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COVID-19: Overcoming addiction during a pandemic

A look into how COVID-19 has impacted those struggling with addiction

The past few months have been difficult for Sean.*

He lost his father to COVID-19. That loss exacerbated Sean’s own struggle with the challenges of the pandemic. Add in the fact that Sean has a family history of substance abuse, and the result is that he fell into a pattern of excessive drug use.

“During COVID, things you would normally use to distract or entertain yourself were taken away from you,” Sean says. “With [drugs] being accessible, you start using more. I started building a tolerance to marijuana because it didn’t do the job. So, you start looking for different things to get you through everything, to get you through that we are living in a pandemic.”

Sean is now in Gamecock Recovery, an on-campus organization providing support and services to students struggling with and overcoming addiction. He’s on his way to recovery — but he’s not alone in what he faces.

One year after COVID-19’s arrival in the United States, it’s clear that its effects go beyond the disease itself.

“Think about somebody who was in recovery from their addiction, or even somebody who is still actively using,” says Jordan Cooler, an assistant professor in the College of Pharmacy who studies substance abuse. “What impact does the pandemic have on them? Having social support systems and other various support systems that they're unable to interact with anymore could potentially lead to someone resuming use or increasing use.”

Conclusive, long-term data on how the pandemic has impacted drug abuse is not yet available, Cooler says. But the short-term data suggest an overall increase. A report on opioid overdoses from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that COVID-19 may have exacerbated the circumstances that make substance abuse more likely and recovery more difficult.

There is a reason why you are an addict; you’ve exhausted all of your resources, and the urges can take over and you feel defeated by it. A lot of time people who don’t suffer from the disease can’t fathom how difficult it is to be around these substances.

While cautious about overinterpreting limited data, Cooler says that in the short term, “substance abuse is on the rise” and it could be at least partially attributable to such factors as “not having access to care, the development of mental health disorders related to the pandemic, isolation and things like that.”

Statistically, college-aged young adults make up a majority of those most likely to get involved with substance abuse.

Anna, who is also involved in Gamecock Recovery, says she began drinking in high school and later started using drugs.

“I went to a very small high school,” she says. “A lot of people were big drinkers — that’s what everyone did on Friday nights. Sophomore year was when I started to use drugs. Once it became an issue, I tried to keep it a secret.”

Still, friends and family noticed a change.

“My cousin and best friends noticed something was wrong. I was being unreliable. I would be late, acting nervous, couldn’t tell the truth about things.”

The behavior was out of character, because on the surface Anna was a successful student.

“I was very involved in high school,” she says. “I was in school clubs, and I was a cheerleader. I stopped showing up to games — I stopped showing up because I was afraid someone would find out I was high.”

Cooler says changes in mood or behavior are signs someone might be struggling with substance abuse. 

“Perhaps you notice a person increasing the number of drinks they have per sitting,” she says. “Also, an increase in the number of times per week. Also look for tolerance — if the person has to drink more before you notice that they are intoxicated.” In a more extreme scenario, Cooler says, signs might include physical withdrawal symptoms, such as irritability, nausea or vomiting.

Both Sean and Anna give credit to Gamecock Recovery for helping them as they work toward sobriety.

“It’s difficult to be sober in college,” Anna says. “And it’s so helpful to know that there is a whole group of people I can talk to, who understand.”

Sean agrees that finding support gives him the strength to remain sober.

“No drug addict can fight this alone,” he says. “There is a reason why you are an addict; you’ve exhausted all of your resources, and the urges can take over and you feel defeated by it. A lot of time people who don’t suffer from the disease can’t fathom how difficult it is to be around these substances.”

Adds Sean: “Addiction is a disease. Once I came to that realization, I took a step back and did some existential thinking. Ultimately, I realized I couldn’t be around the same people I was. I couldn’t be around the same people without having the urge to use.”

Anna says it’s important to take it one day at a time.

“When I started out and I got sober — I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, how am I going to do this?’ Then I realized, ‘I can be sober today, I can be sober for one day’ and eventually you will be sober six months.”

Anna says it’s important to realize “the society that you live in does not have to dictate your morals and decisions. Reach out to people who understand what you are going through, reach out to others.”

* This article does not use students’ last names to protect their privacy.

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