By John Davis & Ashley de Sampaio Ferraz
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writers
In a Webex meeting room, family members, mostly parents of those with alcohol and drug addictions, gather and wait their turn to speak. Ordinarily, the meeting would be held in person, but virtual is the new norm during the coronavirus pandemic.
The meeting brings together everyone from doctors and lawyers to those struggling to make ends meet. On Wednesday evenings, they come together with one thing in common: Someone in their family suffers from something they can’t fully understand.
“It’s the chicken-and-the-egg scenario,” said Peter, a parent of a child who suffers from addiction, during a recent meeting. “Is it the mental health problems influencing the drug use or is it the drug use influencing the mental health?”
Many of these family members have dealt with their loved one’s addiction for a long time. The global pandemic, however, has brought new concerns for them. Peter, whose full name has been omitted to protect his identity, said his son had a drug relapse in December. Once COVID-19 hit, prolonged isolation and an inability to meet in-person with support groups made matters worse for his son. Money from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act didn’t help, either. It only made buying illegal substances easier.
Peter said as of mid-fall, his son was living on a couch in Baltimore, and some weeks he didn’t hear from him at all.
“Because they don’t have to work, they’ve got money for drugs, they’ve got money to get shelter or whatever they need to do,” Peter said. “And we’re looking to get my son back into a rehab. He’s not ready yet. He hasn’t run out of money yet.”
The group Peter takes part in is an offshoot of Caron Treatment Centers, a rehabilitation facility based in Pennsylvania, and the Maryland Addiction Recovery Center.
The weekly meetings are hosted by Sharon Olszewski, a retiree who volunteered to help. She teaches family members of addicts how to cope with the pain that living with addiction causes, and how to not give up even when things start to feel out of control.
“The idea is stay the course and keep hearing the same message so that you don’t hit the panic button,” Olszewski said.
One piece of advice is particularly difficult for some parents to come to terms with: It’s up to the kids to fix the problem, even if that means family members letting them fend for themselves.
“We’re taught in this group that we don’t fix it,” Olszewski said. “You let them fall, you let them hit hard and you let them pay the consequence, because that’s the only way you’re going to learn.”
Olszewski’s support group is one of many that have moved online during the pandemic. The need for support has only grown as the fight against COVID-19 continues into winter, and mental health problems increase as people continue to be isolated from their support groups.
As Peter observed during the support meeting, mental health issues are often closely tied in with a person’s addiction. But poor mental health isn’t an issue that’s only affecting addicts. As the global pandemic looms over the country, anxiety and depression rates are rising among everyone.
A COVID-19 mental health crisis
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 31 percent of American adults reported in June that they were struggling with anxiety and depression symptoms. Another 13 percent reported that they started or increased their substance use during the pandemic.
These increases are related to the increase in isolation that people are experiencing as a result of the pandemic. According to an article published by the National Center for Biotechnological Information in July, the dual stress from “confronting a pandemic” and “isolation at home” negatively impacts mental health to varying degrees.
According to the article, “studies have shown that when stressed, abstinent patients with substance use disorder are more likely to have negative emotions and are preconditioned to return to previous behavioral patterns as a coping mechanism.”
Elizabeth Katz, a psychology professor at Towson University, said having too much time and too little structure can be detrimental to someone who struggles with addiction.
“A lot of people are unemployed,” Katz said. “And you know, what do they say? That idle hands are the devil’s workplace for addiction… Boredom is a major trigger, mental health disorders are a major trigger and social isolation can be a major trigger.”
This is especially true for the millions of college students who had to move home as a result of the pandemic. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, about half of college students drink and one-third binge drink.
With students living at home, their access to healthy ways to relieve stress may be limited as well as their abilities to remain socially connected.
An abrupt transition online
Since the shift to a virtual world in March, Olszewski’s once in-person meetings moving online meant that a few of the parents stopped attending.
“Because of having to do it virtually, they’ve stopped coming,” Peter said. “I’ve talked to one of them and he said he just doesn’t really want to do ‘the Zoom’ but he liked the meetings and he’s hoping when they get back to normal, he’ll come again.”
These aren’t the only meetings that have seen a decrease in participation. Some virtual Alcoholics Anonymous meetings are also seeing a drop in attendance, in part because there is less interpersonal interaction online.
Jen G., an administrator for the Baltimore Intergroup Council of Alcoholics Anonymous, said people in the group have reported overdoses and suicides among family members since the pandemic started and meetings went online. The online meetings follow the same format as in-person meetings but allow the attendees to adhere to COVID-19 guidelines.
“I wouldn’t say that those overdoses or suicides were directly related to the lack of meetings, because I don’t think there is ‘a lack of meetings,’ there’s plenty of meetings,” she said. “I think it was a combination of the despair of the anxiety over COVID, and the despair of the times we’re living in.
“What would be devastating for a normal person can be catastrophic for an alcoholic,” Jen said. “Because any of those things can take us back out to drinking if we can’t cope with our emotions.”
Baltimore AA covers Baltimore City, Baltimore County and parts of Harford, Carroll, Anne Arundel and Howard Counties. Because it was one of the first central offices, or intergroups, to have meetings listed online, they have people from across the country tuning in to their meetings.
While the national meetings helped the supportive community of AA adapt during the pandemic, they also attracted some unwanted guests in the form of “Zoom bombers,” uninvited participants who join meetings and harass those attending.
“They would take over a meeting and show pornography during the meeting, and you know say all kinds of racial slurs,” Jen said. “They would go after women’s meetings and be very predatory…it was horrible. It was actually horrible, and people were feeling assaulted.”
