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By Scott Neumyer
The early days of the COVID-19 were, for many, an isolating, anxiety-filled, confusing time. But these three New Englanders faced an added challenge: confronting their addictions and staying sober. Here, they share their stories of how the pandemic affected their recovery.
Jessica Lahey uses her experience (and her pen) to help others
“I was raised by an alcoholic, have a parent who was raised by an alcoholic, and so it goes and so it goes back through our family tree,” says Jessica Lahey, the bestselling author of The Addiction Inoculation: Raising Healthy Kids in a Culture of Dependence. “So when I realized my drinking had spun out of control in my late thirties and early forties, I was not entirely surprised.”
The Vermont native had the wherewithal to get sober in 2013 (the same year she sold her first book, The Gift of Failure) and has since used her writing to help others who are struggling with addiction. In addition, she teaches at an inpatient rehab center for adolescents and works as a part-time prevention coach at Sana at Stowe, a medical detox and rehab center. “One-hundred percent of my salary there goes into a scholarship fund for young adults in need of rehab,” she says.
So, you might think Lahey would be sure-footed in her sobriety, but even she admits that the pandemic has made it more difficult to stay sober.
“I’ve been so grateful to be sober during COVID,” she says, “because if I was not, I’d either be divorced, in jail, or dead.”
Along with the stress and isolation of lockdowns, Lahey, whose husband is an infectious diseases physician, dealt with having a family member in a difficult job on the front lines of the pandemic response. “We would both love to just check out mentally for a while,” she says. “In the end, though, I’ve had to actually deal with my anger and anxiety, and I think that’s been better for me.”
Like many people, she faced the loss of in-person gatherings, including recovery meetings. That, she says, was difficult: “I really miss the community of sober people and the support we offer each other.” Through it all, she continues to use her platform to speak about her addiction in order to help others in the community.
“I’m public about my substance use disorder because I can be,” she explains. “I’m white, privileged, and financially secure. I can be out there telling people I’m an alcoholic and the response is, more often than not, ‘Oh, how brave of you.’”
She hopes that her ability to speak out helps those who are already facing discrimination, and for whom addiction can be just another hurdle to receiving help. “If my being out about my substance use disorder makes it easier for someone else to talk about theirs, or reduce their shame and guilt, then it’s worth it to me to have a little less privacy,” Lahey says.
“Alexis” shares how she regained her sobriety in the face of the pandemic
Forty-four-year-old “Alexis,” who requested her name not be shared to protect her identity, spent many of her post-graduate years in Boston. There, she found herself embroiled in the city’s vibrant nightlife.
“I was very much a social drinker,” Alexis says. But what began as a “night out” activity and later, after having kids, a way to unwind and bond with other moms, soon spun out of control. “My addiction kicked into high gear when my kids were about two and three,” she says. “It really spiraled from there to a point where I was drinking alone. I was drinking two to three bottles of wine a day.”
Her alcohol addiction got so intense, in fact, that when Alexis did try to stop drinking for the first time, she ended up in the Intensive Care Unit with delirium tremens, a very severe form of alcohol withdrawal. When she left the ICU after four days, she immediately went home and drank. She was able to get sober after a second attempt, which involved a stay at a detox facility, followed by time in an intensive outpatient program and a transfer to an online continuing recovery group. But her family’s move to Vermont in 2019, and the arrival of COVID-19, made sobriety much more difficult.
“I was under a year sober when we moved up here,” Alexis explains. “I had every intention of finding a local group that I connected with to meet people in my community who were in recovery, but the pandemic put a screeching halt to that opportunity.” Throughout 17 months of lockdowns and social distancing, Alexis was able to remain sober. “And then on the eighteenth month, June of this year, when everything started to open back up again, I relapsed.”
The lack of local support during the pandemic and the strange, lengthy period of forced isolation made it difficult for Alexis to use the skills she had learned in recovery.
“The expectations went from just being home with my family, where there is no alcohol around, to getting together with friends again,” Alexis says. “All of a sudden, the social component of alcohol is right back in front of me.” Without a trusted network, she found it hard to open up and worried she would be seen differently if she shared her struggles. “That really stifled my ability to get out and hear other people’s stories,” she says.
