Advantage Behavioral Health Systems (copy)

The Advantage Behavioral Health Systems building in Athens, Georgia on Friday, May 1, 2020. Advantage has the Peers in Recovery from Opioid Use and Dependency (PROUD) Program for those recovering from substance abuse disorder. (Photo/Caroline Barnes)

Natalie Johnston has spent the last 19 months recovering from a decades-long addiction to painkillers and methamphetamine. On March 24, Johnston graduated from Jackson County’s Drug Court, an outpatient substance use disorder treatment program that is offered as an alternative to incarceration.

Unfortunately for Johnston, this milestone coincided with the beginning of shutdowns due to the COVID-19 outbreak, which she said has heavily affected her recovery. Johnston was unable to have an in-person graduation with her friends and family present, which she said was a “big letdown.”

“Everything just stopped and for me that was when I needed support the very most,” Johnston said. “I was out of drug court, I didn’t have any accountability, no more drug tests, no more anyone watching over me, no one to answer to except just myself so it was, it was tough.”

Maintaining connections

Members of the Athens community are feeling the effects of COVID-19 as businesses are slowly reopening after being closed and many in-person events have been canceled. Of those affected, people in recovery from substance use disorder are hit particularly hard.

The Athens Alcoholics Anonymous website notes that meeting schedules have been changed due to COVID-19. Individual landlords may choose to close their buildings so AA meetings can’t take place, the website said.

Athens AA and Narcotics Anonymous meetings have been held via Zoom to observe social distancing policies. As Georgia is reopening, some meeting places are reopening while others are remaining online for now.

“The Zoom meetings that are available to people in NA and AA are crucial. They’re not as helpful to me as an in-person meeting is, per se, but it’s better than nothing, that’s for sure,” Johnston said.

Johnston has been a member of Narcotics Anonymous for two years. She said she has been reaching out to her sponsor more than ever throughout the past couple months.

While this alternate option is a solution to some, there are people in the recovery community without phones or internet connection.

The Athens Clinic, an opioid treatment center, is also meeting with patients in Zoom support groups. In an email to The Red & Black, Program Director Ali McCorkle said all face-to-face counseling and group therapy were postponed, although individual sessions have been conducted via telephone.

According to McCorkle, the Athens Clinic is still open during regular hours, although staff members are trying to limit the amount of people coming and going. Because of this, patients are temporarily receiving extra take-home medication. Clinic members are ensuring all patients have access to Naloxone, an opioid overdose reversal drug.

Jada Harrison, the director of addictive diseases for Advantage Behavioral Health Systems, said the residential and outpatient facility is still operating while adhering to COVID-19 policies.

Outpatient services are currently being offered remotely. Harrison said she and the team at Advantage are aware that lack of access to online services can be a barrier to some people without a phone or laptop. For that reason, Advantage has ordered flip phones for all their clients who don’t have their own. Harrison said the outpatient services have given out around 30 phones.

Previously, the residential program at Advantage was available for walk-ins. Because of COVID-19, it is currently only accepting new admissions from other facilities to ensure that they have been quarantined prior to entering Advantage. 

Catherine Mills, program manager for Advantage’s Peers in Recovery from Opioid Use and Dependency (PROUD) Program, said Advantage’s outpatient care and walk-in lobby for crisis stabilization are still open.

‘We expect recovery’

Although there are still options for people in the recovery community, Harrison said this is a challenging time for people struggling to stay sober.

Harrison said she has already seen relapses within the residential program and Johnston said she personally knows people who have relapsed in the past few months.

Mills said many people are likely experiencing a sense of powerlessness. Much of Mills’ job concerns managing “triggers,” which she describes as anything that “rattles your cage.”

In recovery herself, Mills said PROUD divided its staff in a way that “all the team could take care of themselves spiritually, mentally [and] physically,” so that they could then provide services to the people who were already in the program.

Mills said many people in recovery feel like they don’t belong. Once someone has found a group within the recovery community and connected with them, she said it can be difficult to change that dynamic. Due to the uncertainty and temporary shutdowns surrounding COVID-19, Mills said people’s routines are changing, which could be harmful.

“We never expect relapse. We expect recovery,” Mills said.

Although Advantage is not necessarily planning on seeing an abundance of setbacks in their patients, they are prepared to address any setbacks should they occur. Mills said the key to doing so is recognizing why the relapse occurred and figuring out what could have been done differently to prevent it.

“I think people in recovery struggle to ask for help because they want to bulldoze their way through it and be independent,” Mills said. “It’s so, so, so difficult to help people get their head where their feet are and realize that they’re out of balance a little bit, have a need and then communicate the needs.”