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First step to help isolated people with substance use disorders is communication

UPDATED: Mon., April 6, 2020

Ben Affleck as Jack in “The Way Back.” Affleck and the character are both alcoholics, and Affleck has been open about his addiction struggles. Some counselors say celebrities talking about their problems can help addicts feel less alone. (Richard Foreman / Warner Bros.)
Ben Affleck as Jack in “The Way Back.” Affleck and the character are both alcoholics, and Affleck has been open about his addiction struggles. Some counselors say celebrities talking about their problems can help addicts feel less alone. (Richard Foreman / Warner Bros.)

Isolation. That can be a big enemy in the stay-at-home room for people who have substance addictions or reached sobriety.

Recovery group meetings are canceled in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, removing crucial in-person support and accountability. In response, Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs have moved to video chats or small groups regularly calling one another.

But is there more that families or friends can do? Joe Terhaar is a family and marriage counselor specializing in addiction recovery, and he sees it as crucial to pull even closer now with a loved one who has an addiction. And for all, really, it means more communication.

“It means the family openly talking about continued abstinence from substances and daily affirmations within the family,” said Terhaar, with the Family Recovery Program in Spokane Valley.

It also means seeking out positive activities such as walking, playing games or finding social interactions with a nondrinking focus. And it means recognition that right now, everyone is experiencing losses.

“We need relationship support to do that while working through change and coping with loss.”

Coping strategies

Terhaar encourages families isolating at home to work on problem-solving, building relationships and mutually supporting each other. For single people, link together as a small group of friends or fellow recovery members, checking in on each other regularly.

“Healthier relationships support emotional health, and that is the source of resilience in such a time, often as they are also coping with addiction recovery,” Terhaar said.

Terhaar said he counsels people to use this time for teamwork and connections through more face time. He said that’s more important than arguing about undone work or conflicts, further raising an individual’s stress and tension in recovery.

“Our families are well-coping with their loved-one in recovery not having 12-step recovery meetings available by substituting more family activities and healthier interactions and engagements with each other,” Terhaar said.

“They’re doing activities such as walks together, games at home as a family, planning the next family vacation and having family meetings for connecting and problem-solving.”

12-step groups

Spokane AA is among groups helping people by matching them with an advocate for phone calls in lieu of in-person meetings. Soon, the organization hopes to offer formal online video meetings for community AA groups.

Northeast Washington Area of Narcotics Anonymous lists on its website newana.org that meetings are being done via an online video format.

Nicole Presnell, an answering service supervisor for Spokane AA, said the organization is encouraging people to call the regional office if they need a mentor right away.

“Then we can connect them with someone to talk to over the phone,” she said. “Some of the smaller meeting groups have reached out to each other and are doing their own virtual meeting or phone meetings temporarily.

“They’ll be getting a formal way to do online meetings up and running for individual groups.

Teresa Wiyrick is a pastor at Mission Church in Spokane Valley. She oversees its Freedom Ministries that include DivorceCare, GriefShare and a biblical 12-step support among other programs, she said.

During this time when those small groups can’t physically get together, she said they’re instead making regular calls and doing video conferences.

“It depends on what people are comfortable with, but I’ve asked all my leadership to stay in contact with all the people in their group, which ranges from three to eight people,” she said.

People signed up for a ministry to get help, and they still need it, Wiyrick added.

“They have great tools they go through each week. It helps them not to self-isolate and fall back into negative feelings and behaviors. It’s a sense of community.”

Hollywood connection

Addiction and recovery have gained more attention lately from Hollywood and celebrities. That includes “The Way Back” released in March and starring Ben Affleck. The actor has talked openly about his alcoholism and recovery.

In the movie, now available to purchase for streaming at home, Affleck plays a basketball coach struggling with alcoholism.

Watching such films can spark dialogue among family and friends. A long list of celebrities is often a talking point for Terhaar as he’s counseling families.

In recovery conversations, he shows them two different lists of entertainers known for substance abuse. One list has names of those who died from their addictions, and another highlights celebrities who are alive, successful and talk about recovery.

Entertainers doing well include Brad Pitt, Jamie Lee Curtis, Robert Downey Jr., Bradley Cooper and Demi Lovato. Among those on the dead list are Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, Whitney Houston, Jimi Hendricks and Prince.

Seeing celebrities talk more about sobriety doesn’t initially break down barriers for people to admit an addiction, largely because of how drugs and alcohol affect the brain, Terhaar said.

“Every time a substance is used, the person gets a short blip up in whatever emotion they get from it, but then there is deficit greater than there was before, so that encourages the person to use again and again. Along that way, the person has to rationalize.

“Denial comes about because the brain chemically changes, especially for those people who are genetically vulnerable,” he added. “Then the person has to think of excuses and rationalizations in order to justify continuing to use even though they know it’s a problem.”

He cites research that describes substance addiction as a mixture of genetic factors combined with trauma, behavior problems and other impacts. But when people seek help, the celebrity lists can help break down stigmas, Terhaar added.

“It helps motivate the whole family to recognize this really is deadly. It helps them understand.”

He respects that Affleck and other famous people have pushed messages of recovery and honesty, and for people in the same place, “It really helps the family and the individual recognize I’ve got a lot of good company.”

“I encourage a person with a substance problem to pick one or two of those people in recovery who you really admire, and when things are tough for you or you’re in a lot of pain, think about that person because that person is making it. You can get through this.”

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