PEI

How the pandemic hurt — and helped — Islanders looking to stay sober

More people sought help for alcohol and drug abuse during the pandemic, says a P.E.I. counsellor. One man shares the story of how he hit rock-bottom during COVID-19, and a single mom talks about how the pandemic made it easier to stay sober.

'My life was falling apart'

Counsellor Adrian Smith says many of his clients had become worried about their increased drinking at home during the pandemic. (Getty Images/Imagebroker RF)

Chris Inman's day of reckoning with his substance abuse came almost exactly one year ago. 

The 26-year-old had been partying with a friend in Stratford, P.E.I., taking cocaine and prescription drugs (sleeping pills and Xanax), washing them down with alcohol. When his parents couldn't reach him the next day, they went to his apartment and found him unconscious, his clothes soaked in urine.

"That is what ended my addiction, was getting to that rock bottom," he said. "Knowing that I put my mother and father in that place." 

Inman had always been a recreational drug and alcohol user. When the pandemic began in March 2020, he said he became more of a "functioning addict" — he still had friends and held down a job. 

"I was using more and more. I was finding difficulties with lockdown, and losing work," Inman said. "Things that kept me in an environment that was healthy, they were kind of lost because of COVID."

'Some days I feel like I'm walking a tightrope, holding all of this success, and I'm afraid to lose it because I've come so far,' says Chris Inman of Stratford. (Chris Inman)

He began avoiding people, trying to hide how bad his addictions had become. 

"My life was falling apart ... I was really recognizing that things were bad and I did not see an end to it." 

'Very concerning'

Inman is far from alone. 

Adrian Smith has been a private counsellor for seven years specializing in mind-body counselling. He's seen a steep increase in the number of people seeking help for substance abuse during the pandemic.

Counsellor Adrian Smith says he's seen many Islanders seek help with getting or staying sober during the pandemic the last two years. (Adrian Smith)

"In particular, the first year of COVID, I was overwhelmed with it. Almost 80 per cent of my new referrals were addiction related," he said. 

Most people had issues with alcohol, others with food addiction, overeating or cannabis abuse, he said. 

Many recovered alcoholics also feared relapsing. 

"People who normally relied on AA [Alcoholics Anonymous] meetings, that was a major issue," Smith said. "There were still AA meetings on Zoom, but it just wasn't the same thing, they weren't getting that sense of community, that sense of connection.

"It was very concerning."

'Slippery slope'

Isolation and loneliness were two reasons people told Smith they were drinking, as well as trouble in relationships. Lockdowns made maintaining some relationships hard and forced others together under the same roof. 

Boredom was also a factor. Smith said he saw clients who'd developed a habit of drinking wine with supper, then continuing to drink through the evening while watching television or scrolling social media. 

"Then it just becomes easier to use it to relax — this is how we're going to deal with anxiety," he said. "Very slippery slope."

Smith is not an addictions counsellor, so he referred some clients directly to addiction services. Others he was able to help by exploring underlying issues they may have been trying to blot out with alcohol or pot. 

"Other stuff was coming to the surface, I don't focus on the alcohol at all," he explained.

He said most clients came away from a course of counselling feeling better and with improved coping skills. He encourages mindfulness, seeking meaning and purpose. Exercise and time in nature are also balms for most people, he said, along with maintaining strong connections. 

Seeking help

Inman sought addictions counselling which helped immensely.

"Then I also had to look within," he said. "I had to do some really deep, insightful growth looking at why I ended up where I did, what changes I could make to make myself more comfortable in this new life ... otherwise I'd go back to it." 

Inman says the routine of feeding, cleaning up after and playing with his new cat has been a big help. (Chris Inman)

He began walking daily and enjoying the outdoors, and lost 65 pounds. He leaned into new routines, looking after himself mentally and physically. 

"I don't think I've ever showered more in my life," he said with a smile. "I really tried to self care in the early stages because I had not cared about myself for so long." 

He also got a cat, Oreo, and spent time "making sure that he had a good day every day, and if he had a good day that probably meant that I could have a good day too. And if I didn't, at least I made sure he had a good day."

'Made it easier'

Mary Ann Small of Charlottetown got sober in 2018 after becoming pregnant. The 36-year-old single parent now has two young sons. 

Mary Ann Small says the pandemic 'almost made it easier' to stay sober by limiting contact with friends who drink. (Mary Ann Small)

Much of the previous decade she'd been an alcoholic, drinking a pint of vodka a day. 

Being home during the pandemic kept her focused on her priorities: her children, keeping up an active lifestyle and eating a keto diet. She also spent time and energy creating a home for her family. 

"It almost made it easier because there was so much limitation at some points on who we would see," she said. "For me, that worked ... I had no desire to go out with my friends, nor was I allowed to see them." 

Drinking and jokes about it on social media during the pandemic she said were "sad. I find it sad," she said. "Everybody is promoting alcohol. It hasn't made it harder for me but I do feel bad." 

'Sobriety is what works for you'

Inman is now what some call "California sober," a term coined by pop star Demi Lovato, who gave up heroin for moderate cannabis use. 

Inman is 'California sober,' a term coined by pop star Demi Lovato, who quit heroin and fentanyl but uses cannabis. (David Donnelly/CBC)

He uses pot recreationally, and medicinally to prevent migraines — he was born with a tumour wrapped around his optic nerve.

"Sobriety is what works for you," he said. "I always say, sobriety, especially the early stages, is like holding a balloon in a room full of pins ... and as you get further along in your sobriety, you learn different tips and tricks and techniques to avoid these pins that'll pop your balloon, which is so precious." 

He monitors his cannabis use, and plans to taper off and eventually quit.

"I really wanted kind of my first year to be focusing on getting those [hard] substances permanently out of my life," he said. 

'I'm the pudding'

Inman is comfortable talking about his newfound sobriety. In fact he's excited to share his journey and help others. He said many of his friends have seen their addictions worsen during the pandemic. 

He has posted about his recovery on Facebook and sober message boards, encouraging others to seek sobriety. He's also found a community of sober support on TikTok.

He said being public about his sobriety holds him accountable. 

You don't have to reach rock bottom to consider it.— Chris Inman

"The proof is in the pudding, and I'm the pudding," he said. 

He encourages anyone who might be sober-curious to give it a try.

"You don't have to reach rock bottom to consider it ... or even reduction," he said. 

'Much happier person'

Things are looking up, Inman said. He feels good. He landed a job with the provincial government. He has developed healthy relationships with friends and family, and developed healthy habits. He continues addictions counselling. 

"I am overall a much happier person, both inward and outward." 

When he hit one year without hard drugs, Inman cried.

"Other people that have struggled, or have died from this, I wish they had a chance to see where I am and how I feel because it is quite something," he said, wiping away tears.

"I know how hard it is to be at the other end of things." 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sara Fraser

Web Journalist

Sara has worked with CBC News in P.E.I. since 1988, starting with television and radio before moving to the digital news team. She grew up on the Island and has a journalism degree from the University of King's College in Halifax. Reach her by email at sara.fraser@cbc.ca.

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