Constable: Addicts must balance risk of coronavirus with threat of relapse

Whether you are part of a religious congregation, joining with an audience at a concert, sitting next to a stranger in the crowd at a baseball game, or just chatting with co-workers in the office for TV recommendations, those face-to-face interactions with others are a huge part of life. Going without them is difficult.

If you are an addict working to reclaim your life, those relationships can be literal lifesavers.

"Having that face-to-face with peers plays a big part in stopping the use of drugs and alcohol," says Jim Scarpace, executive director for the Gateway Foundation in Aurora. "It really makes a difference between recovery and relapse."

But COVID-19 and the mandate to avoid group meetings changes that. Inpatient clients at Gateway continue to meet together, but the 120 or so outpatients no longer come to the facility for meetings.

This past week, Gateway moved to "an outpatient virtual group model," Scarpace says. Instead of people sitting in a room, and sharing stories and cookies, participants are sheltered at home and using their computers to gather online.

"Our clinicians will be able to see them and hear them. One of the things we need to do is keep people emotionally connected," Scarpace says.

Lucy Smith knows the difference those connections can make. The 52-year-old mother of four successfully completed an in-house recovery program for her substance abuse in 2011 and now is an alumni coordinator at Gateway, conducting online gatherings through

"It's connecting to another person and realizing you're not alone. You are finding solutions in that group," says Smith, who encourages clients to take advantage of what online interactions with others can do. Recovery for her was a step-by-step process, as was her fall into addiction.

"I didn't wake up one day and become a crackhead at 33 years old. It started with alcohol and it ended with crack cocaine and there were various substances throughout those years," Smith says. Her family, the Kane County Drug Court and Gateway all helped in her recovery.

"I had to learn about my disease; to take that helping hand," Smith says, adding her group sessions with other people working to end their addictions was key. "We used to go out for coffee. You became family. You became friends."

Those personal connections helped her end her addictions.

"I'm still in contact with my counselor from Gateway," Smith says. "I still do have a huge support system through my family. I believe I would not have the opportunity to be sitting here today without Gateway. I'm very blessed and grateful for Gateway."

Her kids, now ages 12 to 27, offer wonderful support and inspiration, she says.

She tries to give that same support and encouragement online, but that has limitations.

"We can't give that hug that says a thousand words to let them know they are not alone," Smith says.

The number of Americans dying from COVID-19 grows daily. But 130 people die of substance abuse on a typical day.

"Their recovery is just as important, or more important, than the COVID-19 regulations," Scarpace says. "For this population, the risk of dying of an overdose or addiction is greater than the risk of COVID-19."

During a recent online meeting, "one of the clients looked really disheveled," Scarpace says. The counselor worried that the woman, distanced from her family and friends because of the sheltering guidelines, had started drinking again. "So they agreed to check in (by phone) outside of the group," Scarpace says. That is working for now, but if the woman is at risk of relapsing, Gateway can also bring her into the facility.

And help is always available at (877) 505-HOPE (4673).

The stakes are high, and online meetings are better than nothing.

"Face-to-face is where you need to be. This is not long-term," Scarpace says of the online meetings. "I'm ready for this to end."

Drawing support from peers is a key to keeping people in recovery from substance abuse from relapsing, says Jim Scarpace, executive director of Gateway Foundation in Aurora. Sheltering during the coronavirus has forced clinicians to use online tools to keep in touch with outpatients. Courtesy of Gateway Foundation
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