One Clinician’s Story: Working in the addiction field through COVID-19
“I can’t get to the clinic and see my friends. I miss ‘em. I have to stay here with my boyfriend who’s getting high. It’s not like I can go anywhere. Where am I gonna go? I gotta get out of here. I am going crazy stuck in this house. He’s (boyfriend) getting worse, angrier, and hitting things. Am I next?”
These are the dilemmas that therapists and clinicians hear regularly. Our clients (we refer to them as guests) who were already stressed before the pandemic were pushed beyond their limits. Some responded by throwing themselves into telehealth services, if they had the technology, and some were overtaken by the relief drug use could temporarily provide. We had more overdoes, some fatal, during the past year than I had witnessed in the previous five years. I believe the increase in OD’s is directly related to the increased isolation caused by the pandemic and necessary efforts to mitigate the spread of the virus. Those impacts will not magically disappear with restrictions lifted. We are still in this.
The following is my experience with the COVID-19 pandemic. I am the owner of New Vision Therapy, PLLC, and director of a fantastic team of caring and compassionate professionals. New Vision Therapy is a substance use disorder and mental health clinic in Greensboro and Reidsville. We are a small team of two administrators and four therapists.
I love zombie movies and end of the world as we know it dystopian books. As tragic and horrifying as they can be, there was great escapism in those worlds for me. Now, after 15 months of this pandemic, one of the most defining moments in my life, I can’t bring myself to get lost in those fantasies anymore. The fantasy became real. Life as I know it, and I believe as we know it, is forever changed.
Throughout February and March, we watched with growing alarm the news about this strange virus coming from Asia. As I look back it was surreal how the pandemic unfolded. Like one of those zombie movies, I mentioned earlier. Slowly with mounting dread, then with increasing speed and chaos the real pandemic unfolded. It didn’t seem quite real even as the West coast began to close. Finally, Governor Cooper declared a state of emergency in NC on March 10. It became undeniable but still felt unreal! The power of denial is amazing allowing us to function and keep moving!
Friends, family, and patients have sickened or died in numbers I have never experienced. Now, it’s as if those deaths are forgotten, pushed away, as the news coverage changed and as a people, we became increasingly numb to the death toll. When did the daily death count stop being people and become just numbers? How can we forget? What about the increasing overdoes and suicide rates over the past year that continue to climb? Will we ever really know the true loss that this pandemic has caused? The helping professions have been on the front lines since the beginning. And we are hurting too. As humans but also for our clients and guests.
On March 18 we as a team decided to stop all in person services. We became consumed with our efforts to move 180 patients to telehealth services. This move was accomplished in two weeks with no preparation and very little sleep. I am very grateful and amazed at our team for this accomplishment. Many of us had never used telehealth prior to this event. Our telehealth learning curve, teaching our patients how to use their technology, scrambling to contact those without the capability to access telehealth and our own personal fears associated with the pandemic created an environment of survival.
Each of us began to have our own stories of friends and family contracting COVID. Our guests began to report the same. Group therapy, individual therapy, staff meetings and casual conversations all turned to COVID. “How bad is it?” “Is this getting over blown?” “Can you survive if you get it?” “How do you prevent getting it?” “Why bother staying clean if I’m just gonna get it and die?”
We had to keep the clinic open and functioning. What would our guests do without clinical support and medication? Would the clinic get paid for our telehealth services? How would we pay the bills? Would there have to be layoffs? The backdrop of every decision was fear. Fear permeated and penetrated each decision. It drove us to keep going, seeing the next guest, calling each and every guest who could not, or world not use telehealth. We had to keep the clinic open because it is our employment. Keeping the clinic open and functioning was a continual act of living faith like I have not ever participated in before.
Now in July of 2021 there is some bit of perspective as the fog of crisis recedes. Many are dead directly or indirectly from the pandemic. Emotionally, our clinic is changed, scared, tested, grieved but surviving. The immeasurable cost of the pandemic is emerging. More and more of our community needs SUD and MH services. Because of job losses many are unable to access services or those with employment are afraid to ask for time to attend treatment afraid they will be fired.
By not using the full extent of the American Rescue Plan funds allowable for new SUD or MH services, increased access to services, and dedicating funds to new and innovative approaches-the North Carolina’s General Assembly clearly shows to all its citizens a painful disregard for the sacrifices suffered from the pandemic. Words, prayers, and thoughts are all well and good. None of those notions help the desperate and hopeless with no options for support. Maybe that is the intent. Let the “weak” die off and the survivors will be stronger. I hope the previous statement originates in my anger at the apparent heartlessness of our legislators and is not in fact an actual intent on the part of those legislators.
It is difficult for me to understand the heartlessness of politics when there is so much collective universal suffering. But politics is clearly in play with these policy decisions. Where is the leadership? Is leadership a lost art? Has politics killed off courageous leadership? Who is willing to stand for the “least” among us? Apparently, not this legislature.
The hope I find is in the guests who keep showing up and in the team that I am so honored to be a part of. We can advocate and must advocate at the community level for equitable and sustainable SUD and MH service access. We can and must organize to elect representatives that care and understand the reality of the obstacles facing our community. APNC is one loud and impactful voice for the people’s needs. Needs not just for the guests we serve but for the professionals we are so that we can continue to persist and provide for those who are hurting.
Mat Sandifer, LCSW, LCAS, CSI
APNC Board Member at Large
NAADAC South East Regional VP
We are grateful to Mat for sharing his story with us. Please JOIN IN and share your stories and thoughts with us by following THIS LINK.