety, helplessness, and financial worries are taking a toll on those in recovery.

“Individuals are, you know, seeking to self medicate and or deal with the triggers and the relapse episodes that they're feeling,” said Abigail Moore, CEO of the San Antonio Council on Alcohol and Drug Awareness, a nonprofit that provides prevention and recovery services for in Bexar County and surrounding areas. 

Community, Moore said, is a huge part of people’s drug and alcohol recovery. She added that COVID-19 is even deterring some people from seeking help.

“They're not showing up because of what they're hearing, what they're seeing on the news. They're scared,” Moore said. “We're seeing a drastic drop in people either entering treatment…  the ones that are currently registered to begin the process… and/or the ones that are participating in outpatient programs.”

Now Moore’s organization is trying to build more online recovery communities and make sure certain telehealth and counseling services get covered by insurance.

“We're just trying to help people to stay connected and be in safe environments,” she said. 

SACADA recently released a list of resources for those battling addiction during the coronavirus outbreak. 

An Ever-Present Threat

Those already engaged with the Center for Students in Recovery online fellowship seemed to share a sense of responsibility for others. 

"The disease does not stop,” said Rebecca Gomez. “There are plenty of newcomers who are entering recovery in a different world than we've seen before. So, helping them get connected is really important service work."

Social work student Van Cormier told the group that he’s newly sober from alcohol and drugs. He lives alone, and is now navigating sobriety with just his cell phone, the Big Book and online recovery groups.  

“I was in the grocery store the other day,” Cormier explained. “I had two different times when I was stopped from purchasing alcohol. I don't know if the stress of what we're dealing with was a reason for me to want to get the alcohol. But it didn't happen. I'm still sober from it.”

Cormier said he’s simply taken his normal routine virtual, so he’s staying accountable to others. But he thinks this a tough journey, no matter what.

"I wouldn't say what's going on outside is any different than any other day,” he reflected. “I guess sobriety is subject to relapsing any time. Not just because there's a virus out there."

In that way, he suggested, the cornerstones of recovery are the same things that will help everyone during the coronavirus outbreak: connectedness, acts of service and routine.  

Carson Frame can be reached at Carson@TPR.org and on Twitter at @carson_frame.