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Ask Tammy Lofink: Pandemic isolation affects addiction and recovery

Tammy Lofink answers commonly-asked questions about addiction and recovery within the community. Lofink is president of Rising Above Addiction, in Westminster, and runs two sober homes for women, called Reclaiming My Life and Keeping My Serenity. She lost her son in 2014 to a drug overdose and has since worked with people who suffer from addiction, including drugs and alcohol. Lofink is not a medical professional or qualified health care provider. The purpose of this column is to offer support and non-professional guidance to families and individuals that may have had experience with issues relating to addiction and recovery. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical or psychological advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Question: Some people say that addiction never sleeps. The rising rates of drug use and fatal overdoses have been overshadowed, some would say, throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. How has this contributed to an overwhelming sense of isolation in the addiction/recovery community and what can be done to help?

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Answer: Isolation during the pandemic has compounded a rampant addiction problem that has become worse in the past few years. All you have to do is turn on the television to hear the heartbreaking stories of isolation among those in the addiction community. Limited in-person meetings, events, and gatherings that used to take place to support one another are reduced or eliminated. This has impacted the ability to stay connected and stay present in sobriety. In addition, people coming out of treatment are unable to find jobs and may no longer have access to their support networks.

However, at least with technology, people can still see each other in online meetings. We can still see one another’s expressions and give some help, even if it’s not the same as seeing someone in person. Of course, all of the rituals we count on – like having coffee after a meeting – have been cancelled or modified to adhere to social distancing precautions in order to maintain safety.

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Let me point out that I fully understand why we now live with the restrictions that we have due to the pandemic. I understand that we need to follow protocol. I also understand the frustration that people feel having limited contact for so very long. Unfortunately, when isolation sets in, it is very hard to reverse. People who were struggling and isolated while using drugs or drinking now have stronger feelings of isolation.

It’s important that we don’t go back to old habits because of isolation, which is different from loneliness. We all feel lonely at times. However, isolation impacts social experiences, emotional states of being, mental health, and physical health.

If you cannot get out of the house, you can make sure that you have a sponsor or a network of people who are supportive. I cannot underestimate the damage that isolation can do, as addiction experts agree that isolation is a risk factor for depression and a whole host of other diseases, all potentially worsened by the pandemic situation.

When isolated, it’s easy for people to turn to drugs or alcohol as a way to cope, and to try to forget everything. People may use drugs and alcohol to numb their feelings, especially through the stress of the pandemic. Eventually, people may develop a tolerance and need to have more of the drug or drink to achieve the desired effect. Ultimately, and over time, they cannot achieve the same effect any longer. They become physically dependent on drugs and alcohol, and need them to prevent experiencing sickness from withdrawal. This is a vicious cycle.

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Medical services are increasingly becoming available as telehealth appointments, which do not require a personal visit. Not every medical appointment can be conducted online, so other options should be explored first. Therapists and counselors are also making online appointments available in some cases, as appropriate. Online peer support groups help to connect people with others. People can communicate by phone, text or any other similar way to feel like they are a part of something bigger.

As isolation starts to subside with the eventual return to a “new normal” post-pandemic world, the hope is that as restrictions ease and people can gather safely again, they will re-experience connections, friendships and mutual support. Such positive change can only help to address the impact of addiction in our community.

Tammy Lofink’s column appears regularly in Life & Times. To ask her a question, email her at risingaboveaddiction@gmail.com.

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