COLORADO SPRINGS — The COVID-19 pandemic has forced some people to spend the holidays apart from their family. That isolation is particularly problematic for people struggling with addiction or living in recovery.
Chassity Lemuel is a certified peer coach at Springs Recovery Connection, which is a substance use treatment center. She has struggled with drinking since she was eleven years old. "About four years ago, I was a severe alcoholic and I was given two weeks to live," said Lemuel, who suffered from cirrhosis of the liver.
That's when she decided to seek out help for her substance use disorder. She first started as a volunteer at Springs Recovery Connection, but now helps other people currently struggling with a variety of mental health or substance use issues.
Lemuel said she is concerned about the number of people who will be alone throughout the holidays this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. "It's easier to hide when you are alone. You can drink, nobody knows. You can get high, nobody knows," said Lemuel.
For families gathering over the holidays, Lemuel recommends addressing how to approach alcohol when someone struggles with a substance use disorder. "As a family, you should ask that person in your family, are you comfortable being around someone who's drinking? Or would it be better if we didn't drink this Christmas, or this Thanksgiving? And I know my family did that for a while, and it helped out a whole lot," said Lemuel, who now does not mind when others drink around her.
Sparkle Lindsay is also a peer recovery coach at Springs Recovery Connection, who is now sober after battling alcohol addiction. She says the number of calls coming into the center has skyrocketed this time of year, as issues related to the pandemic, unemployment, or politics continue to impact countless lives. "One of the best things I've ever heard in my life is you are not alone. And if you open your eyes and you actually see all the different supports that are around you, it makes you feel that much better," said Lindsay.
Lindsay said adding addiction on top of holiday stress can be exceptionally difficult. Challenges still exist when recovery is reached, as many people may be nervous to spend time with family while sober. Lindsay spent Thanksgiving with her family, and said "it made my heart melt. Because it was the first time that I actually got to be with them since I've been sober a year and a half," said Lindsay.
The Program Director for Sandstone Care, Danielle de Boer, said the holidays come with a lot of expectations, and the pandemic is ruining many of them. "It could be their first sober Christmas and New Years, so that is scary in and of itself... But it's also a chance to start new traditions. Every tradition had to have a starting place," said de Boer.
She said it's important for people in recovery to advocate for what they need during this time, and also set appropriate boundaries. Plus, she said families of someone living with addiction should have an open and honest conversation about how to help. "Asking how do you want to handle this situation? What are you afraid of? Can you ask me if you need support in a certain way? Or do you have someone you can ask even if it isn't me?"
Mindfulness of one's own emotions is also essential to avoiding old habits, according to de Boer. "I'm not the only one in the world to have this struggle, to have this feeling, to need this kind of support. That this is part of the human experience, whether you're in recovery or not," said de Boer.
Recently, a client told de Boer she would be spending time alone over the holidays, and is scared. "How can I plan for that? And the plan this client came up with was preparing some food and baked goods and different things, and then had a list of people who would either be working full time or would also be home alone, and saying I'm going to go around and just drop some things off at the doors for other people," said de Boer, who recommends making a plan.
There are many other options for productive activities during these socially distant holidays. Suggestions from de Boer include baking, cooking, virtual ornament or face mask decorating challenges, and driving around to look at Christmas lights.
For those currently struggling with addiction, de Boer reminded families that sometimes treatment cannot wait until after the holidays. "This person's going to be safe if I help them get to treatment right now, instead of putting it off and maybe regretting putting it off," said de Boer.
If you need help right now, call Colorado Crisis Services at 1-844-493-8255.