When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Barbara Allen’s life became more complicated overnight.
Allen, 39, lives in Springfield, Illinois, where she cares for people who have disabilities and live in group homes. As an essential worker, she never stopped working full-time. Then schools closed and she was forced to navigate virtual learning with seven children at home. (She’s raising her three sons plus her sister’s children — ranging from kindergarten through high school).
“I've been so stressed out,” Allen says. “I'm trying to take care of kids, trying to be a teacher; the kids fight and argue all day long … . I mean, I became a coach, a teacher, a security guard; I became so many things once the pandemic started.”
In previous years, the added stress and uncertainty would have caused her to spiral deeper into alcohol addiction, which she has struggled with since her teen years.
But thanks to getting help in 2019 — for both her addiction and untreated anxiety — Allen says she was ready.
“My life had already changed so much. I had been through so many things already, that I was prepared for anything,” she says.
Allen is grateful she got help when she did; others battling addiction have not been as fortunate. More than 40 states have reported increases in opioid-related deaths and ongoing concerns for those living with a mental illness or substance use disorder, according to the American Medical Association.
Pandemic-related stressors make people in recovery more vulnerable to relapse. And many experts fear that as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, the nation’s addiction crisis will worsen.
A difficult childhood
Growing up, Allen was poor and experienced homelessness several times. When she was only 12, her mother had an illness and wound up in a nursing home.
Having no other family members to turn to, Allen was taken in by the mother of a friend from school. But at age 16, Allen started drinking, and says she was put out of the house for not following the rules. She dropped out of school and was living on her own.
And then her mom died.
“She suffered her whole life,” Allen says. “So when she died, it really wasn't a bad thing. I felt like she was at peace. I think I just missed her.”
Allen didn’t realize it at the time, but she struggled with anxiety and was using alcohol to cope. “I didn’t know what was wrong. I thought what I was going through was normal, but it was so far from normal.”
In 2018, Allen was raped by someone she knew, and she says it pushed her over the edge.
“I was just existing ... ” she says. “I caught a DUI. When I didn't drink, I just got the shakes real bad. So at that point, I realized I needed to go into recovery, because if I didn't, I was gonna ruin my life.”
Allen began outpatient treatment for alcoholism at Gateway Foundation in Springfield. She juggled treatment five days a week on top of her work and family responsibilities.
“The first week I thought about relapsing every day,” she says. “I would go to the liquor store, buy something, but then I would throw it out the window as I thought about drinking it.”
Allen started seeing a therapist and taking medications to treat her anxiety and to prevent a relapse.
By the time the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, Allen had been sober for more than a year. She says the new mindset she gained through treatment — being honest about her struggles and letting go of what she can’t control — kept her from spiraling back into addiction.
“I felt like if I overcame being raped, overcame addiction, overcame losing my parents, that I was ready to face this pandemic head on,” she says.
Others are struggling
Allen was fortunate to have learned coping skills — and built up a supportive community — before the pandemic disrupted everything, says Mercedes Kent, a Gateway Foundation clinical supervisor who was involved in her treatment.
For many going through rehab — and others who may have been casual drug users — the sudden lack of social connection was enough to tip them over the edge, Kent says.
“It was kind of just the perfect storm,” she says. “The pandemic is definitely a national relapse trigger.”
Dr. Paul Earley, president of the American Society of Addiction Medicine, says the COVID-19 pandemic has been “a disaster” for many struggling with substance use disorders.
“We're going to be seeing the negative effects of this probably for years,” Earley says.
In the U.S., an estimated 20 million people have substance addiction disorders, and alcohol misuse leads to nearly 90,000 deaths a year, according to federal data. People with addiction are also at higher risk of the coronavirus because they’re more likely to experience homelessness or incarceration or have other physical ailments, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Research published in the journal JAMA Network Open shows alcohol consumption among U.S. adults over age 30 is up 14% compared to last year, which Earley says raises concerns that the number of people with alcohol use disorders may be rising as well.
If there is a silver lining for this pandemic, it’s that providers were forced to ramp up telehealth offerings, Earley says. While virtual visits can’t compete with the “powerful medicine” of face-to-face interaction, it can increase access to care.
“There’s a real shortage of quality addiction providers and quality physicians who prescribe medications for addiction, and telehealth helps extend the reach of the people we do have,” he says.
Earley hopes people understand that getting help during the pandemic is doable — it just may require more effort. The American Society of Addiction Medicine recommends an online tool that can help people assess what kind of treatment may be right for them.
Barbara Allen says shame and embarrassment made her hide her addiction from others. But getting help was the best decision for herself — and her children.
“Before I could take care of them, I had to fix me. I had to heal me,” she says.
Allen says treatment didn’t change her circumstances, and her life is still stressful. But thanks to medication and social support, she feels equipped to handle whatever comes her way.
The national Substance Abuse and Mental Health hotline is 1-800-662-HELP (4357), and is free, confidential, and available 24/7.