COVID restrictions narrow the path for Oregonians desperate to recover from addictions

Restrictions due to COVID-19 have halted gatherings including the face-to-face group meetings that have long been a mainstay of addiction treatment and counseling. (CDC file art)

BEND – For the past seven months, Arin Anderson has stayed sober.

In that time, the 30-year-old single mother from Bend has counted on daily addiction recovery meetings to help overcome her past dependence on methamphetamine and heroin. She looked forward to gathering with others in recovery at the meetings in Bend’s First Presbyterian Church.

But Anderson, like others in recovery across Oregon, is struggling to adjust to life in the COVID-19 pandemic, because the coronavirus has moved recovery meetings to online platforms and telephone calls.

Addiction treatment providers say fewer people are attending those online recovery meetings and their clients are relapsing.

The remote meetings do not offer the same support as the face-to-face contact of a traditional meeting, Anderson said.

“At the end of the meeting, you hug and hold each other’s hands,” she said. “Seeing people smile in person and hearing them laugh in person is much more different than over a telephone.”

Anderson is finding ways to cope, which is difficult since she battles depression and is temporarily laid off from jobs as a bartender and server due to COVID-19.

She keeps busy by reading self-help books and raising her 5-year-old son, Waylon, while following Gov. Kate Brown’s order to stay home to stop the spread of the virus.

She is focused on her sobriety through the social isolation, but said the lack of physical contact is having negative effects on others in recovery. More people are using drugs and alcohol again, she said.

“A lot of people have relapsed over this,” Anderson said. “I’ve had a lot of friends at the meetings say they have only been clean for a certain amount of days and they used to have years.

“This whole pandemic has sent a lot of people over the edge.”

Rick Treleaven, executive director at BestCare Treatment Services, an addiction recovery agency in Central Oregon, said outpatient services, such as group meetings, have been affected the most by the pandemic.

BestCare’s group meetings are seeing a significant drop in attendance. About half as many people are going to the meetings online, Treleaven said.

The agency had planned to offer more virtual meetings, even before the pandemic, but not so quickly, Treleaven said. It was the future of treatment options.

“We all sort of knew we had to go in that direction in five years and did it in one week instead,” he said.

Another effect of COVID-19 on BestCare is a reduction in the number of beds in its residential recovery programs in Madras, Redmond and Klamath Falls. In order to create proper spacing and isolation, the facilities took out 25% of the beds.

BestCare is taking other precautions at its residential facilities such as banning nonessential visitors and taking people’s temperatures before they enter.

“The people who end up in residential treatment are people with very severe addictions. They already have a lot of underlying health problems,” Treleaven said. “We are very concerned about making sure we have a safe environment for them.”

Sherry Smith, officer coordinator at Bend’s First Presbyterian Church, which hosts several addiction recovery groups, said the church let the groups meet as long as possible, but had to stop and close when the state stay-at-home order was issued.

“We have approximately 11 twelve step groups that meet here throughout the week so we are certainly concerned for their continuing recovery,” Smith said. “But we had to keep in mind their health also and abide by the state and federal recommendations.”

For Anderson, she is embracing the online group meetings.

She is even creating her own online group meeting, which she calls “The Hangout.” She envisions her meeting as a chance for people in recovery to share their poetry, art or just have casual conversations.

“It’s not more book study,” she said. “It’s more human contact.”

Organizing her own meeting is keeping Anderson’s mind active, and off the stressful thoughts of being in recovery during a pandemic.

“Hosting a meeting takes brain power,” she said. “That has helped keep me busy.”

This story is published as part of a collaborative of news organizations across Oregon sharing stories in the public interest. The Malheur Enterprise is part of the collaborative.