OLD SAYBROOK — Last fall, a 23-year-old we’ll call ‘Ray’ was struggling. A senior in college, he found himself drinking excessively around the clock and unable to stop.

“I was in a pretty dark place last fall and winter. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do in my college career, I didn’t know where I was going to end up. That uncertainty caused me a lot of anxiety and stress, and I really just resorted to drinking, and that turned into every day, morning to night, week on week on week.”

“When you’re in college, that is the time people are doing a lot of partying, no one really puts a label on it. Up at school everybody has their fun, but everybody also gets their responsibilities and schoolwork done.

“I found myself only having fun and partying. I wasn’t prioritizing my work or responsibilities or spending time with people I care about. I was prioritizing my drinking and going out and socializing and trying to forget about everything that was going wrong. When I look back on it, I can see how different my behavior was.”

“My parents were a huge eye-opener for me. They said, ‘We know you better than anybody, and we see you struggling. We’re here to help you, we can figure this out together. You can pull yourself out of this and you’re not alone doing it.’ I looked at myself in the mirror and realized that I did need help.”

Together they decided that he should leave school and enter a recovery program. That’s when they found Project Courage in Old Saybrook.

And that was before COVID-19.

When Ray entered the Recovery Support Services program at Project Courage in January, he began weekly in-person meetings with his clinician, and four meetings a week with his recovery coach.

Three months later, as the pandemic intensified, that became video sessions, phone conversations and online group yoga

Project Courage offers substance abuse recovery services to people age 14 and up and their families. During this time of social distancing, they have had to find alternatives to in-person services, including offering telehealth virtual visits.

Pandemic or not, “Distance and location are one of the biggest barriers to treatment,” Business Development Manager Noah Morgenstein said. With telemedicine, “it doesn’t matter where you are, you have accessibility as long as you have internet access.” He worries that, “when the coronavirus starts to fade away and reality starts to set back in, people will lose that accessibility,” if insurance companies pull back on covering telemedicine sessions.

Virtual sessions had been a rarity, but became a necessity under the state’s shut down, and insurance companies were quick to cover the sessions, avoiding any interruptions in care which is vital for people like Ray in early recovery.

The terms ‘telehealth’ and ‘telemedicine’ describe care provided through video or phone visits.

“It's this reoccurring theme of flexibility and creativity. It’s just really important for us to always provide the best possible treatment and care that we can for our clients, and I think that as much as this (pandemic) put a wrench in the plans and changed our approach, it was kind of refreshing to see how everyone jumped in to support our clients,” said Project Courage Primary Clinician, Erin Greenleaf-Puzycki, LMSW.

“At first I didn’t like the idea,” Ray said. “I thought the in-person was more effective, seemed more meaningful…but after a week or so I started to find the benefit from even just seeing them through my lap-top, or talking over the phone. I’ve seen a great uptick in my recovery.”

He added, “I’ve been participating in yoga that Project Courage offers, about half and half through zoom and in person. Through telehealth I still feel like I’m a part of the group, I can still participate, still see the people there doing it with me. I still find it a fulfilling experience,” Ray said.

“Fitness and yoga are extremely beneficial for substance abuse concerns, mental health concerns, depression and anxiety,” Director of Family Services K.C. Hespeler, LCSW said. “We also really want our clients to find social activities - things that they can do that make them feel good that aren't based in destructive behaviors.”

“This pandemic has actually been a positive for me. I’ve come into this great routine with my recovery coach and Erin. The parties are gone, and the bars are closed, but I can use the time to find out what’s important to me,” Ray said.

“This isn’t going to last forever. The routine I’ve made right now isn’t going to be the same, I know it’s something I need to prepare for. I’m not afraid for things to open back up, I want them to open up, I want to try the things I’ve been working on during the pandemic, during this isolation, think about how I can improve myself, how I can work on my refusal skills, how I can use the mechanisms I’ve learned for managing my anxiety and stress. This time has been like a pre-season for me for when the world opens up and gets back to normal.”

Ray said he has been fortunate, as he doesn’t have too much time on his hand because he is still employed during the pandemic.

“I work five days a week 40 hours, it’s been a blessing because I can provide for myself financially, and it keeps me busy during the days. A lot of people my age are out of work, or don’t have the opportunities they expected to out of college. That kind of isolation can hurt people in recovery,” Ray said.

Hespeler appreciates the choices telemedicine offers clients, but “what's kind of the downside for me, especially with families who are just coming in, is not being able show them our space, because it’s such a beautiful space, and it gives them that sense of ‘OK, we can take a breather and we're going to get the help that we need.’”

Also lost in the virtual world is “the simple act of handing someone tissues and comforting them, it's hard to do over video,” Hespeler said. “In person, I can look at people's body language, and I can use my own body language to make them feel more comfortable, and to make them feel more safe.”

One benefit for telemedicine, is it allow for flexile scheduling.

“I'm working from home, so I am able to be pretty flexible with my hours. If a client is still working and they have conflicts with childcare or whatever it is, I can accommodate that,” Greenleaf-Puzycki said. “With telemedicine, I’ve also found that my younger clients have been more open and honest and sharing more during our sessions, maybe being a little bit more vulnerable.”

“We host a few AA meetings and NA meetings at Project Courage which are now available on Zoom,” Hespeler said, adding, “thankfully, they (AA, NA) have young people meetings. One of the biggest encouragements is for them to see people their own age in recovery and thriving.”

Recovery can be contagious, “Believe it or not a few of my friends have reached out to me, I’m not super blatant about my recovery, but people notice when you’re not going out, and they can see that things are different and things are better for me. A few have reached out and said, ‘hey what are your tips?’ It was surprising that they would reach out to me about not drinking, because of who I am,” Ray said.

“I can see a lot of things changing from this pandemic, from a recovery standpoint, telehealth is an open frontier about what recovery can look like if you can’t be there face to face. I personally think that even after this is over, it would be a nice balance to have both telehealth and in-person sessions for my recovery,” Ray said.

And, despite outside obstacles, it’s important to keep going with your recovery, Ray said.

“One thing that’s important especially for people in recovery, is that when the world changes as drastically as it has the past few months, there are still things you can do, and people in your support system can do, to improve your situation,” Ray said adding, “I didn’t want to put it on pause and say ‘after this is over, I can work on my recovery.’ People can adapt, you can still make some good progress, even when the world turns upside down.”

For more information about Project Courage visit, www.projectcourageworks.com.

Connecticut Media Group