From Pastime to Problem

Appears in the January 2022 issue.

Alcohol was already at or near the top of the list of substances for people struggling with abuse issues when the pandemic hit in 2020. Then financial stressors started to pile up. Parenting and schooling pressures were persistent. Millions of workers suddenly had no reason to leave the house. And while bars may have been closed, there were plenty of services ready to deliver one’s drink of choice to the front door with a tap of an app.

In other words, the pandemic might be seen as something of a perfect storm that threatened to take an already fraught situation to another level. And while Karen Wolownik Albert says she and her staff at Recovery Centers of America in St. Charles didn’t necessarily see any dramatic increase in the number of people seeking out help for alcohol-related issues, they have seen some subtle shifts in who those people are.

“What’s different during the pandemic is people in their 40s or 50s entering treatment who are experiencing this struggle for the first time—perhaps brought on by financial hardship or grief or anxiety associated with the pandemic,” explains Albert, CEO of the facility that opened in September 2020. “Maybe someone who used to have a drink in the evening or a glass of wine with dinner has suddenly found themselves at home and isolated and under increased stress and now they’re drinking throughout the day. So the pandemic has triggered an increase in problematic alcohol use
for some people.”

This shift, in fact, further demonstrates that alcohol abuse is an addiction that does not discriminate and can hit almost anyone. That’s why Albert says RCA focuses on individualized treatment for patients that draws on a wide range of in-patient and outpatient options—from medication-assisted treatment and psychiatry services to group therapy and peer support. 

“There’s not just one path to addiction and there’s not just one path to recovery,” she says. 

But the first step of what Albert calls a lifetime journey of recovery starts with recognizing the problem and reaching out for professional help. Many families who suspect alcohol abuse in their loved ones become frustrated because they tend to think that if the person loved them, they’d change their behavior. 

For someone with an alcohol use disorder, however, Albert says the problem has usually progressed past the point where they’re able to stop on their own without support. To that end, RCA offers free screenings around substance abuse disorders and complimentary intervention services so people can talk to their loved one about their issues with the support of a professional.

“We really want to combat the shame and stigma around the notion of struggling with alcohol or other substances,” Albert says. “I think that’s what keeps people away who might be suffering: the fear that people are going to judge them or be upset with them. Those are things that can really exacerbate the problem. We just want people to know that help is available in a confidential and supportive environment.” 

Photo courtesy Recovery Centers of America

Illustration by Kevin Sterjo