Tyler is an alcoholic and prescription drug addict.
In the blur of his early twenties, it was hard to distinguish college binge-consumption from true addiction and dependency. But it didn’t prevent him from getting a job in the world of finance. In fact, those grueling 60-hour work weeks made it easy to justify the emotional turbulence and bitter hangovers.
Friends and family attributed his extreme moodiness to lifestyle and “chronic anxiety.” During holidays, he surrounded himself with hard-partying friends, so he blended in. It wasn’t obvious to his loved ones that drugs and alcohol had become his crutch.
But then COVID-19 hit. The pandemic forced him back underneath his parents’ roof at age 24, jobless and struggling with impulses. They began to suspect he had a problem. He was, after all, sheltering in their home. It wasn’t until his siblings found him blacked out from hard liquor and Xanax on his childhood bed, with traces of cocaine on the nightstand, that the gravity of the situation became clear.
I know this because Tyler is a relative of mine. He agreed to an interview about his recovery and recent stint in pandemic rehab for this article, hoping his story might help others, but asked that I use the “Tyler” alias to avoid problems with future employers.
While consumption doesn’t directly correlate with addiction, the pandemic spurred a huge increase in alcohol sales during its early days. By April 11, the number of online buyers purchasing alcohol jumped 27% compared with the same period a year earlier, according to the Nielsen market research firm.
With people across the nation wrestling with fear, anxiety and social isolation, the National Institutes of Health refer to the pandemic as “a perfect storm” for addicts. Experts have long said that protracted exposure to stress can increase cravings and drives up the “risk of relapse” in patients who struggle with substance use disorder.
For Tyler, shelter-in-place amplified what he calls his “addiction mind” in ways he never expected: “[Quarantine] is the worst thing you can go through, whether you know you’re an addict or not, because loneliness and boredom are two of the biggest hurdles you’re trying to clear as an addict.”
“The thing about addiction is that you don’t always know you’re dealing with it,” Tyler explains. At very least, he adds, he wasn’t confronting it.
Like some other addicts, Tyler suffers from bipolar disorder; a diagnosis he didn’t receive until he went to rehab for a month in June.
For people struggling with mania, the “festering” effect is intensified: “[I was] looking to attach to something…and there’s a lot less for your brain to latch onto when you’re trapped between four walls,” he says.
The combination of addiction, mental illness and the pandemic led him to a major reassessment. “I didn’t realize I had a problem, yet I found myself in a place,” at home with his family, “where I’d be forced to deal with it.”
A lot of other addicts also seem to have recently taken inventory of their lives. Mike Loverde, CEO and founder of Family First Intervention — an organization that helps people to place relatives in rehab — calculates that “business” has doubled in the last three months. “We’re needed more now than we ever were,” he says.
The majority of Family First’s new client base consists of families who established contact with the organization between one and three years ago, but didn’t go through with an intervention at the time. Now, the pandemic has made it impossible for families to “downplay the need” for an intervention, Loverde says.
While much of the world froze, state and federal governments consider drug and alcohol intervention “essential work,” so their activity continued. But providers are required to, by necessity, alter their practices to comply with health protocols on a state-by-state basis.
Family First responded by instituting contact-free intervention assistance in all 50 states. Interventionists are required to shower and isolate in nearby hotels, practice social-distancing, and wear masks at all times. These hassles have proved challenging, but, according to Loverde, the risk of a drug overdose outweighs them all.
“You’re far more likely to die from overdose than you probably are from the coronavirus,” he notes, “and you’re far higher risk [of contracting the virus] when you’re using, than when you’re not.” Many addicts, he says, have concluded: “If I get coronavirus, I may die, but addiction will kill me sooner.”
Tyler, who has been out of rehab for more than two months and sober for over three, echoes this sentiment: “I don’t know how much more damage I would have done to myself and my life had I kept up my behaviors,” he says.
It may seem strange, but this deadly pandemic has come with a silver lining for him: “Coronavirus is the reason I bottomed out,” he said, noting that if it didn’t happen, he might not have been “so receptive to help.”
Although the “door to rehab” may be easier to open when the world is at a standstill, once you’re there, Tyler says, it is “infinitely harder” than it would have been otherwise.
Negative COVID-19 test results are required for admittance to most facilities — if they have an open bed — and masks are mandatory in both group and individual meetings, making it “near impossible,” Tyler says, to connect with people and read their facial expressions.
The pandemic has also complicated aftercare, with providers trying their best to meet the burgeoning demand for therapeutic services.
Dr. Anaïs Muñoz-Kelly, a Los Angeles-based family therapist, explains that, “the first three months [of safer-at-home orders] saw an almost a total halt in business — maybe because of shock, or because people didn’t know where they stood financially.”
Three months later, she doesn’t “have enough hours to treat everybody.”
Along with other practitioners in her network, Muñoz-Kelly has begun lowering her rates, offering shorter sessions, and regularly checks in with clients about their employment status. “Families are facing a devastating combination of financial stress and an increase in anxiety — especially the families of addicts,” she says.
The work for people like Tyler is far from over. Two months after going into rehab, he attends 4-5 hours of virtual “intensive outpatient programming” on Zoom each day. This includes group therapy, sober companionship programming through Alcoholics Anonymous, and individual counseling.
For Tyler, outpatient care at a distance is difficult for the same reason rehab was hard. “You don’t have to be an addict to understand that time to yourself is often a good thing, but it can take you to a bad place very quickly,” he says.
With social distancing, he is still “trapped between four walls,” but with more tools in his kit.
To cope with the pandemic in healthy ways, post rehab, Tyler has taken up surfing. The fresh air and exercise help curb his mania and constitute what he calls a “moving meditation.” After Los Angeles beaches reopened, it became integral to his physical and mental health routine.
“When I have urges now, I think of it like a wave,” he says. “They crash and break eventually,” he explains, “so it’s just a matter of finding purpose and distraction until then.”
After a long day of telehealth sessions, I watch him head down the boardwalk, cradling the base of his JS shortboard on the way to the ocean. He navigates homeless encampments littered with empty bottles as if they were a natural part of the landscape, and offers an affectionate “hello” to a woman scouring a public trash bin close to his surf spot. The warmth in his voice betrays his sense of connection to these unhoused residents, many of whom wrestle with mental health and addiction problems.
Wealth — or lack thereof — affects treatment options for addicts, he knows. This has always been the case, but the pandemic has brought the issue to the fore.
“Going through what I’ve had to go through; without resources, I can’t imagine what that fight looks like,” he says.
“I look at the people on the boardwalk…a lot of them are there because they have unaddressed mental health issues that have led to addiction. I look at them and I think — they’re probably going to lose. People in my position still lose,” he says. “It’s shitty, but I think a lot’s being done to try and change it.”