Wilmington, NC — By Laura Bratton
When you're in recovery, staying sober is difficult under the best of circumstances and COVID-19 is pretty much the worst. Laura Bratton has watched her recovery community struggle through the last four months.
Laura: Zoom meetings were all we had for three months during shelter in place. And at first, I was excited to try recovery online.
[Laura: Join without video]
Laura: Going to 12-step meetings in different parts of the world and hearing people’s stories while I’m eating dinner in my pajamas.
Felicia: Like in the beginning. I just want to get super spiritual.
Laura: Felicia is a friend from my 12-step home group.
Felicia: You fast-forward like three weeks and I’m just sitting in my house doing puzzles.
Laura: I get it. Before COVID, I used to go to three or four 12-step meetings every week. But after a few weeks online, I went down to one. Other people started dropping off too. I figured some people just couldn’t adjust to getting their recovery on a computer screen. I helped Jim, a regular at my home group, figure out how to log onto a Zoom meeting — but he didn’t love it.
Jim: They’re just things you miss. The look in people’s eyes. The smiles on their faces.
Laura: I wondered if some people were slipping through the cracks. Had they relapsed? Were they okay? Like this one guy I know, Robert. I’ve known him for years. He’s in a court-ordered treatment program. And he was a regular in my home group before the pandemic started. Then a few weeks into shelter in place, I noticed he’d relapsed. He was starting over, counting sober days rather than months. I called him back in April to find out what happened.
Robert: I was riding my bike around town like nothing was open and there were no meetings going on. And I was really, really contemplating getting high.
Laura: Robert told me that almost all of his support systems shut down — court mandated therapy programs and drug tests that made him feel accountable.
Robert: I didn’t want to blame my relapse on COVID-19 and I’m not going to. But I did think about it and, like, it gave me such a — it was such a big factor to like me starting to isolate again. I still had those people there. But not being able to physically be with them or see their smiles in person or feel their energy just took a lot from me I think.
Laura: Why do you think those things are so important for you getting sober?
Robert: Cause, I mean, I’m an addict, an alcoholic. But like at the end of the day, I’m a f-ing human.
Laura: That was April 16, one month into shelter in place. I didn’t see Robert in online meetings for the next week, and I worried what would happen to him. Right around that time, I also found out that a few people I knew from my early days in sobriety had overdosed and died. Weeks went by and I still didn’t see Robert. Then in May, a friend told me she’d seen his mugshot online. It turns out he’d gotten arrested. Right after he got out, I called him to see what happened.
Robert: Hey, what’s up?
Laura: How ya doin?
Robert: I’m alright.
Laura: He said the day after we’d talked, he’d gotten high again and called his probation officer. I asked him what went on during those three weeks he was in jail.
Robert: You’re locked in a cell for 23 hours a day, that’s their form of quarantine. That makes COVID like kind of seem easy. Like, I remember being out on rec one day and I saw this, I think it was like — what’s the insurance company that Flo works for? Progressive?
Robert: They had like some commercial where they were like all on like a Zoom meeting. And like, I looked at it and I was just like, you know, like I could be in a Zoom meeting right now.
Laura: Robert’s been out of jail for more than a month. I’ve seen him in Zoom meetings, and I got a call from him a few weeks ago asking to join my home group. As a group, we’ve been waiting for months until we can all be together in person and finally, when phase two started, we made plans to meet on the beach.
[Laura: I’m headed to my first home group meeting I've been to in person since COVID started. Yeah. I don't know what this is gonna be like at all.]
[Laura: So I’m on my way back from the home group. I don’t know how I feel about it. Like, no one was wearing masks and I mean, people were kind of sitting six feet apart. But it feels like we were closer than that. It was like not a lot of people from my home group were there. I would say only me and two other people and then a bunch of people I just didn’t recognize. It definitely felt pretty of sparse. I’m actually passing the church where we usually have our home group right now — I don’t think they’ve been in that church for a long time. I definitely miss that place.]
Laura: Here we are, phase two. My home group stopped doing Zoom and we’re trying to figure out what’s next. Cases in Wilmington have started rising, and things feel unsafe and uncertain. People in recovery are used to marking time. In the early days after I quit drinking, I remember waiting to hit those markers: The first 60 days, 90 days. As though something will be different, as though being sober won’t be quite as much work. Just like with COVID: we want the work to be over and we want things to go back to some kind of normal.
Also featured on NPR's All Things Considered.
Laura Bratton is part of a collaboration between YR Media and WNYC’s Radio Rookies called 18-to-29 Now: Young America Speaks Up. It’s an election project that brings together young adults (18-to-29) from around the country to document their lives and what’s at stake for them in 2020.