Douglas County addiction recovery program pivoted to Zoom meetings, call hours during pandemic
photo by: Contributed Photo
Two years ago, Matt J. desperately wanted to stop drinking alcohol.
His wife had had enough of his behavior; his kids couldn’t trust him to show up when they needed him; and Matt knew he wasn’t being a productive member of the family.
“I was not contributing to anything. I was a disappointment to myself,” the 56-year-old said during a Wednesday Zoom call with the Journal-World.
Matt had been to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, but they just weren’t “clicking.” Then, an employee from Heartland RADAC referred Matt to a local chapter of the national Self-Management and Recovery Training (SMART) program.
SMART Recovery is a free, abstinence-oriented program for people with addictive problems. For Matt, who wished to keep his last name anonymous, the program “brought me back to being somebody that my wife could be proud of, my kids could be proud of.” He has been sober for the past two years.
During the pandemic, Douglas County’s SMART Recovery program has switched to virtual meetings and became the first chapter in the country to offer a phone line for people without computer access. The Journal-World spoke to Matt and a program leader, Dr. Bruce Liese, about Douglas County’s program.
What is SMART Recovery?
SMART Recovery is an evidence-based program that was formed nationally around 25 or 30 years ago, according to Liese, who is clinical director of the University of Kansas’ Cofrin Logan Center for Addiction Research and Treatment. He helped start a SMART Recovery chapter in Douglas County in 2018 with funding from the Cofrin Logan Center.
Between October of 2018 and March of 2020, the Douglas County program served over 230 people and grew to include seven meetings a week, which were available for free for members of the community struggling with addictive behaviors.
photo by: Life Span Institute at the University of Kansas
SMART Recovery focuses on four things: developing and maintaining the motivation to change, coping with urges and cravings, managing thoughts, feelings and behaviors and living a balanced life.
“Living a balanced life is like the opposite of an addiction. Instead of this one thing you keep wanting to do, there’s lots of things,” said Liese, who is also a professor of family medicine and psychiatry at the University of Kansas Medical Center.
Matt said he enjoyed that the program included people struggling with all kinds of addictions, not just alcohol. Additionally, while the meetings do involve a group, Matt said he felt SMART Recovery was an individualized program that helped him understand what had been driving his decisions and reexamine his priorities.
The program helped Matt stop making irrational, automatic decisions, and he said he has become more reflective prior to acting.
Program pivots during pandemic
When the pandemic hit in March of 2020, Douglas County’s SMART Recovery program, like others in the country, shifted to Zoom meetings. Liese, however, saw a gap in accessibility.
“I was in the middle of a meeting of SMART Recovery facilitators … and we were talking about all the people we were probably missing, and I thought, ‘The telephone!'”
Liese proposed a phone line service for people who do not have access to a computer, and now Douglas County is the first SMART Recovery program in the country to have one. It’s called SMARTline, and it is available seven days a week from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Liese said the pandemic is an especially important time for the program.
“There’s been a substantial increase in the amount of alcohol consumed during COVID, and what’s interesting is that the research shows it’s not increasing for people who have addiction problems or alcohol problems. It’s increasing for people who didn’t drink heavily,” Liese said. “They are bored; they’re restless; they’re lonely. Alcohol acts as a numbing agent.”
According to a presentation from RTI International, early in the pandemic, average drinks per day increased by 27%, from .74 drinks per day in February to .94 drinks per day in April. And a September study from researchers at the Rand Corporation showed that binge drinking had spiked during the pandemic, Healthline reported.
Liese said the pandemic has created a new need for the program. Issues like isolation, unemployment and lack of structure have people turning to alcohol, he said.
“People with addictions tend to engage in behaviors that started out innocently and then became overwhelming and caused them to feel like they were out of control in their lives,” Liese said. “Even when they try to quit they continue to have terrible urges and cravings to keep doing it, because it’s biochemical and familiar.”
The Zoom meetings for Douglas County’s SMART Recovery program sometimes have up to 20 people, Liese said. They occur on Zoom Wednesdays and Fridays from 5 to 6:30 p.m. Liese said they are rich and open — “It’s created a real community.”
Matt said he’s happy he can give back to the program by helping facilitate meetings and answer the phone line.
“One of the tenets that I have decided I will dedicate a portion of my life to (is) giving back,” he said. “It’s my turn to help those that are wanting help. It’s what I need to do for my recovery.”
Anyone interested in becoming trained to be a SMART Recovery facilitator can email Liese at firstname.lastname@example.org. Those seeking to join a Zoom meeting can find the link to local meetings by going to smartrecoverytest.org/local. Additionally, the SMARTline can be reached every day between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. by calling 785-550-0764.