Calgary addiction recovery centre links COVID-19 to spike in waiting list: ‘Nobody is immune’

A Calgary addictions recovery centre has seen its waiting list numbers spike and officials are linking that to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Read more: Coronavirus: Calgary mental health services want you to reach out, be self-compassionate

Zak Mohamed couldn’t recognize himself when he started his four-month stay at the Fresh Start Recovery Centre last year. The methamphetamine use had taken over his life.

“I was lost. I was homeless. I was a hard user, absolutely broken. I didn’t have hope anymore,” Mohamed said.

Mohamed, 24, has been clean since April 2019 and now works for Fresh Start’s social enterprise Eleven-Eleven.

On Sunday, he ran the Eleven-Eleven Food Truck as the group held its 12th annual 12-Stop Ride for Recovery, which has been modified into a weeklong event because of COVID-19.

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Read more: Calgary addiction treatment centres opt for more virtual meetings during COVID-19 pandemic

But the virus has also prompted a more sinister change. The waiting list for the 50-bed centre normally sits at 120 but now it’s jumped to 180 — a number not seen since the devastating floods of 2013 in southern Alberta.

“Loneliness, isolation, despair and some people have lost their jobs, which feeds into the despair and helplessness,” said Wayne Steer, director of fund development at the Fresh Start Recovery Centre.

Steer said the opposite of addiction is not sobriety — it’s being connected and COVID-19 has wiped out some connections, ultimately leading to substance abuse.

“As people become disconnected, there’s more propensity for people to go out and start using a little bit of alcohol. ‘Oh it’s been a hard day so let’s have a drink or let’s have a smoke of marijuana.’ And it can progressively creep up, and then all of a sudden, you are needing the substance,” Steer said.

Read more: How harm reduction measures are changing under the COVID-19 pandemic

The head of the Fresh Start Recovery Centre said the pandemic has been tough on fundraising efforts at a time when demand is soaring.

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“Nobody is immune. It doesn’t matter who you are,” said Fresh Start Recovery Centre executive director Stacey Petersen.

The isolation has been hard on people in recovery. Fortunately, they’ve found ways to adapt through online meetings and smaller events. But alumni say it’s been a struggle.

“I don’t get as many hugs as I would like. Used to be upwards of 10 a day and now it’s few and far between,” Mohamed said.

Read more: Calgary Dream Centre faces longest-ever waitlist for addictions treatment while donations drop

The facility went into lockdown in March and has slowly started to open again with strict protocols.

“I think it has a huge impact in a positive way to be able to have people come back,” Petersen said.

There has been a silver lining to the strict measures. Steer said the group of men who chose to stay in lockdown experienced success because they formed stronger bonds with no outside distractions and there have been no cases of COVID-19.

Read more: Coronavirus and addiction: For people in recovery, self-isolation can be harmful

For people recovering, they know they must continue to chase recovery as hard as they did the addiction — even harder during a pandemic.

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“Even though COVID was hard, where there is a will, there’s a way. Pretty much our lives are at stake so you got to fight for it,” Mohamed said.

Fresh Start has been helping people live in recovery since 1992. It includes a 50-bed addiction treatment centre for men as well as 46 affordable housing units.

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