Midtown Addiction Community Still Recovering from Lockdown Setbacks



An in-person group recovery meeting at the New York Center for Living. Photo by Matthew Peyton.

On Wednesday mornings, Steven Wolt wakes up at 6 a.m., makes a cup of coffee, and sits down at his laptop for an online addiction support meeting. Wolt is in long-term recovery from cocaine and alcohol addiction.

“I was a hope-to-die drug addict. I needed to be at meetings,” said Wolt, who explained he’d attended in person recovery sessions for 15 years. “You get to a meeting, and usually someone that has some time will grab me after, buy me a cup of coffee, hear about what’s going on and see if they can help, which is so incredibly special,” he said.

When the pandemic struck, Midtown addiction treatment centers, like most others, transferred dozens of weekly support meetings and clinical visits to Zoom. The transition left hundreds without their face-to-face recovery community, potentially worsening an already existing problem.

“If you’re new to recovery, the kind of connections that are so vital to building a community are hard to do on a Zoom platform,” said Wolt, who has also been forced to move his last two years of treatment online.

Even before the pandemic, alcohol abuse was particularly acute in Midtown. According to the most recent community health profile, published in 2018 by the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, Midtown sees a higher rate of binge drinking than any other community in New York City. The report found 31% of Midtown residents reported binge drinking, defined in the survey as five or more drinks for men and four or more drinks for women on one occasion during the previous 30 days. That is almost twice the New York City average of 17%.

“It’s a pretty wealthy neighborhood,” said Jane Marin, operations director at Midtown-based recovery and detoxification center, Parallax. “If people have a lot of disposable income, potentially they could use that income for alcohol or drugs.”

Wolt, who now runs his own Midtown addiction treatment facility, focused on helping white-collar professionals called Freedom Institute, echoed Marin’s observation. “Drinking and using is built into the culture of business,” said Wolt. “It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out that there might be some consequences to industries that work that way.”

The New York Center for Living on East 52nd Street helps teens struggling with addiction. The center’s Clinical Director, Geoffrey Golia, said the pressure of career-related happy hours is particularly prominent in Midtown, where many young people are looking to start their careers.

“Young people miss out on networking opportunities if they don’t join the group after work for a drink, but some people have to work really hard to be in a bar but not drink,” said Golia.

As many Midtown residents grapple with addiction, Parallax is just one of the neighborhood’s 17 treatment organizations working to resume all in-person meetings and counseling. Marin said attendance was cut in half when meetings went remote, and patients haven’t come back.

“There’s nothing to compare to a one-on-one treatment session or one-on-one psychotherapy session,” said Marin. Marin also explained that the treatment center became unable to routinely test clients, making it difficult to understand their exact treatment needs.

The organization surveys its patients every quarter, and Marin said that most of the feedback is that in-person treatment is far more beneficial to recovery.

“Hopefully, getting back to more in-person activity will help grow some numbers back,” said Marin. “Unfortunately, we haven’t seen that yet,” she said.

The New York City government has taken steps to support those dealing with addiction during the pandemic. In August, Mayor Eric Adams and the health department announced a plan to expand access to new drug testing machines aimed at curbing overdose rates. The technology can precisely map the chemical makeup of drug samples provided by users, in order to help clinicians design recovery plans unique to each person.

While the city’s plan focuses on reducing overdose rates there is no uniform plan in place to encourage the return to treatment.

For that, the New York Center for Living’s Chief Executive, Pam Alvich said most support centers are trying to rebuild numbers by inviting back as many patients to physical treatment as possible. “With respect to clinical work, so much of that involves observing posture, facial expressions, their body movements. It’s so subtle, but to be able to engage with someone in that way is really profound, and we lost that,” said Alvich.

As the efforts to return to all in-person meetings continue, Wolt said he’s found one silver lining in the centers going remote.

“It’s more accessible, for all of us,” he said. “It means I don’t have to miss any sessions because I’m out of town or anything. I think it actually works out well for people like me who are in long-term recovery. This is part of our lifestyle now,” he said.