Being part of a vulnerable population during the current pandemic has forced a lot of choices – and in the recovery community it has forced many underground.
As the COVID-19 response continues on, those in recovery for drugs and alcohol who are vulnerable to relapse have been increasingly weighing the risks of not attending in-person meetings with the risk of contracting COVID-19 – and many are choosing to participate in so-called “secret” meetings.
Shannon Lundin White of the Charlestown Coalition said there are in fact “secret” meetings being held around the town for those in Alcoholics Anonymous and those in Narcotics Anonymous – the 12-step programs for men and women that lean heavily on camaraderie and in-person meetings of the groups. Some of the meetings in Charlestown, such as the ‘Loonie Noonie’ have been going on daily at noon for generations, but suddenly were cancelled indefinitely due to the restrictions on gatherings.
Though some tried technology, she said, and that worked for some people, others felt they had to take the risk of meeting in person.
“People in the recovery community are more afraid of relapsing and dying of an overdose than catching the Coronavirus and getting sick, which I think is valid,” she said. “People are still in isolation and are all alone in some cases, and these are triggers for relapse. Some in recovery are able to stay home and they’re doing Zoom meetings and that works for them. For others, it isn’t enough…There are groups that are meeting, but they are doing it on the downlow and they’re doing it safely.
“People who are in recovery and are vulnerable to relapse into alcohol and drug use are already at high risk, and they are at an even higher risk now because they don’t have the camaraderie and social connections that they developed and that has been critical to staying sober,” she continued.
To make sure the covert meetings are safe, those conducting them are practicing social distancing and trying to keep the numbers down. They wear masks when they can and have hand sanitizer in use. They are wiping down all the surfaces and chairs that are used, and being smart about their gatherings.
Lundin-White said she is helping supply those meetings that have continued with products to help them. She is also working to provide Narcan to individuals and families in the Town who are at high-risk to relapse without a support system. Already, she said, it has been too late for some.
“There’s definitely been an uptick in relapses and overdoses in the last few weeks,” she said. “I’ve lost two clients just last week.”
The situation started out okay during the first part of the COVID-19 responses, whereby recovery groups were allowed to meet with proper precautions. However, as things became more stringent, their meetings were officially shut down and many of the places they meet had to close due to Gov. Charlie Baker’s advisory.
“After the meetings had to stop, it got very hard for folks,” said Lundin-White. “There are people who go to two or three meetings a day and they’ve been doing that for years. To have that taken away suddenly is scary. People rely on 12-step programs like AA and NA to stay sober one day at a time. It’s their medicine – essential medicine. This disruption for this pandemic is creating a lot of other risks.”
For those who are able to stay in, or maybe only need to attend a “secret” meeting occasionally, she said the Coalition is providing tips and materials to keep calm.
This week, the Coalition handed out adult coloring books and pencils to those in their programs. They’ve encouraged people to take pictures and share them with one another, letting everyone know some tips they’ve used to keep on the right track. Zoom meetings have been coordinated consistently, and the Coalition is stressing folks talk on the phone, practice meditation and prayer and take up healthy hobbies.
Still, there are those who are cut off from this sort of technology and they need a helping hand. That, at times, has to be an in-person meeting, Lundin-White said.
“We have people who have been in jail for a long time and just got out and they have never used a phone or a computer,” she said. “We have old-timers who aren’t able to access or figure out the technology. What about those people? I’m really worried about people relapsing and dying.”