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Kansas City Support Groups For People With Addiction Adapt To Keep Focus On Recovery

Recovery coach Erin Hestand leads a support group session in the courtyard of Amethyst Place in Kansas City, Missouri.
Sarah Knopf-Amelung/Amethyst Place
Recovery coach Erin Hestand leads a support group session in the courtyard of Amethyst Place in Kansas City, Missouri.

The bad news: no more hugs at in-person meetings. The good news: online access to 12 Step groups anywhere in the world.

After decades of in-person meetings in church basements and rec center backrooms, addiction support groups across the Kansas City area have been forced to transform by the COVID-19 pandemic and stay-at-home orders.

These often informal, loosely organized bodies have been scrambling to preserve the social ties that addiction experts say are key to keeping many people sober.

“There’s a saying that ‘No addict alone is in good company,’ and that just rings so true in my head right now,” says Erin Hestand.

She leads a group at Amethyst Place, a recovery home for women to live with their children in Kansas City, Missouri. Ever since city leaders ordered residents to stay at home in late March, she’s been reminded of that phrase she heard when she was early in recovery herself.

“Because we don’t really make great decisions when we’re left to our own devices,” she explains.

Over the past several weeks, while most of the city has sheltered quietly indoors, the women in the group have emerged from their apartments to hold their early evening meetings, maintaining social distance while spread out across the facility’s large courtyard.

In the big outdoor space, the women have to raise their voices to talk about their painful, awkward experiences of new jobs, child custody issues and just trying to stay sober — topics many of them feel uncomfortable even whispering about.

“You see people not want to open up so much because it isn’t as close and intimate as it normally would be,” Hestand says. “There’s definitely been more of a part of looking out for one another — and I mean physically looking out for one another, like let me pay attention to her body language when she speaks.”

The courtyard of Amethyst Place, a live-in recovery home for women and their children, has remained mostly quiet following the stay-at-home order issued for Kansas City, Missouri.
Alex Smith
KCUR 89.3
The courtyard of Amethyst Place, a live-in recovery home for women and their children, has remained mostly quiet following the stay-at-home order issued for Kansas City, Missouri.

Despite awkwardness, having these social connections is crucial to people in recovery. Social interactions are thought to break cyclical thinking patterns that may lead someone to turn to drugs or alcohol when they are alone. Positive interactions are also associated with the release of chemicals in the brain like oxytocin, that relax us and strengthen social bonds.

Conversely, feelings of loneliness, or actually being alone, can be a trigger to use drugs or alcohol, according to University of Kansas addiction researcher Carl Lejuez.

“Loneliness can be an incredible risk factor for people in recovery,” Lejuez says. “For some folks, being alone is the time that they’re are most likely to use.”

LeJuez says that the pandemic has created other potential triggers, too, including fear of contracting COVID-19 and financial strain brought on by job cuts and economic downturn.

Job loss may be high among people in recovery because many work in service industries that have ground to a halt in recent weeks.

LeJuez says this uncertainty and lack of structure can put someone’s recovery at risk.

“What you have is kind of a breakdown of a sense of people’s ability to predict the future and to feel secure,” LeJuez says. “Folks with addiction may be particularly impacted by this.”

The demand for recovery support initially dipped after the stay-at-home order, according to Susan Whitmore, CEO of First Call, which runs support groups and a hotline to connect people in the Kansas City area with recovery services.

But in the last two weeks, demand has increased by 20%.

“The longer the pandemic, the isolation has gone on — people staying at home, the pressure of juggling work and family, and being in closed quarters — has started to take its toll on people,” Whitmore says.

Whitmore says about half of their recent calls have been from people concerned about a family member’s substance abuse, including many parents who’ve become aware of their children’s use of drugs or alcohol.

They have also received many calls from people who are suddenly detoxing because they have been unable to obtain drugs they depend on.

Many support groups, meanwhile, have had to abandon in-person meetings altogether.

Scott M., who is a member of Narcotics Anonymous in Kansas City, says that after stay-at-home orders were issued, he and many members of his group urgently worked to find one another and regroup online — a particular challenge because members typically don’t know each other’s full names.

“A lot of people are resistant at first. Some people have just given up on meetings, which is something that is a real barrier or obstacle,” Scott says. “We’re stuck as far as how to reach out to those people.”

He says that all of the local groups have now shifted online, using platforms like Zoom, though this has been difficult especially for older members who may be less tech-savvy.

But Scott says the migration online has also greatly expanded meeting options available for many people and helped to build connections with recovery communities far beyond local neighborhoods.

“If I want to attend a meeting in Australia at noon, that’s there,” Scott says. “I’ve attended meeting in India. It’s interesting to attend those meetings, and people from all over the United States can join our meeting in Kansas City.”

LeJuez says the move to online meetings demonstrates the versatility that has long been part of recovery communities, and it may prove to be a better option that in-person meetings for many people who have social anxiety issues or difficulty attending physical meetings.

However, for many people who rely on the local gatherings, meeting online can’t replace the face-to-face connection they are used to.

“Nothing will be as good as the real thing,” LeJuez says. “Real people. Real smiles. Real laughter. That look someone gives you. That close, personal connection. That’s always going to be the best thing.”

Hestand jokes that she and her courtyard group are “spoiled” for being able to have the limited in-person contact their situation allows.

But she acknowledges that their meetings can still seem incomplete.

That’s felt most strongly when the evening meetings wrap up, when group members would normally take time for hugs before saying good night.

“There’s no physical connection happening right now, just to abide by the requirements,” Hestand says. “So, at the end of the meeting, instead of hugging, we all just sort of stand awkwardly next to one another.”

As a health care reporter, I aim to empower my audience to take steps to improve health care and make informed decisions as consumers and voters. I tell human stories augmented with research and data to explain how our health care system works and sometimes fails us. Email me at alexs@kcur.org.
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