Julia Whyel, 37, participates in a video recovery meeting from her Portland home this week. Photo courtesy of Julia Whyel

When Julia Whyel was newly sober in the spring of 2011, she said face-to-face recovery meetings were vital in building a support network of people going through the same struggle.

The 37-year-old Portland resident still attends a group meeting every Tuesday, although this week that meeting was held online for the first time.

“There are a lot of resources for me and I really appreciate being connected to community in that way,” Whyel said Wednesday.

“But not everyone has that opportunity and privilege – people who don’t have the resources, like a smart phone or computer. And my heart really goes out to people coming out of detox who may not have built that community yet.”

Even in the worst snowstorm, people in recovery from drug or alcohol addiction have always been able find a support meeting in Maine. As with everything, that has become much harder in recent days as the coronavirus outbreak has made social gatherings nearly impossible.

With many people isolated in their home for weeks, maybe months, there are real concerns for people who are working to stay sober. Those unable to attend a meeting could risk relapse.

On Wednesday, Gov. Janet Mills prohibited social gatherings to 10 people or fewer, putting many recovery meetings in jeopardy. Additionally, many buildings where support meetings are typically held have closed.

Leslie Clark, executive director of the Portland Recovery Community Center, said her office closed Monday but that all calls to the center were being routed to employees working from home. The center hosts meetings and peer support groups, and helps connect people with various treatment and recovery resources.

Clark said many face-to-face meetings have shifted to online using video apps like Zoom.

“As we see more places close, there is a real risk if people can’t access an online meeting,” said Clark, who is in recovery herself. “It’s sad to think, too, how we’re used to people walking in the door for the first time, looking for help. How do you reach out to them? There is a really vulnerable population out there.”

Challenges also exist for those in treatment for opioid use disorder.

Milestone Recovery, which runs Portland’s primary detox facility, announced Tuesday that it was freezing admissions until April 1. The organization’s homeless outreach program also is suspending service for the time being.

“Milestone’s emergency shelter will continue to operate, with enhanced screening protocols in place to identify individuals who may be sick. Preparations are also underway to isolate any clients who may be experiencing symptoms,” Milestone said in a notice sent Tuesday.

Dr. Mary Dowd, who sees patients with substance use disorder at both Mercy Hospital and Discovery House, said both facilities are working hard to make sure patients are getting Suboxone, the primary treatment for opioid addition. Many are substituting in-person appointments for phone calls, she said.

For most patients, they get a supply of Suboxone that lasts until their next counseling session. Even with the change to phone appointment, patients still need to pick up their prescriptions at a pharmacy.

Clark said she has not heard from anyone who hasn’t been able to get medication assisted treatment (MAT), but said social isolation and MAT are not compatible. Methadone patients, for instance, must visit a clinic daily for medication. Suboxone is less restrictive, but patients typically are not given long-term doses, especially early in recovery.

Clark said although things will be a challenge, the digital age has offered more resources than ever for people who need to be connected to others. Her organization is in the process of contacting all 5,000 members to see who might be able to lead a virtual meeting. She also said more people have been asking about telephone recovery support.

“People can give their number and how frequently they want to be called. Someone used to a weekly call might want a daily call,” she said.

Tom, who lives in South Portland and has been in recovery 33 years, was called on to set up an online meeting Monday. He works in information technology, so it was a natural fit. The first meeting had 15 people. By Tuesday night, it had grown to near 60.

“I’m not the only one doing this,” said Tom, who asked that only his first name be used in accordance with the central tenet of his recovery program – anonymity. “So far, it’s gone pretty smoothly. People are figuring it out.”

Tom said that for many in recovery, himself included, relying on contact with others in the same boat is critical. Traditional 12-step meetings have long been low-tech affairs – church basements with metal chairs and coffee – and those in recovery say there is comfort in that.

“It’s difficult being isolated,’’ he said. “So, having the ability to see faces and be reminded that we’re not alone, it’s huge.”

Whyel said she, too, worries about increased isolation for people in recovery.

“The concern is not only managing the isolation, but the fear and uncertainty that this has brought on,” she said. “Those exist for alcoholics already, but this is unprecedented fear in a lot of ways. In the programs, you’re always sharing experiences, but we can’t say, ‘This is how I stayed sober in the last pandemic.’ We don’t have that.”

The Central Service Office of Alcoholics Anonymous in Portland still listed dozens of meetings across the state Wednesday, although the number was dwindling. The group’s director, Gary, who also asked for anonymity, said many of the meetings he’s heard about that are still happening have shrunk in size.

“It might be three or four people sharing and keeping their distance,” he said. “Most people in recovery know there are more resources out there beyond meetings.”

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