Monday, October 6, 2008

Stress of Ike recovery also strains recovery of addicts

Houstonians are still confronting the lingering effects of Hurricane Ike: damaged homes, piles of debris, lost work and ends that won't meet. But for recovering alcoholics and addicts, coping with post-Ike realities may also mean reaching out to sobriety buddies instead of the bottle or drugs.

Stress is the greatest threat to people fighting addictions, Houston experts say, and Ike's toll could trigger relapses.

"What underlies addiction and substance abuse is fear, anxiety and stress. People drink and use because it medicates their anxiety," said Dr. Scott Basinger, a neuroscientist and associate dean at Baylor College of Medicine. "Don't get too hungry, too angry, too lonely or too tired, because being hungry, angry, lonely or tired are well-known risk factors for relapse."

The risk is heightened during a disaster, when loss of power, phone service and transportation cuts contact with counselors. Afterward, assessments of the damage, joblessness and other factors could create a perfect storm for recovering addicts to slip.

"A lot of times, these things have a delayed effect," said Joy Schmitz, a psychologist at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston who studies behavior and substance abuse. "It could be a challenging time for patients who are trying to maintain abstinence, especially if they recently quit."

Many people did reach out for help in Ike's aftermath.

Calls flooded area treatment centers, and some support groups held meetings by candlelight just hours after Ike passed. The Sunday after the storm, for instance, people showed up for substance abuse meetings at Memorial Hermann's Prevention and Recovery Center.

"I think people seek out the fellowship, they seek out each other to have someone to lean on, to talk to and to support," said center CEO Matt Feehery. "People who have a solid recovery network will do just fine. Isolation is an enemy if you've lost something — property, power, a loved one."

Heather, who agreed to speak on the condition that her last name not be used, admitted that Ike tested her newfound sobriety. She had voluntarily gone to treatment, she said, to overcome alcohol and cocaine abuse.

But on the evening that Ike made landfall, she found herself with an unopened beer in her hand at a hurricane party. She reached in her pocket to feel for her silver coin — a recovery reminder handed out at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

"I surprised myself by not drinking," the former bartender said.

"I thought underneath those stressful situations I would relapse, but I didn't," said Heather, who resumed treatment at a Houston center after the storm.

Because of the chance of relapse under stressful post-storm conditions, the Texas Department of State Health Services has required state-funded substance abuse treatment services to track clients impacted by hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav and Ike.

"This information can help service providers offer better screening, assessment and referral services as they will have an idea of what environmental factors, such as being a disaster survivor, may have contributed to the change in behavior," agency spokeswoman Emily Palmer wrote in an e-mail.

Substance abuse counselors are concerned that Ike will continue to spin off stress, leading people deeper into addictions.

"They go through something like this, and they start to self-medicate, and the problem starts to escalate," said Dr. Jason Powers, chief medical officer at The Right Step, a Houston treatment center.

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