Jessica Dueñas had been in recovery since 2019 when COVID-19 hit, and she had what she needed to stay sober: A therapist, a serious boyfriend and friends she could still talk to, as well as a new Pyrenees Pit hybrid, Cruz, to keep her going outside on walks.
There were gaps, of course: Dueñas, who was named Kentucky Teacher of the Year in 2019, couldn’t get in to see a psychiatrist to prescribe her medication, and she missed the routine and connection that came with her job at Louisville’s W.E.B. DuBois Academy. But, overall, she was surviving in a stressful year that swallowed many in recovery.
Then, Dueñas’ boyfriend, who was also in recovery, relapsed. He had to take some pain pills for a medical condition, she said, which might have been fine, but because of COVID-19 he had trouble getting in to see a therapist who could monitor his intake.
One day that spring, he told Dueñas he was going to the gas station, but he didn’t come back. Dueñas discovered him two hours later at his apartment, dead of an overdose.
That same day, Dueñas went to the liquor store and bought two bottles of alcohol.
She was back in the hole.
In Louisville, 582 people died of overdoses in 2020, the year that COVID cut people in recovery off from family, friends and resources. There are still 25 pending toxicology results from potential overdose deaths, said Jefferson County Chief Deputy Coroner Scott Russ. For comparison, from 2015-2019, 334 people died on average each year of overdoses in the city. Dueñas said she has known five people who relapsed and died during the pandemic, either from an overdose or by suicide.
“COVID has been an absolute curse to people in recovery,” said Dueñas.
Dr. Brian Casey, a psychiatrist at UofL Physicians HealthCare Outpatient Center and an instructor in the school’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, said that, in addition to adding financial and psychological stressors to the lives of those in recovery, COVID-19 has taken away their ability to do the things that keep them well, such as seeing friends and family and going to church and group recovery meetings.
When the pandemic struck, some group recovery meetings shut down and others transitioned to an online format. Therapy went mostly virtual, as well.
But, not everyone has been able to adapt to this new normal, whether it’s been because there’s something missing for them from the streamed experience, or because they don’t have access to the necessary resources.
The solution, according to those in recovery, has been to do whatever possible to stay sober. Dueñas quit her beloved job and moved to Tampa, Florida, to live with her sister, where she’s now been sober for two months. She turns 36 on Thursday.
Wesley Craven, 46, of New Albany, started in-person recovery meetings after the shutdown.
“My addiction will kill me just as much as COVID will,” he said. “The thing about it with us, with addicts and things like that, isolation is one of the worst things that can happen to us.”
‘THE WORST THING THAT CAN HAPPEN’
When Craven was still using drugs, he went through bouts of homelessness, but even when he was staying with others, he would keep to himself.
“I had a lot of self loathing,” he said. “I hated myself and thought everyone else should, too, so I just stayed away as best as I could.”
This isolation made Craven’s substance use disorder worse. Instead of talking to others, he’d dialogue with himself, dwelling on the past and blaming himself. Now, after more than a year of recovery, he realizes how important being connected is to staying sober.
Connection is the opposite of addiction, is a phrase that people in recovery repeat often, including Dueñas.
“So much of recovery is based on the idea of connecting with others,” she said. “You have a mentor who guides you in your sobriety journey because they’ve been able to do it before. You go to support groups and talk about what’s going on. If you’re worried about drinking you call somebody, and they’ll show up at your house. So much of recovery is connection.”
Lisa Livingston, the executive director of The BreakAway, an addiction recovery home in New Albany, said that her residents have mostly emerged from the pandemic unscathed. She said she thinks this is because they’ve been able to interact with each other.
“It’s actually harder on the ones that are out here trying to stay sober like myself that’s not in a recovery home, because we miss that fellowship and we miss those face-to-face, one-on-one meetings,” she said.
