Photo by Alex Bruell 
Erica C. Barnett, a Seattle journalist whose coverage includes city hall, homelessness and transportation, poses for a picture outside her Pioneer Square neighborhood office. Barnett was one of several speakers during the April 14 King County Conference on Addiction Disorders.

Photo by Alex Bruell Erica C. Barnett, a Seattle journalist whose coverage includes city hall, homelessness and transportation, poses for a picture outside her Pioneer Square neighborhood office. Barnett was one of several speakers during the April 14 King County Conference on Addiction Disorders.

Zooming to recovery: King County panel discusses addiction, sobriety during COVID-19 pandemic

Health experts and recovering addicts shared insight, data on staying sober during isolation

It’s a cute, relatable refrain you might hear from friends or coworkers: “This last year was awful. I deserve a glass.”

For those able to imbibe in moderation, these moments may seem harmless. But for King County Council member Reagan Dunn, a recovering alcoholic, the pandemic has “absolutely” been a new test.

“I don’t think there’s an addict in recovery who hasn’t thought to themselves: ‘Wow, I’m largely working from home. I could have a drink and no one could notice,’ ” Dunn said in a recent interview.

That’s part of why Dunn, who represents southeast King County, hosted the virtual “King County Conference on Addiction Disorders” on April 13, an event which he hopes to hold annually. 200 people exactly registered for the event this year.

Speakers spoke to the science of addiction, resources the county has for those seeking recovery and the unique pressure the pandemic has placed on those staying sober.

A February poll by the American Psychological Association found about 23 percent of U.S. adults drank more to cope with pandemic stress, and an October study in JAMA Network Open found drinking increased 14 percent over the previous year. (All statistics cited are linked in the online version of this story.)

In King County specifically, the rate of drug and alcohol poisoning deaths jumped 24 percent from 2019 to 2020, according to a county dashboard. That’s the biggest increase in the dataset, which goes back to 2008, and it was driven largely by methamphetamine and fentanyl, an opiate.

But the takeaway at Wednesday’s conference wasn’t gloom-and-doom. Recovering addicts and addiction experts say that far from a reason to despair, we can think of the pandemic as a reason to put down the glass or bottle, and perhaps, even a source of personal triumph.

NO MAGIC CARWASH

Dr. Caleb Banta-Green shows research on how the brain recovers after about a year of sobriety from the abuse of methamphetamine during the virtual meeting April 14.

Dr. Caleb Banta-Green shows research on how the brain recovers after about a year of sobriety from the abuse of methamphetamine during the virtual meeting April 14.

One takeaway from the conference: Patience isn’t just a virtue. It’s required.

Addiction is complex and changes the brain – so quitting usually takes more than just good intentions and willpower, said University of Washington alcohol and drug abuse scientist Dr. Caleb Banta-Green.

A flawed assumption people make, Banta-Green said, is that an addicted person will stop if they hit “rock bottom” and see the error of their ways.

The problem with that idea? As council member Dunn will tell you, even his well-publicized 2014 DUI wasn’t enough to stop him from drinking. Despite that moment – a stereotypical “rock bottom” – Dunn didn’t have his last drink until about three years later, in 2017.

“You keep doing it even though you know it’s totally bad and creates all this wreckage in your life,” Dunn said. “My 102-year-old grandmother saw me on the front page of the local section of the Seattle Times. I don’t think that drink was worth it.”

Relapse doesn’t indicate failure, but instead a sign that a different approach to treatment might be needed, Banta-Green said.

“We know between 90 and 92 percent of people who go into inpatient treatment will relapse,” Dunn said in an interview. “It’s daunting. (But) we also know the average number of relapses a person will have is about seven before they reach a permanent sobriety.”

For conference speaker Erica C. Barnett, treatment helped but wasn’t “some magical carwash” that scrubbed her clean of addiction. Neither was losing a job or the trust of friends and family.

Barnett is a Seattle-based journalist who covers homelessness, city hall and more at her website PubliCola. She’s been sober since February 2015, and her book “Quitter: A Memoir of Drinking, Relapse, and Recovery” came out last year.

“What ultimately happened,” Barnett said in an interview, “was I woke up one day, and I was done. I had this visceral feeling that this was the day that was going to be my last day of drinking.”

The path to recovery looks different for everyone, and for most people that path includes relapse, Barnett said.

“We have this idea that if people just go to treatment, they’ll get better,” Barnett said. “And then when they don’t get better, we blame it on them. That is really counterproductive.”

ZOOMING IN ON RECOVERY

Clockwise starting from the top right: King County Council member Reagan Dunn, Northpoint Seattle Director Sharon Fenton, Antioch University Addiction Studies Program Director Lisa Rudduck, and Seattle and King County Public Health Strategic Advisor Brad Finegood discuss addiction during the virtual meeting April 14.

