Ro Evans, left, talks with Kara Cole, manager of the Talitha Koum House in Greenfield. Evans, who has been staying at the women’s recovery home for the five months, attends some of her recovery meetings by Zoom, which she calls a “godsend.” (Tom Russo | Daily Reporter)
Ro Evans, left, talks with Kara Cole, manager of the Talitha Koum House in Greenfield. Evans, who has been staying at the women’s recovery home for the five months, attends some of her recovery meetings by Zoom, which she calls a “godsend.” (Tom Russo | Daily Reporter)
HANCOCK COUNTY — Ro Evans, a recovering alcoholic, knows firsthand how detrimental it can be battling an addiction alone, as so many have through the course of the pandemic.

Five months ago, the 41-year-old turned her life around when she moved into the Talitha Koum Women's Recovery House in Greenfield.

Since then, she’s benefited from the support and guidance of the staff and other residents at the nine-bed facility, even though outside recovery meetings were stalled for months due to the pandemic.

While she has the daily support and camaraderie of the other residents at the Talitha Koum house, which is currently at capacity, she knows not all recovering addicts are so lucky.

Going through recovery during a pandemic marked by uncertainty, anxiety and isolation has taken a toll on those in recovery, say those who have lived the experience.

Kara Cole, manager at the Talitha Koum recovery center, known also as the TK House, is also a recovering alcoholic.

She and other local sobriety coaches say the isolation, anxiety and uncertainty brought on by the pandemic have had a challenging — and sometimes devastating — impact on those going through recovery from various addictions.

Zoom calls and other video communications have helped, they say, but they’re nowhere near as effective as meeting in person.

“You still have a sense of isolation, even though you’re seeing each other online,” said Paul Galbraith, a pastor who directs Celebrate Recovery, a faith-based 12-step recovery program at Brandywine Church in Greenfield.

“We’re created to have relationships with people. It just isn’t the same if you’re not physically present with them,” he said.

Linda Ostewig, director at the TK House as well as The Landing Place, a Greenfield gathering place for teens in crisis, said COVID has dealt a blow to the whole recovery lifestyle.

“Recovery is about building a new life for yourself. It includes meetings, it includes interaction with people, interaction with sponsors, and COVID has just kind of kicked that in the butt,” she said.

At the TK House, Cole is thankful the nine women living there have each other, but they still miss their outside meetings with other people.

“In my opinion, COVID has made everything worse,” said Cole, who has been sober for 12 years.

Sobriety in the balance

“For people in addiction or struggling with mental health, they can’t get out and interact. They can do Zoom meetings, and I’m thankful for that, but people need that personal one-on-one connection,” she said.

Ostewig said it’s that lack of connection that can lead addicts back to negative behaviors.

“Once that face-to-face connection is taken away, you’re left to your own vices, whatever those vices are. Some can navigate that well and others can’t,” she said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the pandemic has had a severe impact on people struggling with addiction.

According to a news release shared in December, “More than 81,000 drug overdose deaths occurred in the United States in the 12 months ending in May 2020, the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in a 12-month period… While overdose deaths were already increasing in the months preceding the (COVID-19 pandemic), the latest numbers suggest an acceleration of overdose deaths during the pandemic.”

“The disruption to daily life due to the COVID-19 pandemic has hit those with substance use disorder hard,” said CDC director, Dr. Robert Redfield. “As we continue the fight to end this pandemic, it’s important to not lose sight of different groups being affected in other ways. We need to take care of people suffering from unintended consequences,” he said.

Ostewig said several women who have completed the Talitha Koum program have suffered relapses over the past year, and a number of young people who were getting support for recovery at The Landing Place have gone back to using, too.

One resident who spent three months at the TK House during the pandemic opted to leave early and ended up overdosing and dying after about a month living out on her own.

“That was our first death of anyone who has been in and out of the house. That really rocked our world,” Cole said.

Relapse threat grows

The pandemic and its related stressors trigger not only a sense of isolation in recovering addicts, but also trigger the desire to turn back to their drug of choice to ease the pain and uncertainty the pandemic brings.