Merideth Booth, 23, of Louisville has been in recovery since 2017, and group meetings are still an important part of her sober life. So, when the pandemic started, and recovery meetings went virtual, she followed.
Social isolation in general isn’t good for people in recovery, but group meetings with others who are sober can be especially important, said Dr. Casey.
“It allows people to be a part of a community that they can really be honest with,” he said. “Even if you have family you’re talking to, you may want to cover up some of these issues or not talk bout them. People are more open to talking to people who they know are struggling with similar issues.”
Booth said she misses the fellowship of the recovery community in pre-COVID times. She doesn’t get the same feelings in virtual meetings as she did at in-person ones. But, there are some perks: There’s one she participates in that’s 24 hours, so she can pop-in at five in the morning or in the evening. And, there are others that bring together people from across the country, which she enjoys.
But, she knows other people in recovery and in 12-step programs, like Alcoholics Anonymous, who have struggled even with virtual meetings, because they don’t have face-to-face accountability. Booth, who works at an addiction treatment center as a business development representative, thinks those in recovery should do what’s best for them to stay sober.
“It’s kind of one of those things, like, do I put my recovery first or do I keep myself healthy, like which one’s prioritized more at this moment. And personally for me, my recovery has to come first no matter what,” she said.
Dr. Casey said that the costs and benefits of COVID restrictions have to be weighed against each other for people in recovery.
He believes people who are lonely and burdened with extra stresses by COVID are at a higher risk of relapse.
“And for someone in recovery, the chances, the consequences, of relapse are quite high,” he said.
When COVID-19 hit, two of Craven’s group recovery meetings shut down: The one at the halfway house he was living at in Corydon, and another at a community church.
Immediately, he started a meeting of his own amongst residents of the halfway home, House of New Beginnings.
Later on in the pandemic, he started another recovery meeting off-site of the halfway house that people who didn’t live in the home could attend, too.
“We had a lot of friends that were struggling,” he said. “I know that we had some friends that relapsed so we decided to go ahead and start a meeting that they could come, too, if they felt safe.”
In-person group meetings have been returning slowly throughout the pandemic. COVID-19 became an opportunity for new ones in more distanced settings to start up, such as those taking place outside and one in particular that meets in a warehouse, according to Booth. Then, some already-established groups started opening back up, although they have at times had to turn people away when they’re at capacity, Booth said.
Craven has attended virtual recovery meetings, but he hasn’t felt the same sense of connection at those.
“You’re staring at a computer screen. The people there, they seem to tend to act a little different in front of a computer, a camera,” he said. “I know when I spoke on one, it felt a little strange to me. I wasn’t able to see the faces and I felt like I was talking to myself.”
At an in-person meeting, Craven said, he can tell by people’s body language when they’re connecting to what you’re saying.
Livingston, who is 55, said she doesn’t like virtual meetings as much as in-person ones, either. But, she’s avoided them anyway because of her age and because some people at them don’t wear masks.
Craven did eventually catch COVID-19. He said he is not sure where. Luckily, his only symptoms were loss of smell and fatigue. And, as of this week, he is back to work, having finished his quarantine.
Without group meetings during the pandemic, Craven said that he would surely have relapsed.
“I have no doubt. I’ve had times during this quarantine that were a little rough, and I’ve been in recovery long enough to know what to do,” he said. “But if I hadn’t had my support group and the meetings and the Zoom and all that going on, those thoughts would have took root for sure.”
THOSE WHO CAN’T ESCAPE
While the pandemic has increased the need for addiction recovery services, there are fewer available, said Booth.
In addition to group recovery meetings having to turn people away, she knows of recovery centers that have had to limit their hours. Also, people who have lost their jobs, and by proxy, their insurance, have a harder time gaining access to services.
“Options are thin when you don’t really have health insurance,” she said.
Outpatient therapy offices have limits on the number of people who are allowed in at one time, according to Booth. This is the case for the UofL Center, said Dr. Casey, although the practice is “as busy as ever,” he said.