Developing a safe space online
Having a safe space is important when discussing addiction, and this is something Olszewski knows well. When the group used to meet in-person, she even kept a box of Kleenex handy to kick across the floor to people who began to cry. This openness about the hard stuff and willingness to laugh at the little things was a big part of what made her support group so close with each other. Even now, with friendships having to be maintained virtually, they support each other through difficult times and call on each other when they need help.
But passion and friendship aren’t the only reasons Olszewski puts so much effort into her volunteer work. Her son, Tony, suffered from opioid addiction for many years before sobering up seven years ago.
“I never went to college,” she said. “I am just a parent that does this, who lived through 10 years of hell, and is now sharing with other people, to keep them from ending up where I ended up.”
According to Olszewski, finding help back then wasn’t easy. Most people saw addiction as a character flaw, not a lifelong disease. Nowadays, there are more resources available for addicts and their families, but stigmas surrounding the disease often keep them from reaching out and seeking help, especially in a time where a lot of that help is only available online.
Olszewski said she’ll often have members stop attending because they think their family can fix their problems on their own. This is because they refuse to believe that their family member has fallen prey to something as looked down upon as addiction, or are too embarrassed to admit it to others.
“The stigma is crazy, because if you ask anyone to draw their picture of a drug addict or alcoholic, it’s kind of funny what they draw,” said Tony, Olszewski’s son.
Tony is now in his late 30s and is working in a rehabilitation facility for men struggling with addiction. He understands the challenges of getting help more than most.
“It’s a brain disease, it’s not a moral deficiency, it’s not a willpower issue. I used to think that it was, and I just needed to figure out how I could man up and figure it out,” Tony said. This is a common mindset among not only addicts, but also their families, and can be extremely limiting to an individual’s recovery.
When in-person meetings stop
While online support groups are helping to fill the void, the lack of in-person meetings is problematic. Some rehabilitation centers are not allowing large groups to physically gather because of COVID-19 restrictions. According to Tony, the men he works with are leaving the facility never having attended a support meeting, as they were discontinued.
These meetings prepare residents for what to expect when they leave the facility, and Tony said people are not getting adequate preparation.
“People are coming back so quickly now [to the facility],” Tony said. “They leave, they’re back a week after they left, because it’s not sticking. Because when they’re here they want to stay sober. When they get home, they’ve got the wife pissed off, the kids that are screaming, the job that wants their employee back. Or even worse, they don’t have a job.”
One of the harder aspects of having a loved one go through this is knowing how to approach them. Zachary Hitchens, a psychotherapist for Towson University’s Substance Treatment Services, said this should be done with love and care, rather than blaming them for their addiction.
“I’ve been in recovery for over a decade. I’ve never met a single person who’s woken up and wanted to become addicted to something,” Hitchens said.
Universities offer support
Colleges across the country are continuing to provide online services to students dealing with substance abuse issues. Jaclyn Webber, a drug and alcohol health educator at Towson University, said students have been more engaged in online programs during the pandemic, though fewer people are attending than when campus was open. These programs include weekly Q&A’s, biweekly Thirsty Thursday videos where students and educators talk about topics related to intersections of identity related to substance abuse, and “mocktail” Mondays.
Emily Sears, the manager of substance education, treatment and prevention services at Towson, said students who attend events are making a special effort to do so.
“In the virtual world,” Sears said, “students are having to be very intentional about ‘I want to connect here, I want to click on this link and go here, and I want to be part of this.’ And so, there is an awareness that something is coming up, and there’s a link, and there’s a schedule, ‘and I’m going to go to it.’”
Other virtual events that the Prevention Center has seen success with include Netflix watch parties and murder mysteries. Webber said she’s also seen a spike in social media engagement.
While the virtual meetings make it easier for some people, Jen said that others have a harder time. If someone doesn’t want to stay connected to meetings or others in the AA program, there is nothing stopping them, and that can be damaging, Jen said.
Hitchens, who works along Webber and Sears, said online meetings allow for more flexibility. Still, he believes more resources, like treatment providers and sources to assist students getting help, are needed on a larger scale.
“How do you balance all those life things while taking care of yourself in a very intentional way, which is living a life in recovery,” Hitchens said. “To borrow a phrase from 12-step communities: Using is a symptom of a greater disease. So there definitely are not enough resources, especially when you think about the magnitude of the true public health issue that we’re facing.”
Family members find a community online
Olszewski’s support group is a vital resource. She believes that communicating with others in the same situation can be extremely helpful to a family dealing with addiction.
“I think I’ve remained sane because I’ve always put it [her son’s addiction] out there,” Olszewski said. “So I think the stigma is very harmful for families who can’t talk about it. Because it’s just such a dark place that they can go by themselves, you know, you really need to find people to talk to share, to talk about it, to find out what they did, right what they did wrong.”
Hitchens agrees that the path to overcoming the stigma needs to start with having open conversations. Only then will the public perception of addiction change.
“So, I think it needs to come from a place of caring,” he said. “And I think with that, we need to start going against the shaming and things like that, that tend to come with it, that there’s something wrong with you, you did this, you need to fix it. So, I think coming from that place of caring, and also, you know, helping people to connect to resources.”
Peter knows that feeling of powerlessness well. He’s accepted that he can’t control his son’s choices, and now just hopes he won’t get the call that’ll stop his world.
“You just come to the understanding that, and I’ve heard this from so many parents, I just realized he’s gonna die,” Peter said. “Right? He’s just gonna die and then I just do what I can from there, hoping that every day is another day.”
Olszewski wants to help family members talk through these types of feelings. She continues to host her meeting virtually, with around 20 people showing up every Wednesday evening. She tries to help family members accept the weight of their loved one’s addiction, because she believes it’s the only way for both them and the addict in their life to heal.
“We’re just as sick as they are,” Olszewski said. “We are absolutely just as sick as they are, thinking that we can make this better. You can’t. Only they can make it better. So make yourself better.”