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Four overdose deaths, dozen-plus relapses at Celebrate Recovery site during COVID-19

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ARABI, La. (BP) – Donnie Broussard had been sober more than four years from heroin and crack cocaine when the COVID-19 pandemic shot his daily routine. He didn’t feel worthy to continue as Celebrate Recovery leader at the Arabi campus of Celebration Church in greater New Orleans.

“I was mad at God. I hated Him a month ago,” Broussard said Tuesday (Oct. 20). “I went into depression, anxiety, extreme anger, loneliness. I stayed by myself, isolated.”

Broussard’s pastor Trevor Truitt, himself a recovered addict who launched the local Celebrate Recovery program about six years ago, was concerned. The pandemic was taking its toll on the recovery ministry.

“We had, at our campus specifically, four people that died (of overdoses). That’s not the overdoses where they survived, … but a lot of times you survive,” said Truitt, who began pastoring the Lower Ninth Ward campus in 2018. “There were a lot of relapses that happened. We had another relapse that just recently happened. Now we’re in a pandemic still. We’re still having church, but like I said it’s difficult. It’s taking a toll on our people.”

At Celebration Church’s Metairie campus about 20 miles away, ministry leader Suzanne Gagnard said the lack of fellowship was the most difficult thing for the Celebrate Recovery group she leads. She’s been in recovery from substance abuse 34 years, initially with a secular treatment group.

“We saw a lot of relapse,” Gagnard said. “People need the fellowship. When they come to Celebrate Recovery, whatever issues they come for, they just find this place like … home.”

At Hillcrest Church in Country Club Hills, Ill., deacon Luther Riley thanks God that the Celebrate Recovery group he leads has recorded no relapses during the pandemic. The dozen people who attend the Hillcrest group deal with a variety of issues including codependency, alcoholism and pornography.

“Some of my issues were anger, impatience and procrastination. A lot of people deal with procrastination” including two others in the group, Riley said. “I don’t think we know how serious that is, but it’s kind of serious when you say you’re going to do one thing and don’t do it. It’s almost like you’re lying.”

Christians and others battling addiction and behavioral issues are particularly challenged by the COVID-19 pandemic that has interrupted the daily routines and fellowship at the heart of their sobriety and recovery. Anxiety and depression were at their highest point in September since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Mental Health America reported Tuesday (Oct. 20), based on data from its 2020 State of Mental Health in America report. The group said 19 percent of people in America, 47.1 million people, are living with a mental health condition, an increase of 1.5 million over the same time last year.

Celebrate Recovery is a 12-step Christ-centered recovery program founded in 1991 by John and Cheryl Baker and launched by multisite Saddleback Church based in southern California. Over 5 million people have completed the program now in use at 35,000 churches, according to CelebrateRecovery.com.

The Celebrate Recovery program at the Arabi campus of Celebration Church is in transition. Pre-pandemic attendance that averaged about 70 has dropped to around 30, but the church has plans to revive the program after the pandemic.

Broussard, the 41-year-old husband to wife Summer and father of four children in their blended family, said he is on the road to restoration after getting counseling and spending a week alone with God on his boat in Grand Isle.

Other than his immediate family, church had been his whole life. It was the structure, including daily events at church and playing the drums during Sunday worship, that helped him reach sobriety more than four years ago.

“And I found people that had the same struggles as I did, and we grew to become really good friends, almost like brothers and sisters in that ministry. That’s what got me straight,” he said. “I pretty much focused on walking with Jesus and being like Jesus as best I could. I wasn’t counting days, sobriety days, although it was like four years and a couple of months.”

Then came the pandemic, and Broussard, a licensed building contractor, struggled anew.

“Some of the people that I mentored were strong enough to be there for me during that situation after COVID, and when I was stepping down,” he said. “It brought me to realize that the work that we were doing in Celebrate Recovery was great. … To have them call me and pray for me during my time of need, made me realize we still had hope after the pandemic.

“… But at the same time, throughout all this experience, I realized that even church can become an idol. Even my drums can become an idol,” he said. “(I realized) that I needed to be closer to God, where it’s just me and Him.”

Metairie Celebration Recovery leader Gagnard believes all Christians could benefit from the ministry. The program drew about 100 people a week before the pandemic. When the COVID-19 shutdown began, she referred them to online life groups that previously worked in conjunction with Celebrate Recovery’s national curriculum. Eventually, Celebrate Recovery’s national office allowed online sessions that sacrificed some anonymity. Since onsite classes resumed in May, she said, attendance has fluctuated between 50 and 70.

Many of those who relapsed at the Metairie campus suffered stress that caused them to revert to old habits to take the edge off, Gagnard said. But she believes the program was still helpful despite the pandemic’s challenges.

“Although there were some setbacks, …. I can’t think of any examples of somebody that got off path and didn’t come back at all,” Gagnard said.

“Our pastor, (Celebration Church Senior Pastor) Dennis Watson says he thinks everybody can go through Celebrate Recovery, because we all have some kind of hurt, habit or hang-up … that we could work through,” Gagnard said. “Celebrate Recovery, overall, only about 1 in 3 people come for addiction.”

Depression, relationship issues and codependency are among other issues addressed at the Metairie campus. Those in codependency often come to address someone else’s issue, and find they themselves can benefit from the program.

At Hillcrest Church in Illinois, Riley and the dozen or so in the core group has continued strong through telephone calls and Zoom meetings, emailing weekly lessons in advance.

“We had to continue Celebrate Recovery. We couldn’t just let the people go without doing anything,” he said. “We got together and we started telephone meetings and we kept the program going. … They took to it well,” he said of group members, “because they also wanted to continue their recovery as well. … Thank God so far, no one has relapsed.”

The Hillcrest group relies heavily on prayer to navigate the pandemic.

“You have to be honest, because if you’re honest we’re able to help you, as far as prayer and holding you accountable,” Riley said. “We do a lot of praying, even before our meetings. I would say our faith and our trust in Jesus Christ is also important.”

Arabi pastor Truitt is thankful the pandemic didn’t occur while he was still abusing drugs. He found sobriety at age 31 after his father enrolled him in another Christian-based treatment plan in 2010 when heroin was his drug of choice.

“I was a heroin addict for the last three years,” he said of his 16 years of drug use. “Before that it was prescription opioids. I even had a methadone habit, and then everything else you can name. It didn’t really matter; if it was a drug I was about it.”

Truitt, now 41, overdosed five times between the ages of 15 and 31, and was hospitalized on three of those occasions because he didn’t immediately respond to efforts to revive him, he said.

Had the pandemic occurred while he was still using, Truitt believes he’d “probably be dead, either that or in jail.”