COVID-19 self-isolation a problem for those in addiction recovery

As people are asked to self-isolate to stop the COVID-19 outbreak, those struggling with sobriety could lose much-needed support systems.

'We’re personally distancing right now so that we can do our part'

Support group meetings like this are no longer allowed as social distancing is being encouraged to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. (Image Point Fr/Shutterstock)

"That connection … it's everything."

The practice of social distancing is crucial to controlling the spread of coronavirus. But for people in recovery, like Todd Hewitt, the social isolation required because of COVID-19 can put their sobriety in jeopardy.

"You're always taught, go out. Make connections," Hewitt said. "That's the biggest thing that I discovered in going through recovery … Isolation is bad. So right now with this, it's incredibly tough on a lot of the guys."

At the end of January, Hewitt finished a four-month stay at the Sunshine Coast Health Centre (SCHC) in Powell River, B.C. He returned to the Calgary area when he finished so he could be close to his two sons. 

He said having his family to focus on is actually a helpful distraction.

"The kids aren't in school," Hewitt said. "What I have to worry about is making breakfast in the morning, making lunch, making dinner, having groceries, making sure there's toilet paper. So it's actually made it a lot easier. I don't have the opportunity to go to the liquor store or the bar."

Todd Hewitt with his two boys, Broddie and Kemp. (Supplied by Todd Hewitt)

He knows that's not the case for everyone in recovery. Some people are trying to stay sober without a network of family or friends. But he encourages anyone feeling isolated to reach out, whether to a friend or even a support line.

"It's the hardest thing to do," he said. "When you're in addiction you never want to be a burden on anybody."

While Hewitt believes in-person meetings are far more successful, he knows that supporting recovery during the coronavirus pandemic will have to be done in creative ways.

SCHC offers group meetings for its alumni in Calgary and Edmonton to continue supporting them in recovery. The Calgary group is continuing to work on alternative plans for alumni during the pandemic, while group meetings in Edmonton have already been moved online.

Dave Sinclair is a sober coach who facilitates the support meetings in Edmonton on behalf of the centre. 

"Especially given this time right now where we are ... there's a lot of people that are really kind of uncertain," Sinclair said. "If you're already on a little bit of shaky ground then it's a really scary time right now."

Sinclair says self-care or "[eating] your spinach" as he calls it is important for everyone to practice, but especially those who might struggle with addictions. 

Edmonton-based sober coach Dave Sinclair prefers the term "personally distancing" over "self-isolating." (Skype/CBC)

"It's really important for the men in this group, this recovery group, to come together as a community," he said. 

At weekly meetings, the recovery group ranges in size from eight to 16 people. Its first online session was held last Tuesday.

"It worked pretty well," Sinclair said. "We were still able to connect. So, even in this world right now where we're talking about socially isolating, that's not the word." 

"We're personally distancing right now so that we can do our part."

Alberta Health Services is doing what it can to continue with mental health and addictions support programs as well, said spokesperson Sabrina Atwal. 

"Where possible support and treatment will be provided by phone," Atwal said via email. "We encourage all clients to contact the clinic prior to their appointment to discuss whether services can be provided this way. Staff will be pre-screening clients prior to client visits."

Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous have both posted statements about moving their support group meetings online as well.