Technology for fighting addiction when social distancing is the norm

Jaimie Estep says she’s proud of having seven years in recovery from drug use. And she’s reaching out to others struggling with recovery during isolation imposed by the COVID-19 virus.

Estep is a certified recovery coach and outreach coordinator for Peer360 Recovery Alliance, a self-help group for people recovering from substance abuse. Peer360 has outreach in seven counties, including Bay, Midland, Saginaw, Arenac, Huron, Tuscola and Shiawassee.

She remembers her bad days of using various drugs, looking for more, and crying for no reason. Now, she works to decrease the stigma of substance abuse. She tries to keep herself busy and motivated, so the old days won’t return.

“It’s just really hard,” she says of the virus’s halt to what works for many addicts trying to stay sober. “In recovery, we want to meet with other people, not isolate. It really sucks not having other people’s interactions.”

Before COVID-19 banned in-person gatherings, Peer360 hosted regular support meetings as well as activity nights. An annual picnic attracted up to 550 people, including some who weren’t in recovery.

That’s forced Peer360 to get creative. Instead of face-to-face meetings, they now use the virtual meeting service Zoom to bring people together. A recent Zoom meeting attracted 30 people from eight counties, she says.

Estep also relies on her phone to coach others through their substance abuse issues. The calls, along with a full to-do list, gives her purpose and helps her fight her own cravings.

“I’ve got to be on the go,” she says.

Learning a new skill is one way mental health experts suggest can lower stress levels during the COVID-19 isolation.

Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous also offer virtual meetings.

Craig Ford, a therapist at Sacred Heart Rehabilitation Center and who has a doctorate in pastoral counseling, treats people with co-occurring substance abuse and mental health issues. As he and his fellow therapists help clients through one-on-one counseling on the phone instead of in person, Ford offers the homey-sounding advice he gives himself.

He recalled a recent experience with a co-worker who came to him with computer and cell phone problems that threatened to ruin her day. His main point? Keep calm.

“The more I talked to her, the more she calmed down,” he says. “If you just take one or two things at a time, you can problem solve, and you can only do what you can do.

“This situation can make anybody depressed, even if you’re not that way,” he adds, referring to COVID-19.

Ford illustrates two approaches that people might use in situations like the current one, whether or not they have a mental illness or substance abuse issue. People who are lonely, stressed, or scared can be victims or creators, Ford says. Victims blame others, make excuses, and do the same things over and over again. Creators first admit they have a problem, then make an action plan, and execute that plan step by step.

People working or going to school from home – or not working at all – can lessen their depression and anxiety if they look at these next weeks as a time to do new things, Ford adds. Phone or email old friends. Do something spontaneous. Get to know your spouse or your kids better. Start a new hobby, study something online, write poems, or watch interesting programs.

“Pretty soon you get into it and you’re excited,” he says.

Some of the resources that may help while COVID-19 disrupts our routines include:

  • Alcoholics Anonymous lists meeting times and locations and includes phone numbers of people who can provide more information. The phone number is (989) 894-1949. The site also provides AA materials.
  • Peer 360 Recovery Alliance lists meeting dates and times, as well as contacts for those who need to speak with someone right away. The phone number for its Bay City office is (989) 778-3144.
  • Narcotics Anonymous includes the Saginaw Bay area meetings and contacts.
  • Bay-Arenac Behavior Health Authority provides mental health & substance use services in Arenac and Bay counties. It is part of a statewide framework of community mental health agencies and contracts with local behavioral health providers to secure the services needed in each county. Services include crisis intervention, case management, services for people with developmental disabilities, community integration and outpatient services. The website lists a number of support groups. The phone number is (989) 895-2300.
  • National Alliance on Mental Illness is a nationwide organization that provides peer-led support and education programs for people with mental illness, their families and friends. The phone number for NAMI of Midland County, which serves the surrounding area, is (989) 948-3273.
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