oft-repeated mantra of “90 meetings in 90 days” exists for good, practical reasons: Active addiction takes up an extraordinary amount of time in people’s lives; the relentless pursuit of acquiring, using, and recovering from the effects of a substance can crowd out almost all of their other responsibilities. People in early recovery suddenly have a lot of time on their hands , and self-help and group therapy settings provide a safe place to spend it. But as America entered the Covid lockdown in March of 2020, formal and informal addiction treatment settings were quickly forced to close down. A warm and welcoming AA meeting full of tears, laughter, and hugs, which previously might have felt like one of the safest places in the world, suddenly became one of the most unsafe. For people who had already established a network of recovery supports, the migration to online-only meetings was an annoyance, but not insurmountable. But for those who had not yet established themselves in recovery, an important lifeline now required a high-speed internet connection and involved the awkwardness of “meeting” people online when you have never met them in person. Storm Clouds Form Not surprisingly, the massive rise in unemployment, disruptions in work/life balance, and general stress and anxiety induced by the pandemic led to increased reliance on both healthy and unhealthy coping mechanisms. Just as sales of exercise bikes and yoga mats soared, so too did alcohol consumption . Prior to the pandemic, it was both socially unacceptable and unprofessional to consume alcohol while working. But as people became accustomed to the “work from home” lifestyle, the social boundaries of office culture started to melt away. Who would know if a bottle of wine that would have been uncorked at 6 p.m., was now poured at 4 p.m.? Not only did alcohol sales increase dramatically during the pandemic, but so too did illicit drug consumption: Americans reported using substances like alcohol and cannabis more than ever to cope with anxiety and stress. There were also reports that the illicit drug supply chain became disrupted, which may have increased drug adulteration. What had previously been a steady flow of pure heroin became an unsteady supply of heroin adulterated with highly potent synthetic opioids like fentanyl and its analogues, which are more than 50 times more potent than heroin, and 100 times more potent than morphine.
None of us knew that we would soon be facing an unprecedented storm. Indeed, it would be a perfect storm, particularly for vulnerable groups such as those suffering from substance-use disorders. On February 11, 2020, Covid-19 became the official name given by the World Health Organization for the highly infectious disease caused by infection with the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus— and of a pandemic that would transform the world, creating a new norm of social distancing, isolation, and loneliness that exacerbated substance-use disorders. The bedrock of modern addiction treatment is the fellowship gained by participating in group therapy, either in formal settings such as addiction treatment programs, or informal settings such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). When people first seek help for their addiction, they often feel impossibly alone and adrift. They can’t conceive that anyone else in all of human history has ever felt the way that they feel. They are lonely, ashamed, and terrified. But when they start meeting other people with the same condition, something magical happens; they realize that not only are they not alone but there is a way through their suffering, a light at the end of the tunnel. The group setting, which at the outset may have felt absolutely terrifying, will frequently become their refuge—a place where they can be fully present, fully accountable, and fully accepting of their disease. The
16 DANA FOUNDATION CEREBRUM | Winter 2022
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