West Virginians recover from addiction amidst a pandemic

By Kara Leigh Lofton - West Virginia Public Broadcasting

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — For people in recovery from addiction, coronavirus can be particularly challenging. Take Ashley Temple — for the past several months the single mom of three has been working her way through the Rea of Hope recovery program in Charleston.

“I was, you know, broken and just wanted a better way of life and wanted to be an example for my kids and show them you know that I made mistakes in the past, but I didn’t let it define who I was,” Temple said. “And I persevered through all of that.”

Recently, she moved into the Rea of Hope New Life apartments — a kind of halfway house for the graduates to get their feet fully back under them before reentering society fully. Part of her success was regaining custody of her older children and getting a job in housekeeping at the local hospital — work that did not stop when the pandemic hit.

“I usually get up about 5:00 or 5:30. I get up and I feed the baby, get her ready,” Temple said… “And then I drop the kids off to where they’re going and I go on to work.”

Temple is considered an “essential” employee at the hospital and has kept going to work throughout the pandemic. She said she stresses about bringing the virus home to her kids — especially her youngest who was only about three months old when this all started.

But Temple said she tries to maintain a sense of normalcy for her kids.

“I get off work, I go pick the kids up, come home. Usually I try to have something set out for dinner,” she said. “I’ll cook dinner. I’ll usually sit down, play with the kids for a little bit. Then I’ll do my meeting online.”

Meaning her narcotics anonymous meeting. Normally meetings are in person. but because of social distancing they moved them online — via Zoom.

“It was rough at first, not being able to like, go to meetings, I had to try to find my balance, you know, with the kids being home all the time,” she said, “So it’s hard for me sometimes, to kind of like, focus on the meeting.”

There are currently 44 women and children living at Rea of Hope in five locations on the same block in Charleston.

“The staff does a FaceTime meeting with every single resident, you know, every week and more if necessary, helping them plan for their unemployment, the ones that have been laid off or reduction in hours, following up with all that,” said Rea of Hope Director Marie Beaver.

Beaver added that sometimes the biggest challenges for someone in recovery are the unexpected ones, like receiving the $1,200 stimulus check from the federal government.

“Because it’s not always the best thing for a drug addict or an alcoholic in early recovery to get an influx of cash,” Beaver said. “So that’s worrisome. Just trying to help them maintain, you know, like a budget and what to do with that money.”

To ensure the safety of her staff and residents, Beaver said they moved to a skeleton staff on-site and also provided face masks for residents and their children. Residents were also initially asked not to visit each others’ apartments — which Temple said was really hard. Mutual support is a big part of the success of people in recovery.

Christina Mullins,W.Va. Commissioner for the Bureau of Behavioral Health, said her office is concerned about the toll this pandemic is taking on the mental health of people in recovery.

“We believe that people are fragile right now. And we’re doing everything that we can to try to monitor the situation and deploy the resources as best as we can,” Mullins said. “In these uncertain times and fluid times, things change sometimes hour-by-hour.”

In other words, all of the things going on right now — stress, change and job loss — can be a trigger for relapse or starting to use a substance like drugs or alcohol.

Right now, the Department of Health and Human Resources is not reporting a spike in overdose cases, but Mullins said it is something they are watching closely.

Especially because she said it is likely the pandemic could financially impact smaller recovery programs that have had to limit the number of people they accept into the programs due to social distancing guidelines.

“So where my biggest concern is you have smaller providers, where economically they might not be on a sounder ground as one of the larger providers,” Mullins said.“How do we get everybody through this, so that we still have the resources that we need at the end, when people actually may have realized and there may be a greater need for treatment at that point?”

She said one of their biggest jobs right now is working to help these smaller facilities find sources of emergency funding. It is not easy, but she said, it is likely the pandemic will increase the need for them.

Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, with support from Marshall Health and Charleston Area Medical Center.

By Kara Leigh Lofton

West Virginia Public Broadcasting