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'Two great epidemics of our generation are intersecting': The pandemic changes recovery

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MADISON, Wis. -- The coronavirus pandemic has had an impact on almost everything, including our relationships with the outside world. For many, it's those relationships that keep them from going to a dark place.

Therapists and supporters have had to make changes to keep those struggling with addiction on the road to recovery.

23-year-old Henry Henk had been using drugs for almost 10 years, going to rehab, then relapsing again and again, when he finally felt confident in his recovery.

Then a pandemic hit.

"When I got out of inpatient, this was all just starting. I went in with everything normal, came out with all this beginning. I think the quarantine started shortly after," said Henk.

His recovery process changed from leaning on others to sitting at home alone.

"A huge, huge thing that I have learned in my recovery is that I need to get involved with other people that are involved in their own recovery and are working a program or support my recovery," said Henk.

"If you think about it, two great epidemics of our generation are intersecting in a way that is deadly," said Saima Chauchan with Journey Mental Health.

She said the recovery culture is that addiction is a disease of isolation. Now in the time of coronavirus, it's paired with social distancing and fear.

"Heightened anxiety in general is nearly a universal trigger for drug use. And it's difficult to think of a more stressful event for all of us really than this pandemic," said Chauchan.

Connections Counseling has also seen an increase in both alcohol and opiate use.

Shelly Dutch said it's in response to the isolation and boredom. She said at first, clients didn't want to do therapy from home and that made their recovery process even more difficult.

"March was the hardest because it was hard to access (clients). People had children at home, they were afraid about what it would be like to talk to your therapist online," said Dutch.

She said phone calls just weren't enough interaction either. But since then, therapists have adapted and clients are more willing to do video appointments.

Group sessions allow 8-12 people to connect with therapists and mentors. Therapists are also reaching out to clients more frequently to check in.

Dutch said this helps people in recovery not feel alone.

But Henk said it's just not the same as meeting in person.

"When we're in person we can see each other's body language. But in a phone call or a zoom meeting it's hard to read that," said Henk. "It's just disconnected."

He said during this difficult time, he's learning more about his mindset and what works for him.