“Those in recovery went back to what they knew, which is using a substance that numbs the pain and takes away reality,” said Ostewig, adding that even those who aren’t in recovery can face similar pitfalls.

“There’s a lot of data showing that a lot of people have started drinking at home. The data shows that alcohol sales have gone drastically up. People are isolating, and that’s what they’re turning to,” she said.

While the TK House residents have each other to lean on, other recovery addicts aren’t so lucky. Sobriety coaches say it’s tempting to relapse in the absence of ongoing, in-person support.

When schools and businesses were shutting down in mid-March last year, churches and nonprofits were forced to discontinue in-person support meetings.

While Ostewig said it broke her heart, The Landing Place closed and didn’t reopen until June 1. It was the first time she had to shut the nonprofit’s doors in six years.

The Landing was closed again when COVID cases spiked in December, and didn’t reopen until Feb. 3. The closures took a toll on those who find refuge there, Ostewig said.

“Once a habit is formed, it needs to be reinforced. The longer you stay closed, the longer they forget those good habits,” she said. They’re not coming to meetings, they’re not hearing that encouragement, and those old habits return and maybe new bad habits develop.”

Meetings at the Celebrate Recovery program were also put on hold after COVID hit last year. Organizers tried doing online meetings during the downtime, “but it just wasn’t the same. Participation wasn’t as high as what we get in person,” Galbraith said.

Exercising caution

The program resumed meeting in person in late June, celebrating with an outdoor barbecue.

Even though meetings have resumed indoors, Galbraith said participants take the utmost caution — social distancing, wearing masks and staying home when they’re sick.

“What’s really been encouraging is the caution that all the participants have had. We haven’t had any known case of COVID spreading,” he said.

It helps to have a large meeting space. Participants are able to spread out within the 800-seat auditorium and see parts of the program taking place on the stage displayed up on large screens.

After a large group meeting, many branch off into smaller gender and topic-specific groups in classrooms throughout the church.

“That was part of our desire to get back to meeting (in person) quickly. In talking to our leaders and participants, everybody voiced the need to be in the physical place together,” he said.

Galbraith has been encouraged to see the number of participants return to pre-COVID levels, which is about 100 participants each week, after falling considerably last year when meetings were being held virtually.

“Part of that was because people weren’t comfortable sharing their story over a computer call. There wasn’t as much confidentiality,” he said.

When the Landing reopened the first week of February, Ostewig was overjoyed to see 25 to 30 people showed up each night. Previously, 40 to 50 people attended each meeting.

While attendance is down from the pre-COVID numbers, Ostewig is thrilled to see people starting to come back to reunite in their recovery.

In early February, the TK House reopened its in-house Tuesday night meeting called Last Minute Meeting.

“People have been coming back to it. They’re eager,” said Cole, who hopes the residents can soon start to make their way back to other in-person meetings in the greater Indianapolis area as meetings reconvene.

“They love those meetings, so they’re looking forward to that,” she said.

Changes at recovery meetings

Recovery group organizers say they’re adhering to state guidelines for COVID safety, like mask wearing and social distancing.

At The Way Out Club in Greenfield, a gathering place for those in recovery that is open daily and plays host to upwards of 20 AA meetings a week, the voicemail greeting informs callers that meetings should not exceed 50% of fire code capacity. The recording states that attendees should wear masks and practice social distancing, and those who are feeling ill should stay home.

As the world strives to make its way back to normal, recovering addicts and sobriety coaches are doing their best to navigate their way through.

Cole said she and the women at the TK House try to keep themselves busy, playing games, doing crafts, going to the park and finding new dishes to cook.

“The isolation has made us branch out and be more creative, thinking about what kind of fun we can have in sobriety, which has been really helpful for them,” Cole said.

As for Evans, she’s thankful for the daily support and encouragement she receives from others in recovery — whether in person or through a screen.

“I love going to the face to face meetings, but Zoom has been a Godsend for me. Either way, the program is how I stay sober,” she said.
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