Since her relapse, Alexis has found several local groups, and even a few very close friends, who have helped her get sober and continue her recovery.
“When I picked up one drink in June,” she explains, “I was right back where I left off three years prior. I was just shy of my three-year anniversary, which was devastating.” She returned to a detox center and has not had a drink since July 11 — and she credits her past experience for her ability to regain her sobriety. “If I didn’t have close to three years of sobriety under my belt, I think it would be a totally different story,” she says.
While online groups had been helpful for her, Alexis now knows that they simply can’t replace the experience of having in-person, local support. She understands, however, just how difficult COVID-19 made everything.
“In recovery, you’re climbing a mountain, and some of that climb is really steep. And some of it is a plateau. And sometimes you go downhill to get uphill again,” she says. “But you’re constantly climbing towards the peak. This was part of my journey. It was a low point, but I keep going up.”
New England chef Matt Jennings tells his story to create a supportive community
Born and raised in Boston, chef Matt Jennings has been cooking for most of his life. He’s a five-time James Beard Award nominee and a former “Iron Chef Showdown” competitor on Food Network, whose work has been recognized by the White House, Food & Wine Magazine, and The New York Times. He’s also the founder of Full Heart Hospitality and the vice president of Culinary at Healthy Living Market, and former leader of several acclaimed restaurants. Matt Jennings is also in recovery.
Jennings and his wife Kate launched Farmstead, Inc. in Providence, R.I., in 2002, and ran the restaurant for approximately 11 years before moving back to Boston to open Townsman, which became a massive commercial and critical success. And yet, the master chef was dealing with alcohol and drug addiction the entire time. “I had both alcohol and drug problems throughout the majority of my life,” he explains. “I came up in restaurants and started working in restaurants when I was 14 years old, and never looked back. It’s an unfortunate common side effect of hospitality work for many people, including me.”
In 2016, Jennings took the first step toward what would become his eventual sobriety. He began focusing on his overall health, which included a “massive weight loss change,” as well as eating better and staying fit. Sobriety was part of that. “All of those things were one big package,” he says. It also meant switching up his lifestyle in a big way. “I realized that I needed to take a step back from the restaurant industry and sell Townsman,” he says. “I kind of went cold turkey with everything in my life back in 2018 and haven’t really looked back.”
COVID-19, however, made staying the course extremely difficult for Jennings.
“The pandemic was actually the first time that I actually had that urge,” he says. “Especially during quarantine times. You’re in your house, and you’re kind of like, ‘Alright, this is boring. I really wish I could have a drink right now.’ I think that was the first time it crept back into my mind.”
And it wasn’t just Jennings who was struggling, but many of his friends in recovery as well.
“I have a lot of great friends who are also now sober who had similar experiences,” he explains. “Whether it was the stress of what was going on in the world or being on lockdown or whatever the case may be. But it was definitely the first time it crept back in, in a way that I hadn’t seen in a few years.”
It was his family and close circle of friends that made all the difference in keeping Jennings focused on his sobriety, as did maintaining an active lifestyle.
“My family is extremely supportive. I’ve been really lucky that way,” he says. “The more opportunities I have to direct my energy towards positive outlets has been really great for me. It has kept my mind off of addiction to some degree.”
What fuels Jennings now is using his story to help others, spread kindness, and help reach those who might be struggling. From the over 50,000 people following him on Instagram to the people reading this very story, Jennings just wants to spread the message that clean, healthy living is possible.
“I think finding a community is the best thing you can do, and I think that’s why I’ve felt a level of comfort talking about my struggles,” he says. “I still value my network. It helps me get through. If I can be a part of a community and a support for somebody else then, you know, that’s great.”
If you are affected by the issues raised in this article, help can be found at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Harvard Pilgrim Health Care and Tufts Health Plan also encourage you to engage with your health insurer to see whether you may be able to access resources to support substance use disorder and recovery. If you are a member of either health plan, visit Harvard Pilgrim Health Care or Tufts Health Plan to get started.
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