Life in recovery from substance abuse is difficult. Once physical withdrawal has been overcome, there is still the challenge of too much time on one's hands: Combating boredom and always looking for – but only sometimes finding – drug-free environments that will support a new lifestyle.
This way of life is hard for anyone at any time. Being in the midst of a public health crisis and a social shutdown makes it even harder.
“It’s been really rough. A lot of people have been relapsing; overdoses are up in Niagara County,” says Matthew Thompson, director of recovery for Save the Michaels Niagara. “This really hurt a lot of people.”
Save the Michaels is devoted to raising awareness of prescription and other drug addictions, and helping addicts recover. Alongside connecting those who have substance abuse problems with meetings and support groups, Save the Michaels is a grassroots advocacy force for laws to stop the over-prescription of pain medications. It has offices in Buffalo and Lockport, where Thompson is the supervisor.
“If you’re struggling and you come up to our door, you’re going to find someone immediately, someone who's been through it,” Thompson said, noting that he is in recovery himself.
According to data from Niagara County law enforcement and the local High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, drug overdoses are up 50% in the past year.
Myra Doxey, deputy director at the Niagara County Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, said that from Jan. 1 through May 18, the department counted 16 fatal overdoses and 142 non-fatal overdoses. In 2019, from January through mid May, the numbers were 11 fatal and 100 non-fatal overdoses.
“We’re definitely seeing a change in the drugs that are involved in the overdoses,” Doxey said. “There are some substances other than opiates, for example, like cocaine. They appear to be involved in (overdoses) and potentially have been mixed and laced with fentanyl."
Pharmaceutical fentanyl is a synthetic opioid pain reliever with 50 to 100 times the potency of morphine, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. The illicit, street-manufactured variety ends up mixed with other potentially deadly illegal drugs like cocaine, and even heroin, to heighten the highs.
Street-made fentanyl's lethal reputation doesn't discourage addicts from using it, according to Doxey.
“The mind is ill when people are addicted, so for them, they’re thinking that would be a good high. It’s that good to be causing that to happen," she said. "People with addiction, the brain is sick, so they think very differently and not as rationally as someone who does not face addiction.”
Thompson said one of the ways to combat addiction is to keep the person facing it socially active, but that goal has been hard to meet during the COVID-19 crisis.
“The twelve-step program, they haven’t been able to meet, I know they’ve moved to ZOOM and that kind of thing, but it’s still that in-person connection that really helps," he said. "People feel isolated. If you feel isolated you’re going to get in your own head and get into problems.”
Through its Buffalo office, Save the Michaels can help substance abusers get a "bed" — admission to an in-patient rehabilitation program — somewhere in New York state, Thompson said. He or another staff member will provide their transportation to the facility.
“We (also) have recovery coaches here, which is a person-centered approach to empower them in their recovery and they’ll be able to connect with their recovery coach when they call our office,” Thompson said.
While overdose rates have increased during the pandemic, Doxey noted the number of people reaching out to her office has decreased.
“We also know that the treatment programs have identified a decreased number of people who are seeking help, because those who are involved with the drug courts and other oversight programs aren’t open or have relaxed their monitoring standards,” she said.
“(That) can be isolating, I know, for an individual. I know, myself, I feed off the energy in the room and there’s something to say when you’re in the presence of someone that you’re able to connect with them and to speak to them and to relate to them. It can be a little more isolating when you don’t have that connection to someone,” Doxey said. "I think treatment counts. You have a routine, you know when you're supposed to be reporting, you have people who are supporting you, you have people who are following up. You have more to reach out to on a regular basis. That all becomes more routine, and it was very abrupt with the COVID crisis (when that routine was lost.)"
Save the Michaels can be contacted at 302-3960.