/ Blog Post
By Brendan Wood, a 2019 Equal Justice Works Fellow hosted by the Legal Aid of West Virginia. Brendan’s Fellowship is supported by the Equal Justice Works Text-to-Give Campaign.
In October last year, I stood on a stage and shared how substance use disorder traumatized my family and continues to traumatize my community. I promised to help the people of my community who have been devastated by the opioid epidemic to survive, recover, and succeed.
The last five months have taught me what it takes to keep a promise.
The COVID-19 pandemic is causing several forms of grief, both in response to the deaths of loved ones and to the loss of our way of life, our sense of structure, routine, and the people and things that bring us comfort. The uncertainty of when life as we know it will return to normal, compounds that collective grief with socioeconomic stress and anxiety. Stress, anxiety, and grief are all well-known risk factors for individuals in recovery from substance use disorder. In addition, increased difficulty in obtaining employment and access to many crucial services this year have exacerbated the uphill battle of recovery.
For individuals in the most difficult stages of substance use disorder, the limitations on travel and the economy are causing in shortages of illegal substances in local markets, which incentivizes the deadly practice of increasing fentanyl levels in illegal substances, including methamphetamines and heroin. Individuals recovering from substance use disorder who relapse have to compensate with their reduced tolerance and the reality that illegal substances are much more dangerous than ever before. This collective socioeconomic environment during the pandemic has contributed to unprecedented homelessness, relapses, and overdoses. Only time will tell what the substance use disorder death count reaches by the time any level of normalcy returns.
For my clients at Legal Aid of West Virginia (Legal Aid), this pandemic has challenged my work in many ways. Social distancing guidelines and outreach limitations challenge me to build client trust and rapport in new ways. The nature of substance use disorder often means my clients have limited access to transportation and technology, so safe workarounds to the pandemic guidelines create delays in basic steps in legal advocacy, including:
- delayed court dates due to limitations and closures,
- greater difficulty communicating and exchanging documents, and
- scheduling appointments with state government services.
A big part of the work I do is fueled by my presence at the clinic, and several months of on-site visits to the clinic were lost outright. Once the clinic got situated with technological workarounds, I have been able to virtually attend, but I still don’t have the luxury of saying to a group of patients, “please come speak to me during the break if you need anything.” Thankfully, my growing relationships with the clinic providers, the talented attorneys in Legal Aid, and other recovery community organizations have continued to bring individuals in recovery to my virtual door.
With the constant support and resources from Legal Aid and Equal Justice Works, I was able to shift full-time to remote work. The training opportunities afforded to me, coupled with remote work capability, empowered me to rebound from what could have been a totally derailed Fellowship project, had I not been so fortunate to work where I do.
Above all, there have been some rewarding client victories in the areas of housing, child custody, and driver’s license reinstatements. Preventing homelessness, advocating for keeping families together, and removing socioeconomic barriers to employment and by extension, reducing relapse likelihood in my community has filled this very challenging year with moments that make me tremendously proud to be a member of the Legal Aid and Equal Justice Works family.
Last year, I left Morgantown to begin this work in Charleston, West Virginia to help the recovery community. I’d be lying if I said this year has been easy for me, but my deeply personal motivation is stronger than ever. At a telephonic court hearing last week, a judge told me my client has “turned the corner.” I’m not going to pretend that the recovery community is okay. We’ve buried too many good people this year. The world is not okay. But if we keep pushing on and help each other along the way, we’ll all turn the corner, too.
To learn more about Brendan’s Fellowship project, visit his profile.
I’d be lying if I said this year has been easy for me, but my deeply personal motivation is stronger than ever. I’m not going to pretend that the recovery community is okay. We’ve buried too many good people this year. The world is not okay. But if we keep pushing on and help each other along the way, we’ll all turn the corner, too.