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Addiction support groups turn to technology to provide critical services

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It’s hard enough for recovering addicts to stay sober under ideal circumstances, in which treatment opportunities and support mechanisms are ready, willing and available to assist.

But like the rest of the state, treatment and support organizations in the Spokane area are under the same shutdown mandate that affects all businesses and mass gatherings.

That makes it especially hard for group counseling meetings – which can be crucial for recovering addicts – to take place in person.

At Recovery Cafe of Spokane manager Christine McMackin said her organization has had to be creative to provide a semblance of their normal services.

“What we do is we help anybody and everybody that wants to find a life of sobriety,” she said. “We provide ‘recovery circles,’ which are considered to be the heart of what we do. It’s really where people find that connection – where they get to talk about how they’re doing and what they’re struggling with.”

A recovery circle is a group of eight to 10 recovering addicts, facilitated by an employee of Recovery Cafe or a trained and certified recovery coach. A recovery circle can be supplemental to a court-mandated or 12-step program.

The center has 173 members.

McMackin said the face-to-face aspect of the group counseling sessions is more important that some might think. She’s taken to video chat application Zoom to help facilitate the recovery circles while their groups can’t meet in person.

“People are embracing (Zoom). They’re trying something new,” she said. “You get the option to see people so they’re sitting in the same circle, even though they might be sitting at their home, or they might be at a bus stop or wherever they might be, but they still get to see everybody’s faces, and see how they’re doing and hear how they’re doing with what’s going on. It’s been a great avenue for people to talk about what they need.

“While it’s great we can offer telehealth lines and things like that, some of them just really get that in-person, one-on-one time so much better. So it’s hard for people.”

With everyone hunkered down, anyone can suffer from “cabin fever.” But for many recovering addicts, the Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and recovery circles at places like the Recovery Cafe are their safe spaces – the places they go to get the support they need to get back on track.

“What I’m finding is people have relapsed because they don’t have support, but also because things are a little bit crazy right now,” McMackin said. “They don’t know what to do with the information that they’re hearing on television or on Facebook or anywhere else because it’s all so overwhelming.”

Providing treatment

Linda Thompson is executive director of Greater Spokane Substance Abuse Council, in addition to her duties as a city councilwoman for Spokane Valley.

The substance abuse council is a nonprofit organization that educates and informs about substance abuse and violence issues. A primary function is providing witness panels for DUI convictions, where those that have suffered from alcohol-induced car crashes talk about the repercussion of those actions.

“Normally we have about 80 people coming to our DUI victim panel,” Thompson said. “We obviously can’t do that right now.

“The courts realize that (offenders) can’t comply sometimes with their evaluation right now. So the courts have been incredibly collaborative on understanding that we cannot bring folks together yet. But as soon as we can, we will do everything we can to get people through the DUI victim panel so they can comply with that court order.”

Thompson hopes friends and relatives of people in treatment programs are reaching out to them more than ever while everyone is under the shelter-at-home mandate.

“If we can treat people, get them into treatment and have the treatment and recovery surrounding them and help them, we can save lives, and that’s what we have to focus on – not just during this crisis, but anytime.”

Feeding souls

In addition to counseling, the Recovery Cafe is also a food resource for its members. McMackin said they normally provide 30-45 lunches per day, and that number has dropped below 30 during the shutdown.

“My hopes are that we can still provide food,” she said. “We had a great turnout today for people to come in and get sack lunches and hot soup and things like that, and I think we want to be able to continue to feed them.

“But long term, we’re just going to have to play it as it unravels.”

McMackin supports the shelter-in-place order to help prevent the spread of infectious disease, while at the same time recognizing it could also put people already at risk mentally into a worse position.

“We have to take into account that a lot of people that have trouble with addiction also are fighting mental health issues,” she said. “A lot of people feel like they’re being cut off, and they don’t have anywhere to turn to, and they’re scared.”

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