Experts: Pandemic Lockdown can be Dangerous for People Recovering from Addiction
Mike Cronic lost his son Clay to an overdose and believes COVID-19 was part of what killed his son because he couldn't meet with his support groups. Nashville Tennessean
Clay Cronic, 26, may be the first Nashvillian in recovery to relapse and die after his 12-step group shut down — and experts warn he won't be the last
This story deals with alcohol and drug addiction. If you think you have a problem with substance abuse, you can get help in Tennessee 24 hours a day, seven days a week by calling the Tennessee REDLINE at 800-889-9789.
After years of playing together, Mike Cronic’s son finally beat him last month at chess. First time ever. And the old man was thrilled.
The win was one of many victories Clay Cronic, 26, strung together in the last two or three years.
He had a job as a gaucho, a server, at Rodizio Grill downtown. He had his own place and money in the bank.
And the young man — who developed a heroin addiction in college — was off drugs and connected to 12-step meetings and lots of recovery friends.
Mike Cronic holds a picture of his son, Clay Cronic, on April 1, 2020. His son died of a drug overdose after he lost his job and couldn’t meet with other people in recovery due to government restrictions to fight the spread of the coronavirus.
After years of a rocky relationship with his only child, Mike Cronic, 66, a widower, finally felt some peace, happiness and hope.
Until Clay Cronic got laid off — restaurant dining rooms were shut down to try to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
A few days later, his recovery home group stopped meeting when gatherings of 10 or more were banned.
The phone call came about a week after that, at 8:30 p.m. on a Tuesday, March 24.
Clay Cronic’s roommate found him dead, his arm tied off, a needle in his hand.
First responders rolled the body out of the apartment on a gurney a few hours later past the victim’s grieving father.
“I’ll never get that vision out of my head,” Mike Cronic said. “I kissed him on the head and said, ‘I hope you’ll be with your mother now.’ ”
The awkward funeral happened outside near mausoleums at Harpeth Hills Memory Gardens on March 28.
The funeral director told the mourners, limited to 10, to space out. They stood apart more than 6 feet from each other in a line, facing the two pastors who led the 30-minute service.
Mike Cronic said he mourns others like his son who succumbed to hopelessness in isolation.
“There are many other people who across the country who’ve lost jobs, they’ve lost their support, and they feel like they have no reason not to go back to drugs,” he said.
“When they’re counting deaths of COVID-19, overdose deaths are not included. But they’re just as real.”
TIPS: How people with addiction can stay connected to recovery through COVID-19
'In-person connection is vital'
Many Middle Tennessee addiction experts agree: The separation mandated to battle the pandemic is dangerous to those recovering from addiction, they said.
Samuel A. MacMaster, a nationally renowned addiction expert based in Hendersonville, said during the coronavirus lockdown, "We all have a responsibility to reach out and make sure that our friends and neighbors stay connected.”
“It’s very dangerous,” said nationally renowned addiction researcher Samuel A. MacMaster of Hendersonville.
“It’s dangerous for all people in recovery as they deal with external stressors and mental health issues.”
The challenge, the experts said, is that addiction already is an isolating disease that separates those battling it from friends and loved ones as reliance on substances or behaviors grows.
The cure is connection to others, to talk through cravings and share challenges and solutions with those who understand, the experts said. In community, toxic shame that often comes with addiction also starts to fade.
“The in-person connection is vital,” said the Rev. Carrie Fraser, clinical and spiritual director for Nashville Recovery Center, which owns and runs therapy, treatment, sober living and community programs in West Nashville.
“It’s important for people to have safe places where they can talk to other people where they have that connection and they’re not alone.”
Stay-at-home orders remove most of those healing connections with others, especially for those in early recovery, like Clay Cronic.
Mike Cronic lost his son Clay Cronic, pictured here, to a drug overdose. Mike Cronic believes COVID-19 killed his son, though indirectly, after he lost his job and couldn’t meet with other people in recovery due to government restrictions to fight the spread of the coronavirus.
“In that young man’s scenario, there was a cascade of stress. He loses his job … and there’s almost a domino effect — not being able to reach out to peers or to be in a group of people,” said Nancy Kirby, a licensed psychologist and a program director at The Ranch Tennessee, a residential drug rehab facility in Nunnelly, Tennessee.
“That set the stage for a relapse. Once in relapse, there’s so much shame and a sense of failure, and it brings up all the original issues in addiction.”
It’s challenging for people in recovery to stay connected to each other through stay-at-home days, the experts said.
Dozens of online meetings for different 12-step fellowships have sprung up in Middle Tennessee, but there are some issues with them.
Nashville therapist Antwon Bailey
It’s harder to stay anonymous, as many people’s full names appear on Zoom meeting screens, several users noted. And it’s easy for participants to click a button to record those meetings, which usually have a what’s-said-here-stays-here guideline.
“Fear of being recorded is a new and real barrier to meetings,” said Nashville therapist and addiction specialist Antwon Bailey.
Another barrier: Not every home group has its own online meeting, so people in recovery are much less likely to know others in the online meetings, making them feel less safe to share vulnerably.
“It’s just not the same,” said Jay Crosson, CEO of Cumberland Heights residential treatment center near Bellevue.
“You can’t hug somebody, you can’t hold their hands and say the serenity prayer. But you can still stay positive,” he said.
What to do
MacMaster echoed that online meetings are better than no meetings.
“Are Zoom meetings ideal? Absolutely not,” MacMaster said. “Is it lifesaving to stay connected? Absolutely is.”
WHAT TO KNOW
Coronavirus in Tennessee
The latest coronavirus numbers in Tennessee
Gov. Lee says ‘social distancing works’ but doesn’t plan to extend stay-at-home order
Cases are slowing, but officials warn of ‘tough week’ ahead
Here's how to get unemployment benefits in Tennessee
There are other ways for people in recovery to safely stay connected, the experts say.
Create their own private online meetings with only people they know and trust.
Use the phone for one-on-one daily check-ins with trusted friends or relatives.
Meet outside in small groups at safe distances — in people’s yards or elsewhere — to hold meetings or to just get together.
Clay Cronic, left, and his friend Matthew Gabriel during a recent bowling outing (Photo: Submitted)
Therapists also encouraged recovery veterans to reach out to newcomers more than they might normally.
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Experts fear that more relapse and overdose deaths will happen the longer the stay-at-home mandates are in place.
"The shutdown is triggering," said Dr. Stephen Loyd, medical director of residential rehab center JourneyPure at the River in Murfreesboro.
"It’s back to old behavior in our addiction. We isolate, we're not around people, and it's those old feelings that come back — anxiety, depression, doom and gloom."
MacMaster said, “Clay Cronic’s death is tragic, and unfortunately not unique.
“It really speaks to the importance of maintaining human connections for people in recovery or battling addiction. I think we all have a responsibility to reach out and make sure that our friends and neighbors stay connected.”
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