Clockwise starting from the top right: King County Council member Reagan Dunn, Northpoint Seattle Director Sharon Fenton, Antioch University Addiction Studies Program Director Lisa Rudduck, and Seattle and King County Public Health Strategic Advisor Brad Finegood discuss addiction during the virtual meeting April 14.

A study of 3,000 people in the U.S., published by alcohol.org, found that about a third of respondents felt they were more likely to drink while working at home under COVID-19 lockdowns compared to at their typical workplace.

The pandemic has gone on so long that low-key coping mechanisms like having an extra drink at home might be turning into troubling habits for many, Barnett said.

“People think they’re exempt if they’re ironic about it,” Barnett said. “It doesn’t feel like you’re drinking alone if you’re sitting there on your computer on Zoom, but you are drinking alone at home.”

But staying at home can also make it easier to access meetings for recovery groups like Alcoholics Anonymous.

“I know this pandemic has created relapses for many, many people, because I hear it in my AA every day,” King County Chief of Staff Carolyn Busch said. “I pray … these people just keep coming back, and just keep giving themselves a day.”

“It was tough” when those meetings had to move online, Barnett said, leaving behind the hugging and hand-holding of in-person gatherings.

“I don’t think I’m violating anonymity to say that people complain about this all the time,” said Barnett, who attends meetings on average once or twice a month. “I personally hate Zoom for all purposes. I don’t feel comfortable sitting in my living room talking to people. But I do it.”

But online meetings are much easier to attend, Barnett added, and they allow people from around the world to share with each other.

That’s how Art Dahlen feels. He’s the owner of “Rebuild Recovery,” a program where he coaches families to better help their loved ones going through addiction. Dahlen also co-founded Battlefield Addiction, a Des Moines non-profit that helps recovering people and their families find community.

Recovering from addiction means celebrating a new, enriched life, Dahlen said, so why talk about it in a dour, dismal way?

“We’re not discrediting people who are suffering.” Dahlen said. “We’re saying there’s an answer to suffering … when you have gratitude and you’re enjoying life and the moment. … What other coping mechanism is going to come without consequences than that one?”

Video meetings have been a blessing for Battlefield, Dahlen said. They recently met with Sam Quinones, the LA Times author of “Dreamland,” a book on opioid addiction. That’s an opportunity that “would have never dawned on us before,” Dahlen said.

A WEIRD KIND OF BLESSING

King County Council member Reagan Dunn and Chief of Staff Carolyn Busch shared stories and lessons learned from their sobriety during the virtual meeting April 14.

King County Council member Reagan Dunn and Chief of Staff Carolyn Busch shared stories and lessons learned from their sobriety during the virtual meeting April 14.

It’s easy to imagine that stories about staying sober in the last year – a time of illness, isolation and political strife – would be grim.

But speaker after speaker Wednesday shared a sense of gratitude; for their recovery groups, for their experience facing addiction, and for the opportunity to help others.

Dunn said he thanks God that he already had a few years of sobriety under his belt when COVID-19 hit. It’s given him the perspective and experience to keep going through the last year, he said.

Barnett said the pandemic hasn’t been all that bad for her, because like Dunn she’s aided by her experience and years away from alcohol.

“I talk to other people who are sober about this a lot,” Barnett said in an interview. “I think for people who are stable in their sobriety, it has been kind of a blessing, in a weird way, to have some stability, to know how to do this and get through really difficult periods without drinking.”

Barnett now has “a life beyond (her) wildest dreams,” she told conference attendees Wednesday: “My worst day today is better than my best day when I was drinking.”

Chief of Staff Busch, whose addiction was forged in boozy political meetings at the state capitol, has stayed on the straight-and-narrow with AA, the same group that helped her get clean in the first place.

“It was the first time I ever felt at home, felt like anybody understood the madness between my ears,” Busch said of the sobriety program.

The isolation and depression she’s felt during the pandemic made her feel like her sobriety was in jeopardy, Busch said. The strict stay-at-home orders early on kept her from stress-relieving hobbies like skiing and hiking, and her highly scrutinized career made it seem scary to seek help.

“It took me a long time to get on Zoom meetings because I was so terrified,” Busch said. “Finally last September I decided (that) this is going to end badly if I don’t get on a meeting. So I started going. I’ve been going every day since then.”

MORE RESOURCES:

King County Behavioral Health and Recovery Division: 206-263-8997 or 1-800-790-8049

Washington Recovery Help Line: 1-866-789-1511

SAMHSA National helpline: 1-800-662-HELP (4357)

Suicide Prevention Line: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

Alcoholics Anonymous Greater Seattle: 206-587-2838


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