Dakota Johnny says he’s choosing to focus on feelings he can control to help him get through the pandemic. (Kendra Crighton/News Staff)

Vancouver Islanders navigate addiction recovery during the pandemic

Dakota Johnny and Stephen Vickets are residents of Foundation House

When the coronavirus pandemic first hit Dakota Johnny thought about going back to his old life using his drug of choice, crystal meth.

When he was younger Johnny, who’s been in recovery for about 14 months, says he struggled with germaphobia and as concerns around COVID-19 intensified, he found himself becoming anxious. He would wash his hands all the time and watch his roommates — at Foundation House, a recovery home run by Umbrella Society — wash their hands.

“Then when I got caught in this situation where I couldn’t control anybody or how they handled this situation, I kind of panicked and I actually wanted to go use because it seemed easier … than looking for a one-bedroom apartment,” he says during an early morning phone interview while riding his bike to Our Place Society.

RELATED: Battling addiction in self-isolation: online AA meetings can help

Johnny started working at Our Place almost a year ago, starting when he was four months sober — which he says was the worst and the best decision he “could ever make.”

“Being in an environment like that, [crystal meth is] around everywhere and I don’t know why, but I didn’t think about running into dealers or using buddies. I just thought about how much I wanted to be a part of the helping society.”

Part of Johnny’s recovery plan is meeting with four counsellors, who know him from “head to toe,” being active and staying busy.

“[The pandemic] took a lot away from me, I’m not a Netflix kind of person so to have the gym taken away from me – the gym, the sauna, the recovery programs, meetings – … to have all that taken away from me really affected me at the beginning,” he says.

Fitness is also a big part of Stephen Vickets’ recovery plan, along with meeting with his sponsor. Vickets, another resident at Foundation House, has been trying to stay busy throughout the pandemic — filing his taxes and finally getting around to sewing a couple buttons on a pair of pants that have been hanging in his closet forever — and says he’s lucky to have a job at a seniors home facilitating recreation activities.

Stephen Vickets says he’s lucky to have a job to help keep him busy throughout the pandemic. (Provided by Stephen Vickets)

“[Right now] we’re working on connecting them with their families [virtually] and you can see in their expressions and hear it in their voices just how important that is,” he says.

For Vickets, his drug of choice is alcohol, and there have been “some stressors” since the pandemic hit.

“A lot of people at work and in the community have been talking about wanting to drink or they’re doing it more because they’re so high stress,” he says, adding the smell of the alcohol in hand sanitizer is a “little triggering.”

Since social distancing protocols came into effect, Alcoholics and Narcotic Anonymous meetings have shifted to Zoom, Google Hangouts and other video-conferencing systems. Counsellors and sponsors are being reached over the phone or virtually, but isolation can be a huge concern for those going through recovery.

“The opposite of addiction is connection, so it’s really tough when we’re telling people or the government’s telling people they have to isolate and they can’t be around other people when that is basically the cure for addiction,” says Evan James, who leads the outreach team for Umbrella Society.

According to James, Umbrella Society has extended its services to seven days a week as other treatment and detox facilities limit intake due to social distancing regulations.

“We’ve seen a lot of people struggling and we’ve seen a lot of relapses with people who have had some significant time under their belts,” says James, who has also battled drug and alcohol addiction. “I think part of what happens with people like us in recovery, is that addict in our head will try and look for any reason to relapse and having this big scare of the unknown pandemic happening often provides that reason.”

Vickets says he still meets his sponsor but only outside and at a distance. For him, staying connected is helping him get through the pandemic though he knows that’s not an option for everyone.

RELATED: People needing addiction services feeling ‘abandoned’ during pandemic

He has advice for those going through something similar.

“Think about what that will do to you in the long run, you’ve put so much work into your recovery and rebuilding your relationships in your life and it’s not worth it,” he says.

Johnny has chosen to shift focus from his fears around COVID-19 to feelings of grief he hasn’t dealt with.

Dakota Johnny says he’s choosing to focus on feelings he can control to help him get through the pandemic. (Kendra Crighton/News Staff)

“Just making that a priority allows me to not worry so much about what’s going on. I’m conscious of my own struggles right now and what will make it worse, and what will eventually cause me to relapse, so I picked one I can have control over which is grief and depression and sadness and loneliness — I can fix those, this whole COVID thing, I can’t fix that.”

Another thing getting Johnny through the pandemic is love for a dog he met 11 months ago. When Johnny moves out of the recovery home he plans to adopt Lyca, a dog also recovering from a rough life.

“She’s been abandoned for so many years by so many people, it would be a shame if I did the same thing and I’ve just got to remember how much I love the dog and how she loves me and how much she means to me,” he says. “It’s safe to say I’m going to go above and beyond for her.”

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kendra.crighton@blackpress.ca

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