Addiction recovery groups shift to video and phone

Meeting in the midst of a pandemic

Robert Duckels is married with three sons. He's an attorney who lives in Carlinville, between Springfield and St. Louis. And he identifies as an alcoholic. Like many people who struggle with addiction and are now in recovery, it was hitting "rock bottom" that propelled him to quit. "I realized that there was really nowhere else to go with the way that I was living my life," he said. He had been on a multi-day bender while his wife was out of town. He dropped his son off at soccer practice while drunk, then picked up more booze on the way home and drank to the point he couldn't stand, let alone try to drive again to pick his son back up. He realized he was going to hurt himself and others if he didn't stop. But he needed help to quit, so he looked for recovery programs, and ended up going with the Gateway Foundation in Springfield.

Duckels is lucky in that he now feels stable in his sobriety. It was March two years ago that he joined Gateway's outpatient programming. Had it been this March that he had decided to try to get sober, it could have been more difficult. One of the ways to stem the spread of coronavirus is to stay home. But it was connection that Duckels needed. As part of his recovery, he joined Alcoholics Anonymous. "I know personally looking back on it, if I would not have been able to communicate, and share and receive information from my fellow addicts, it would have made the road to recovery more of a challenge for me," he said.

But A.A. groups are changing their methods in lieu of leaving those in need hanging. Under the current "stay-at-home" order, groups of 10 or more are not allowed to meet. So some are meeting remotely, via video or phone. "Many groups have alerted local A.A. offices or hotlines if they are temporarily not meeting in their regular space. Some groups have shared that they are utilizing digital platforms such as Zoom, Google Hangouts, or conducting conference calls," according to a March 23 release from the general service office of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Duckels said he has not yet gone the route of remote sessions, but plans to. "That's the next step for me." Meanwhile, he's been checking in regularly with friends in recovery through social media. Duckels said a key to staying sober is helping others who have been in similar shoes. That can be as simple as reaching out to ask how someone is doing. "Giving back to the sobriety community is possibly the most powerful tool that there is to maintain your own sobriety."

Duckels chose Gateway in Springfield in part because it was one of the closest options, though still a 45-minute drive from his home. Addiction services for those in rural areas can be a struggle to access, pandemic or not. "There's places all over the United States and all over Illinois, frankly, where people are an hour or more away from a metropolitan center that would have programs like this," said Duckels.

He made powerful connections there, such as with his counselor, Mercedes Kent, clinical supervisor of the outpatient program at Gateway. Kent said Robert is an "exemplary" testament to what treatment can do. And the in-person communication was critical, she said. "There is the heart-to-heart sharing, sharing tears. And being able to have that connection is such a better way to get a judge of what's going on."

The Gateway campus in Springfield includes residential as well as outpatient and partial hospitalization facilities. "We are still taking residential admissions. There's many places that have shut their doors," said Kent. "The screening process is a little more intense." She said new patients are handled over the phone and asked questions about their current health, like whether or not they have a fever. Then a nurse checks them out. And then new patients stay in an intake unit where they are monitored for seven to 14 days. Visitors are no longer allowed.

"We have also stopped taking trips for the clients to go to outside meetings," said Kent. "In outpatient, we are limiting the number of people that can actually do our meetings on site, we have a limit of 10 persons per group." Temperatures are screened and areas are sanitized. "And then we are also moving to online group therapy, so the clients can still get those needed services if they can't be physically present or if they're not comfortable being physically present," she said. Residential clients can also video-conference with family and friends who can't visit during this time.

While in-person contact is clearly preferred, the shift to online communication is a "silver lining" of how coronavirus has caused treatment providers to rethink their services, said Kent. "I believe that this is going to be a wonderful way for us to continue to provide services for clients that don't have access," she said, such as those who live in rural areas. "So this is one of the things that spawned out of all of this that is going on, to give us better ideas and better ways to reach those populations."

If you are struggling with addiction, you can visit helplineil.org or call 1-833-234-634-357. The hotline and site are provided by the Illinois Department of Human Services.

Contact Rachel Otwell at rotwell@illinoistimes.com.

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