Leaning On Community For Sobriety During The Pandemic


Human beings are social creatures and the pandemic is taking a toll on all of us in one way or another. It’s also bringing to light just how important human connection is in our lives.

This week on Inside Appalachia, we’ll hear from folks who are overcoming these challenges on top of maintaining sobriety and staying on the path to recovery.

As we grapple with the immediate health emergency of the coronavirus pandemic — and celebrate the hope found in vaccines and infections going down — here in Appalachia we’re also struggling with two other public health crises: the opioid epidemic, and a large uptick in HIV cases. Researchers believe the crises are linked.

West Virginia’s capital city of Charleston is currently experiencing the nation’s worst outbreak of HIV linked to injected drug use, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

We’ll learn more about that next week, and hear from folks who worry that stigma and discrimination against people with substance use disorder is exacerbating the issue.

In fact, more Americans lost their lives to drug overdoses in 2020 than any other year on record. More than 80,000 Americans died between June 2019 and June 2020, according to a December report issued by the CDC.

For several years now, there’s been a crackdown on prescription drugs to curb the opioid epidemic, but it’s led to spikes in overdoses from street drugs like heroin, often laced with fentanyl. Add into the equation the pandemic and resulting social isolation, increased anxiety and widespread unemployment, all of which can trigger relapses for people who struggle with addiction.

The situation is so critical, we’re listening back to an entire episode we aired at the start of the pandemic focusing on how the new world we live in affects the path to recovery.

In This Episode:


Get Help

If you, or a loved one, would like to talk with a professional counselor about recovery or addiction call 1-800-662-HELP or 1-800-662-4357. That’s the hotline for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. They offer free, confidential counseling.

Finding Sobriety

Before Ryan Elkins, a recovery coach in southern West Virginia could help others, he had to find peace within himself. “Which is something that I’ve lost along the way. So, it’s really, really nice and comforting to know that I have this inner strength,” Elkins said.

His mother died when he was 11 years old, and as a child, his father abused him. For a time, he found love and support after he left the state to move in with his mother’s extended family. But he said he couldn’t accept that love at the time. “They were so loving and caring that it scared me. I tried to avoid people.”

Eventually, Elkins did find help after he moved back to West Virginia to live with his paternal grandmother. Connecting with other people, he learned, was essential to his recovery.

“I always wanted to be distant from people. I never wanted to be around people, I hated people,” Elkins said. “But then coming into recovery, it’s like, ‘Did I really hate people? Or did I just hate myself?’ And that’s what I come to understand from working steps, and being clean, and recovery, is that I was just scared of people and I hated who I was, as a result of the way I was raised. And it really didn’t have anything to do with anybody other than myself. And now I absolutely love people.”

Elkins is now a recovery coach in Lincoln County, West Virginia, and a student at Marshall University.

Making Connections

Fighting isolation is something that just about every human on the planet is struggling with right now. Some of the best tools for connecting are digital. For people in recovery, meetings on Zoom or Skype have become a lifeline to maintaining sobriety. With the digital format, there’s the opportunity to meet every day.

Ashley Temple is a single mother with three kids who lives in Charleston, West Virginia. She works full time at a hospital and she’s a single mom.

“I usually get up about 5 or 5:30 a.m. I get up and I feed the baby, get her ready and I go get myself ready and then I wake the 3-year-old up, get him ready,” she said. “And then I drop the kids off to where they’re going, and I go on to work. I work from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. every day. I get off work, I go pick the kids up, come home. I’ll cook dinner. I’ll usually sit down, play with the kids for a little bit. Then I’ll do my meeting online.”

Temple found a community of support for her recovery when she moved into a sober living facility at Rea of Hope in Charleston, West Virginia.

“I was broken and just wanted a better way of life,” she said. “I wanted to be an example for my kids and show them that I made mistakes in the past, but I didn’t let it define who I was. And I persevered through all of that. And that I’m a strong, independent woman that could take care of them.”

Since the start of the pandemic there’s been an increase in people going to emergency rooms for drug overdoses, according to data from the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources. Mental health experts say more people are struggling to maintain sobriety because of the added challenges our society is facing due to COVID-19.

These added pressures may hit Appalachia even worse than the rest of the country, because our region already struggles with high rates of substance use disorder.


Trey Kay
Debbie Preece of Kermit, W.Va., lost two brothers to the opioid epidemic.

One of the communities hit hardest is Kermit, West Virginia. At the peak of the opioid crisis, drug companies sent 12 million hydrocodone pills to the town of about 350 people. Cars would line up at the one pharmacy with people waiting to pick up pain pills. The so-called pain clinics of a decade ago are gone. In their place, a continued need for addiction treatment and recovery resources.

Lawsuits against big pharmaceutical companies continue to bring in settlements, but so far Kermit hasn’t seen any money from the litigation. Trey Kay, host of the Us and Them podcast, visited with residents in Mingo County to see how the community is healing and what the future might look like.

Telling Difficult Stories

There are heroes among us who are trying to break down barriers. Several of them are featured in two Netflix documentaries, “Heroin(e)” and “Recovery Boys,” both directed by Elaine McMillion-Sheldon, and her husband Curren Sheldon. They are both West Virginia natives.

Back in 2018, just after the release of “Recovery Boys,” Elaine sat down with Sarah Smarsh, host of a podcast called The Homecomers, to talk about what drove her to devote her career to telling stories about both the difficult realities, and the resilience of Appalachians.

Sheldon and her team won a daytime Emmy last year for work they did bringing the struggle families face with substance use disorder to Sesame Street. In a social media post, Sheldon wrote that it’s “amazing to see that the voice of a brave, young girl – sharing her family’s story of hope and resilience – can have great power and influence.”;=emb_title

We had help producing Inside Appalachia this week from the National Geographic Society, The Homecomers and Us and Them.

Our theme music is by Matt Jackfert. Other music this week was provided by Dinosaur Burps, Anna and Elizabeth, Marisa Anderson, and Blue Dot Sessions.

Roxy Todd is our producer. Our executive producer is Andrea Billups. We had editing help this week from Glynis Board and Kelley Libby. Our audio mixer is Patrick Stephens. Zander Aloi also helped produce this episode.

You can find us on Twitter @InAppalachia.

Inside Appalachia is a production of West Virginia Public Broadcasting.