For 20 years, Tony Radovich has gone to meetings. He’s gone to meetings in church basements with socializing over cigarettes, and to meetings in recovery clubhouses with hugs and homemade cookies. Sometimes, meetings have been held on mountains or around bonfires at the beach.

But in the last couple of weeks, Radovich, who helped found the Seattle group Strength Over Speed (SOS) for gay and bisexual men with methamphetamine addictions, has found himself in what he calls a “contradictory place.” He’s self-quarantining because he’s supporting an older couple particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. The meetings he attended in person have gone online.

Radovich, like many others in the addiction recovery community and outside of it, is grappling with a newfound sense of isolation. The virus is new, but the response to it mirrors something very familiar to him the “self-imposed isolation,” he says, that once fueled his addiction to methamphetamine.

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For people whose hard-won healing has relied on in-person recovery groups, finding connection under the social restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t just about staving off loneliness. It’s about survival. And while many are adopting new ways of staying connected, the isolation can be most threatening to people who don’t have access to technology.

While many resources have now gone online, recovery organizations in Washington are struggling to figure out how to serve people who are in early recovery or can’t access those resources, particularly people who are homeless.

Dana Francis, program manager at Peer Seattle, said she and her colleagues are trying to figure out how to get more government-subsidized phone plans into people’s hands, but haven’t yet been able to do so.

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“We’ve seen people start to relapse, some relapsing harder than others,” said Francis. “The whole situation is causing the recovery community a lot of stress.”

Recovery resources available from home

A new routine

On a recent Saturday, Stephanie Lane went to a group in Olympia only to find the streets quiet and the meeting empty. Usually there would be people outside hugging and greeting, she said, and for a few minutes, she didn’t know what to do.

“It was frightening, disheartening and confusing,” Lane said. The moment exacerbated symptoms of her bipolar disorder.

Lane had other means of support — a therapist, medication and a strong network — but she wondered about those with less.

Today, Lane manages the Workforce Collaborative, a project of the Washington State University College of Nursing’s Peer Workforce Alliance that trains certified peer counselors. But Lane, who also spent three years homeless in Seattle, said her first concern was that people would “isolate and then go back to their negative coping skills.”

Lane has been working to set up a 90-day series that opens up Zoom webinars available every day of the week for peer support. The days will have different themes: Monday Motivations, Trauma-informed Tuesday and so on.

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“There are certain times of the week when people are more suicidal than others,” Lane said. “We wanted to make [something] at least once a day where people could check in, have some accountability and have some fun.”

The project comes not a moment too soon. Even before Gov. Jay Inslee announced his stay-at-home order last week, recovery hubs and in-person meetings around the state had decided to shut down in order to protect members from the spread of COVID-19.

Earlier this month, the Recovery Café in Seattle, which serves a large community of people struggling with addiction and other mental health challenges, including many homeless people, shut its doors. It still serves to-go meals, but no longer functions as a meeting place. The decision to close was a heartbreaking one, said executive director David Coffey.

“We played out the scenario of if someone in this community tested positive, a lot of people in our community can’t self-quarantine for 14 days,” Coffey said. “We talked over and over again about what is the most loving thing we can do for our community. And where we met is the most loving thing we can do is close.”

Getting creative

In Spokane, one recovery center has become a makeshift day center for some, as people are turned away from traditional shelters because of social-distancing rules. The disruption can threaten delicate recovery.

Counselor Brandi Leon leads the closing Serenity Prayer at the end of a meeting in the parking lot behind the Compassionate Addictive Treatment center in Spokane on March 24. Usually the group would meet indoors and hold hands during the prayer, but due to the pandemic,  it was held outside to meet distancing guidelines.    (Rajah Bose for The Seattle Times)
Counselor Brandi Leon leads the closing Serenity Prayer at the end of a meeting in the parking lot behind the Compassionate Addictive Treatment center in Spokane on March 24. Usually the group would meet indoors and hold hands during the prayer, but due to the pandemic, it was held outside to meet distancing guidelines. (Rajah Bose for The Seattle Times)

“We actually had a couple of folks sleep here because they were up all night walking to stay warm,” said Hallie Burchinal, co-founder of Compassionate Addiction Treatment (CAT) in downtown Spokane, which she said is seeing higher demand since the coronavirus outbreak.

John Chrusoskie has been in recovery for about a month and a half, and he’s taken to sleeping in CAT’s parking lot to try and stay on track.

“We end up hungry and cold, and a good way to take care of the hunger and cold and aches and pains, there’s the numbing process,” Chrusoskie said. When he feels like he might relapse, he sweeps up a parking space.

But social distancing when you’re homeless, in recovery and sleeping outside can be extremely difficult, Chrusoskie said. He tries to stay in groups of three people, he said, because if one person has a bad idea, the other two can lend accountability.

“It’s hard to stay separated from people outside because the homeless use each other for support,” Chrusoskie said. If it’s cold and there’s no tent, he added, people will sleep next to one another for body heat and protection.

Dave Madison puffs from a vape during a group Recovery Circle in the parking lot behind the Compassionate Addictive Treatment center in downtown Spokane. (Rajah Bose for The Seattle Times)
Dave Madison puffs from a vape during a group Recovery Circle in the parking lot behind the Compassionate Addictive Treatment center in downtown Spokane. (Rajah Bose for The Seattle Times)

In order to accommodate social-distancing rules, CAT has started to host meetings in the parking lot, on yoga mats at least 6 feet apart.

“While we’re seeing some really beautiful help and community bonding, we’re also really watching our folks struggle with lack of safe spaces to sleep,” Burchinal said.

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For Radovich, of SOS, help has come in the form of younger people teaching him how to use platforms like Zoom in order to access meetings online. His friends are resourceful. And his remote network is falling into place.

The moment feels familiar.

“I’m 60 and some of it is reflective of what happened during the AIDS crisis,” Radovich said. “This delayed response, trying to come up with new therapies, people in power and people in science were disagreeing and a lot of that is a mirrored reflection of those times.”

Still, Radovich is finding new habits in order to cope. He’s taken to looking out the window and writing down the birds and flowers that he sees.

He also has a knack for data, and has started tracking the numbers of the people he finds in remote recovery meetings. Numbers, he finds, are soothing.

“It’s odd because when you’re online you can see everyone in a little thumbnail picture,” Radovich said. “Who’s the artist who did a million little photos and when you step away it creates a big piece of art? It’s like, you’re so close but you’re so far away.”

Jennifer Madison, center, gives a long-distance high-five to Linda Stitt (sitting forground) during their Recovery Circle in the parking lot behind the Compassionate Addictive Treatment center in Spokane on March 24.  (Rajah Bose for The Seattle Times)
Jennifer Madison, center, gives a long-distance high-five to Linda Stitt (sitting forground) during their Recovery Circle in the parking lot behind the Compassionate Addictive Treatment center in Spokane on March 24. (Rajah Bose for The Seattle Times)

News researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this story.