By James Lanigan
Special to the Pittsburgh Current
A little after 7 a.m. on a cold Monday morning last December, a therapist friend of mine called asking if I could do him a favor.
A patient of his was trying to get off drugs and he wanted to know if I would be willing to talk to him. I agreed and reached out to him- right away. He was already a few days into his detox and still withdrawing when we spoke. We talked about the business of detoxing, especially the insomnia and the headaches that he was still going through. I assured him they would not last and that he was doing great. Then he mentioned that he had a fever, which struck me as a bit unusual for a typical withdrawal. He told me that he couldn’t taste or smell anything, either. A test result confirmed it a few days later – the poor guy was battling not only withdrawal symptoms but Covid-19 as well.
I am used to phone calls from people in recovery or from friends or acquaintances who know someone who wants to stop using. My only qualification is that I have been clean from heroin since 2014. I know firsthand that relationships and connections formed with other people in recovery play an important part in someone’s early recovery process, and so I try to never shy away from any such calls when they come. But what I am not used to is being unable to meet someone who is struggling for a cup of coffee, or to get together and introduce them to other people, or direct them to a church basement for a 12-step meeting, or to even know how best to guide them through the process of entering an inpatient or outpatient treatment program.
Recovery, as it had been before the pandemic, does not exist right now. The coronavirus has made it very difficult for those with substance use problems to find one of the most crucial things that they need: fellowship and support. My early morning phone call is an example of how much the process of helping someone has become disrupted. The help, typically and vitally done up close, is relegated virtually and from a distance. When it’s not out of reach altogether.
This fact is especially alarming considering recent data from the CDC, which shows an increase in overdose deaths since the pandemic began. After a decrease in deaths from 2017-18 seemed to signal a curtailing of the devastation that the epidemic had been causing, the CDC data from last month shows a sharp increase in overdose deaths between March 2020 and May 2020. In a 12-month period ending in May 2020 the United States saw the highest total of overdose deaths so far recorded.
Meanwhile, people trying — needing — to find a place in a recovery community face unprecedented difficulty. With Covid-19 numbers dominating headlines, the troubling truth of the CDC overdose numbers is that those who are struggling with substance use are going unnoticed – not only statistically but physically within the community, as well. For addicts, remaining shut-in and isolated can be disastrous. It reminds me of a time in my own addiction, during the so-called “Snowmaggedon” storm of 2010, when I was similarly stuck at home. With no place to go, nowhere to be, and little to do, my use of heroin, pills, and fentanyl soared to dangerous heights. I shudder to think what it would be like for something like that to last an entire year.
Addiction thrives in isolation. In my own early recovery, the negative habits, thoughts, and routines of addiction were broken by actively partaking in life and society. In my first few months clean, I found a lot of solace in getting out and keeping busy. I attended an outpatient group every day in Squirrel Hill, taking two buses to get there each morning from the recovery house that I was living in in Garfield. I met others in recovery there, and we would sometimes get lunch together or hang out after.
Once I completed that program, I would still take those same two buses every Wednesday night for an outpatient alumni meeting in Squirrel Hill. The meeting technically only lasted an hour, but I remember how it took up my whole night. I looked forward to getting out of my recovery house and reading on the bus or listening to music at the bus stops. After the meeting, we would sometimes go out to eat at the restaurants in Squirrel Hill, cramming into booths at Eat’n Park or Aladdin’s. People would sometimes give me a ride home after to save me from the long wait for the next bus.
The hour meeting was one thing, but the time before and the time after was just as important. Doing something, anything, can be a reprieve from those negative habits, thoughts and routines. Addiction happens alone at home, in secrecy. Healing happens when someone is out and about, feeling a part of and not apart from.
Now housing programs like the one I was in are susceptible to outbreaks. Outpatient groups are facilitated online via Zoom where each patient is still physically alone wherever they live — and that’s assuming that someone has the space and equipment to participate. The occasions of taking bus rides or going out to eat or getting a ride home or even smoking a cigarette with others has been taken away. Leaving little more than phone calls which have become lifelines in the battle against addiction and relapse.
Today, those habits that felt marginal to my recovery have become paramount.
Yes, the phone is always a lifeline, but today that’s truer than ever. I have found myself earmarking the occasions of long car rides that I have to make for work as opportunities to return or make calls to friends. Some are fighting to maintain their recovery. Some admit they are losing touch with it. And still others are struggling to find it in the first place. Last summer, someone who played an instrumental part in my early recovery overdosed and died.
After that, I sat down and made a list of people to check in on so that I wouldn’t forget.
Once the young man from my phone call tested positive for Covid-19, I continued to reach out and text him, but he stopped getting back to me. After a while, I simply left him a message wishing him well and letting him know that if he needs anything, I am available. I feel badly. It’s a delicate moment when someone decides that they want help. When they want to finally break the secrecy and the loneliness of using and reach out. I can’t help but feel that Covid-19 robbed him of that moment. I guess the best thing I can do now is just keep my phone on. And hope he calls.
James Lanigan is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.