I said 2020 was going to be my year. I know a lot of us felt this way, and I entered the year with a couple of months sober and a program of recovery that I was deeply engaged in. This was a year of self-discovery for me, I was getting to know myself outside of the labels I had clumsily affixed to my being, and I was deeply committed to a better life. When February rolled around, I had three months sober. I was engaged in my program and connected to others in recovery. 

Like many of us, I was also starting to realize that it was about to get real with this virus. We had all heard the murmurs from overseas, but it didn’t feel real to me yet, although a few people had told me that they were very concerned about Covid-19. I mostly ignored them.

This was a year of self-discovery for me, I was getting to know myself outside of the labels I had clumsily affixed to my being, and I was deeply committed to a better life. 

Sometime in early March, my longtime friend sent me a text message saying that it was now impossible to find hand sanitizer. People on the neighborhood Facebook group started throwing up pictures of empty toilet paper aisles in the grocery stores. A friend of mine told me she was going into self-quarantine because she was caring for her elderly parents, and she didn’t want to potentially expose them. Sunday, March 15th, the governor announced that he was shutting down bars and restaurants, so I went on a big grocery shopping trip and prepared to lockdown. 

I started out strong. I said my prayers every morning and regularly checked in with other people in recovery. I attended meetings on Zoom. I even baked bread. Nothing was going to compromise the meaningful life I had built in the past few months. Days passed. I raided my closet and put together my outfit for the post-apocalyptic wasteland and forced my husband to take photos of me brandishing a crossbow and a hunting knife like a Mad Max heroine. We watched the governor announce the stay at home order on the news. Nonessential businesses closed down. And then the following Sunday, I succumbed to my eight-year addiction to heroin. 

All bets were off, and I proceeded to go hard for the next month and a half, driving to the city to cop what I needed several times a week. At one point, I detoxed cold turkey at home, going through the night sweats and the restless legs and the absolute misery. Somehow, I pulled together two weeks of sobriety, boasting a sobriety date of April Fools Day, which I insisted that I was going to keep. During those two weeks, my aunt and her mother died of COVID-19 within one day of each other, but I still managed to hang in there. Eventually, I picked up again and I couldn’t stop, so I decided to surrender and return to treatment for the first time in four years. 

I’m no stranger to treatment programs. In fact, I’ve been to residential treatment 11 times. I’ve been to state-funded programs where everyone is poor, and bougie rehabs on the west coast where they give you acupuncture and equine therapy. I’ve lived in sober living houses where your insurance pays your rent if you attend a certain intensive outpatient program that’s affiliated with the house. I’ve been to detoxes with pools, detoxes in nice houses, and detoxes in hospitals.

Actually getting into treatment was a challenge. Many treatment centers were closed due to COVID or were not accepting new clients. Some just didn’t call back, and others didn’t have beds available. I only have state insurance, and that made it harder to find a program that was able to take me. I left voicemails, did phone assessments, and reached out to people in California, hoping one of the fancier places I’d been would maybe offer me a scholarship (they instead referred me to the SAMSHA hotline). 

After some trial, I found a placement. My father-in-law drove me to treatment, and we put on our face masks before we walked in the door. We were greeted at the door by a staff member with a thermometer, and she had a list of COVID screening questions that we had to answer before she could allow us in the building. Once we answered all of her questions satisfactorily, we were able to sit in the lobby to await intake.

Having your mask down when you weren’t smoking or eating was a dischargeable offense. 

The rest of the process for entry was familiar. I had to take a drug test, which lit up like a Christmas tree. Staff searched my belongings, and I was assessed by the nurse. They ordered Suboxone for me, but I couldn’t start it for forty-eight hours because I tested positive for fentanyl. Eventually, I was shown to my detox room and was given sheets for my bed. I had to bring my own pillow and comforter, and the towels they had available were less than ideal, but they did the job. 

For the most part, it was like any other experience in treatment, but there were a few deviations from normalcy. To begin with, they hadn’t had any female clients for quite some time. There were two other clients in detox when I got there, and only two downstairs in the actual rehab. One woman left after detoxing, and a couple more came in, so when I moved into the actual rehab part of the program, we started out with only six clients total in the women’s program. 

We had several policies in place regarding COVID. Clients had to wear masks but were permitted to take them off after 14 days of treatment, and we were also required to remain six feet apart from one another at all times. Staff wore masks at all times. We were also only permitted to sit two to a table in the lunchroom. 

It wasn’t always realistic to follow these policies, however. When we had our smoke breaks, we were certainly not six feet apart and had our masks pulled down in order to smoke. This also went for when we were eating or drinking coffee. Having your mask down when you weren’t smoking or eating was a dischargeable offense. 

We also had to have our temperatures taken every morning by the nurse. Another client had a temp just over 100 and was sent over to the nearby ER for COVID testing. She ended up testing negative, but she came back and packed up her stuff and said she was told to quarantine for two weeks because of her fever. I found out later from one of the nurses that she actually chose to leave, and that no one would be medically discharged for a temp under 104.

I was initially nervous entering an institution during a pandemic, but the choice was to save my immediate life instead of my hypothetical life. 

Despite these protocols, it was all in all an average rehab experience. We passed the male clients in the hallways every day but were not allowed to speak to them. People came and went. One woman left and came back. I was appointed client representative (or “peer leader”) by the counselors for a week. We exchanged war stories, and we read recovery literature. 

I finished treatment with a successful completion, only the third time that I’ve had that honor in the 11 times I’ve been and discharged after 30 days to a three-quarter house in the city. I was initially nervous entering an institution during a pandemic, but the choice was to save my immediate life instead of my hypothetical life. I could either risk dying from an overdose right now or risk potentially catching the virus. I had already been revived with Narcan twice during my relapse. 

I am sitting here with a little over a month sober today, filled with gratitude for second, third, and eleventh chances. The world has changed quite a bit in just the short time that has passed since I walked through the doors of the treatment center – things are starting to open back up and it’s a relief to have in-person meetings to attend with social distancing policies, although I am still nervous about exposing myself and my loved ones to COVID. I have no regrets about going and look forward to the months to come.