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//Mike Deeb, a peer specialist for ARTS sits in the adult outpatient facility where he works during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photos by Polina Saran | polinasarana@gmail.com

Editor’s note: Some sources in this story are referred to only by their first name only to protect their identity. 

Isolation is something Mike Deeb understood long before the stay-at-home order was enforced for the COVID-19 pandemic. Now in recovery, he experienced periods of isolation while in the throes of his heroin addiction.

“Being forced to be at home took me back to the hardest time in my addiction. The isolation is almost like PTSD in a way,” Deeb said. “This is kind of bringing me back to times when I used to use. We’re stuck in the house, day in and day out with nothing to do. It’s very triggering.”

Deeb was able to quit using heroin cold-turkey with the support of his family and has been in recovery for six years. His success in recovery made him want to share it with others. He now works as a peer specialist for the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus Department of Psychiatry, Addiction Research and Treatment Services, or ARTS.

“More than not, the active users, we are already kind of in isolation as it is,” he said. “Now that we’re asking people to isolate, which is the opposite of what we want for somebody in recovery, it’s having a really bad impact on the addiction community and treatments.”

The stay-at-home order forced him back into isolation which created an unexpected challenge to overcome.

“Not having that person-to-person interaction is really detrimental to someone’s recovery,” he said. “It was really rough.”

He found himself tempted by his old ways. It was the first time he had felt that way since his recovery.

Deeb began to struggle internally and his boyfriend started to notice something was wrong. He encouraged him to open up which helped him realize that he had suppressed a lot of trauma. He sought out counseling for additional support.

Being forced into an unexpected situation like this could cause someone in recovery to revert back to their old ways to find familiarity and comfort.

As the city begins to reopen, treatment facilities for addiction are finding creative ways to provide resources while taking precautions with the virus.

ARTS, an agency with locations in downtown Denver, provides adolescent outpatient, adult outpatient, men’s and women’s residential, medication-assisted treatment and office-based opioid treatment, and childcare.

Nichole Meyer, assistant director of ARTS Adult Outpatient facilities, assured that the whole agency is working to adjust accordingly. They are continuing to offer treatment daily and psychotherapy is now held through telehealth meetings. They also have on-location telehealth for those without a phone or computer.

//Nichole Meyer, the assistant director of ARTS sits in her office during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Everyone was thrust into this situation, whether they were ready for it or not,” Meyers said. “We are all handling it the best we can.”

Digital therapy can be helpful and break barriers for those who are unable to commute to the clinic, but Deeb explained that it doesn’t work perfectly for everyone in recovery.

“With the PnP community who are in recovery, they can’t have anything to do with these platforms because it’s a trigger for them,” he said. “They would get on these platforms and get high and participate in chem sex and those are some serious triggers.”

“PnP” is a common expression in the gay community, short for “Party and Play,” which involves drug use to enhance sexual activities.

Recovery groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and other twelve-step programs also switched to digital meetings through Zoom during the stay-at-home order. These groups are now reopening in-person meetings with a limit of 10 people per room. The Denver-specific programs will make the Zoom meetings permanent, providing another source for recovery.

People in recovery are finding a new routine, and COVID-19 might have pushed AA into the digital age much faster than expected, said Tom, a member of the twelve-step program.

“I think there’s going to be some good opportunities to come out of this,” he said.

Tom explained that there is talk within his Denver-based group about potential hybrid meetings and figuring out which meetings will go back to in-person and which will stay digital.

Adam, a member of an addiction recovery fellowship, explained how everything quickly changed for him in a short period of time.

It started with regular people not showing up to the group meetings. Then, the church where meetings were held closed, so they started meeting in a nearby park. A false rumor spread that one of the members in the group had COVID-19, and Adam then began to think about how vulnerable he was making himself by still attending. The virtual meetings are a good stand-in, but can’t replace face-to-face contact, Adam said.

“It’s like a cheap substitute,” he said. “Like switching from cigarettes to the gum.”

Now that places are starting to open back up, Adam is considering going back to his in-person group and might continue to do extra meetings online.

For Adam, the online meetings took away the human interaction and he missed meeting with his friends. It also took away a major part of his routine and social activities, all of which were canceled.

“A key component is to have a routine and I kind of lost hope,” he said. “A huge part is keeping busy.”

Adam hasn’t had the urge to relapse because he feels pretty plugged in, he said. He credits it to 12 years of sobriety and a strong support system.

Adam and Tom both mentioned that members who moved away were able to reunite during the meetings. Tom mentioned that it has become a popular trend in the AA meetings.

Offering both Zoom and in-person meetings created better access, with more meetings to attend, and added anonymity, Tom said.

Digital therapy may not be the most favored form of meeting, but it does offer support for successful recovery.

“We are very big on that human connection and that’s a really big part of recovery, that interaction with other people,” Deeb said.

For immediate support call the CO Crisis Line for free and confidential help, available 24/7  at 1-844-493-TALK (8255).

For more information on Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in Denver, you can visit their website here

Secular online meetings unaffiliated with AA can be found here, with specialized groups like women-only and LGBTQ. 

Virtual recovery group resources can be found here through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration.

Live-streamed, recovery-centered social events can be found here through The Phoenix. ARTS Outpatient and Residential Substance Abuse Treatment can be found here.