But, Dr. Casey said that the pandemic has been especially hard on his patients who are low-income. Sometimes, they do not have access to the necessary equipment to participate in virtual appointments, but they’re uncomfortable with an in-person appointment.
“We try our hardest to reach them,” said Dr. Casey. “Sometimes we’re willing to have phone appointments, but we’re trying to get away from those because we aren’t getting all of the information if we’re not seeing someone in person.”
Only Dueñas’ family and closest friends knew she had a substance use disorder before her latest relapse. She kept her addiction a secret from the people she worked with and many of those who knew her as a successful, Kentucky teacher.
“It was really exhausting to try to pretend to be perfect,” she said. “Being Teacher of the Year then working at this amazing school, having done quite a few really positive things in the community, I was putting pressure on myself to present as always perfect.”
Similarly, when Dueñas’ partner died, she said she was too proud to ask for help publicly from friends in Louisville.
“I didn’t want to feel like a bother,” she said.
Dueñas doesn’t remember the first three or so days after she relapsed, except for the end of her binge, when she found herself hospitalized. In the months that followed, she landed in the hospital seven times. Dueñas’ sister asked her to come stay with her, but Dueñas refused at first.
“I felt really stubborn,” she said, “because I’ve always done so successfully for myself and my career, and I bought a house for myself. In my head, I’m like, ‘I‘ve done all this stuff by myself, why can’t I just do my grief by myself, my grieving?’ And it was just impossible. It was literally impossible.”
Without the distraction of teaching face-to-face with her students, Dueñas said she thinks the death of her partner hit her harder than it would have in non-COVID times.
In the haze of relapse, though, Dueñas found moments of motivation to crawl out.
“No matter what happened, I would eventually always say I’m going to try again,” said Dueñas. “And I did.”
Dueñas has been in recovery since the end of November. She’s been able to keep sober by using a variety of tools: She now regularly attends virtual recovery meetings, including ones that include participants from across the country. She still has a therapist and leans on others. She also meditates, and she’s had to make some drastic life changes.
First, she moved to Florida. After being sober for a month, she tried to move back to Louisville, but relapsed. She now says that Kentucky is too traumatic of a place for her to live right now. Then, Dueñas relapsed again over anxieties about going back to work. She realized that the job she loved was too stressful, and she had to quit teaching virtually. Now, she works in sales for a private tutoring company.
Finally, Dueñas came out publicly in December with her substance use disorder in a column published in The Courier Journal. This, too, she attributes to keeping her sober.
“One of the thoughts that helped me not drink was that I had an overwhelming amount of wonderful, beautiful emails written from people all over Louisville and then some people who randomly came across the article because of the internet from other parts of the country. And honestly, those people’s words were one of the contributing factors to me not drinking that day,” she said. “There were other factors too. But, putting that article out there and really baring my heart and soul, I knew it would make me stronger.”
Dueñas now posts about her recovery journey on Facebook. She’s done multiple interviews with podcasts. In this way, she has forced herself to connect to people beyond family and close friends: to acquaintances, strangers and her former students.
“I feel like I had lost so much control of myself in 2020, that I feel like the choice to stay sober, the choice to leave Louisville, the choice to leave teaching, that was all a part of myself reclaiming myself, reclaiming my life and reclaiming my narrative,” she said.
She’s been able to burst through the COVID bubble of isolation, but she worries that others may be developing substance use disorders during this time, such as people who are drinking more often than they did pre-quarantine. She worries about the long-lasting effects of the pandemic on addiction. Dr. Casey said that these effects are yet to be seen but that the answer is “likely yes,” that there will be negative outcomes.
And, people in recovery have ideas for what needs to be done: Dueñas calls for the proliferation of Narcan and Vivitrol, Booth says the stigma needs to be reduced first. And, Dr. Casey said it’s an important time to check in with others and see how they’re doing at this time. •