CINCINNATI — Aleksander Chrismer was waiting tables and studying for the law school entrance exam after he graduated from Miami University in Oxford.
Then alcohol got in the way.
“After I graduated from undergrad, I just found myself drinking as much as I did in undergrad. And I wasn’t really progressing in life at all,” said Chrismer, who is 25. “It just came to an end to where I was sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
That’s when Chrismer looked online and found the Center for Addiction Treatment, better known locally as CAT. He entered treatment at the Queensgate facility in February and left March 19.
“I planned on going to tons of meetings and working with a sponsor very frequently, getting a job. Not one to where I was working too much but something to make it comfortable and make sure my mind stays on track,” he said. “Obviously, that is all different now.”
It’s different, of course, because of COVID-19. The highly contagious virus has put a temporary stop to the kind of large, in-person meetings and face-to-face counseling that people in recovery have historically relied upon to stay sober.
“Some of the people that have been down this path before know about meetings. They knew where to find meetings. But now it’s all a new ballgame,” said Barbara Walkenhorst, peer services supervisor at CAT.
Zoom video meetings have taken the place of in-person gatherings, Walkenhorst said, and counselors are using telehealth to conduct group counseling meetings with clients in CAT's continuing care program.
“For those who are brand new, it’s a big challenge because one of the major characteristics of addiction is isolation and self-deception,” Walkenhorst said. “And now we’re telling them to go isolate but log onto this.”
‘Everyone’s not connecting’
CAT staff and volunteers are working to prepare clients for the new realities of recovery in a COVID-19 world.
These days, after clients go through a medication-assisted detox period, CAT’s 28-day residential program includes lots of discussion and training about how to manage recovery after treatment during the pandemic, Walkenhorst said.
“The basics of recovery are the Big Book and the NA Basic Text for most of our population,” she said. “We’re making sure they have that and having phone numbers and encouraging personal connection.”
CAT’s peer support counselors also are making sure clients know how to log into Zoom and have access to the technology they need for telehealth video meetings.
“We are encouraging the clients to still select a peer mentor, but rather than meet them face to face, we’re doing a one-on-one Zoom meeting,” Walkenhorst said. “Bottom line, they need to get comfortable with the technology for the foreseeable future.”
Unfortunately, she said, that doesn’t work for everyone.
“Everyone’s not connecting,” she said. “Some of it is, it’s just too weird. Some of it is security concerns over telehealth. And we’re finding a lot of people just don’t either have the technology or understand the technology.”
For those who worry about privacy with telehealth, Walkenhorst said CAT can schedule one-on-one video meetings with counselors. If clients aren't comfortable with the video at all, she said they can do telephone counseling instead.
But if none of that works, there aren't other options for continuing care at this point, she said.
The biggest concern for CAT’s staff and volunteers is the isolation that people in recovery are experiencing, said Walkenhorst, who is in recovery herself.
“That was the biggest part of my recovery journey, was finding people like me, people who got me, people who understood and following their path,” she said. “That’s what we do. We follow something’s path and then we become the path. We say, ‘This is what I did. Follow me.’ And that’s much more difficult in a video world.”
‘It’s just not the same’
Walkenhorst said she thinks it’s more difficult because “hope and warmth don’t translate as well” in video conversations as they do in person.
He said he’s maintaining his sobriety by staying busy.
“I found myself getting into a routine, which really helps. Working out, cooking a ton, just not isolating,” he said. “Hanging out with the other guys around me and getting to as many support meetings as I can.”
The Zoom meetings are good, he said, but lack the camaraderie that he looked forward to before and after larger, in-person meetings.
“You get to talk with people. You get to just mingle, ask how everyone’s doing, actually get to physically see them,” he said of the in-person meetings he used to attend. “Whereas it’s just down to business with these Zoom meetings, really. It’s an hour, and then it’s over. It’s just not the same.”
The key to staying sober, even during a pandemic, is taking recovery seriously and listening to people who have been there, he said.
“I do think it’s a little irritating that alcohol stores and liquor stores are still open, but I can’t go to a regular doctor or dentist at the moment,” he said. “But it is what it is. I’m going to get through it.”