On Mother’s Day Eve, a steady rain drizzled down on dozens of candles as, one by one, they sparked to life — lit and held by friends and family left behind by victims of addiction.
Huddled under umbrellas, they came together in Good Ground Park in Hampton Bays, some opting to speak to the group while other remained quiet, somber and reflective — but all with the common goal of remembrance.
With the exception of last May, the candlelight vigil has been organized annually by the Southampton Town Addiction and Recovery Committee, which honored local lives lost to COVID-19 on Saturday night, as well as overdose deaths — a statistic that had seen dramatic improvement in recent years, until the pandemic hit.
“It’s been horrible because the numbers have gone through the roof. People are alone, they’re lonely, they’re confined to home or to a location,” Drew Scott, whose granddaughter died from a heroin overdose in 2017, said on Tuesday morning after attending the vigil. “The emotional strain is very, very difficult and for someone who’s in recovery, it’s the worst possible situation.
“It just unties a lot of things that we’ve tried to straighten out,” he continued. “It’s a recipe for disaster, 2020 — both emotionally, mentally, as well as addiction-wise. It’s just been a nightmare.”
Mr. Scott, who first co-chaired a task force in Southampton Town to combat opioid addiction — where he still serves as a committee member — would know. He follows the national statistics closely, which local experts say mirror the East End.
From May 2019 to May 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported a total 81,000 drug overdose deaths, the highest number ever recorded in a 12-month period. And according to Dr. David Cohen, director of Quannacut Outpatient Services, the surge is only positioned to get worse.
At the Riverhead facility, which is a part of the Stony Brook Medicine Healthcare System, it already has.
“We had two major runs for people looking for treatment,” he said. “We had some high demand going on in mid to late fall and, then, more recently. Right now, our census is the highest it’s ever been. We’ve never had more patients than we do right now. It’s over 400.”
Fatal drug overdoses nationwide ticked up to 88,295 by August 2020, reaching almost 27 percent more than the year prior. After zero overdose deaths in Southampton Town in 2019, according to Mr. Scott, that number is up to six from 2020 to present day — and those are just what the town knows of, he said.
“It’s a very stressful time,” Dr. Cohen said. “What happened in our world, calling it a trigger would be understating it. One of the characteristics of people with substance problems is on a psychological level, they’re using the substances to cope; it’s a coping mechanism. And what, initially, for many people is an effective coping mechanism becomes a maladaptive coping mechanism, and everything starts to go down from there.”
In the early months of the COVID-19 outbreak, the sale of alcohol — which remains the number-one abused drug outside of nicotine, Dr. Cohen said — was up between 200 and 400 percent, depending on the distributor, and only just dropped for the first time since the pandemic began a few months ago.
But leaving the liquor stores open in the first place was a strategic move by New York State, according to Mark Epley, chief executive officer of Seafield Center, an inpatient substance abuse treatment facility in Westhampton Beach.
“Liquor stores were listed as a priority business — and most people don’t understand why,” he said. “The reality is, what the state was looking at was, ‘How do I reduce the volume of ambulance calls, police calls, emergency room activity and admissions into hospitals?’ If they shut down the liquor stores, then what would happen is you’d have a lot of people detoxing.”
Instead, during the quarantine, substance abusers were left to self-medicate in the comfort of their own homes — presumably to manage ancillary mental health disorders, including anxiety, which historically plagues about 10 percent of the population, according to Mr. Epley, a number driven up to 40 percent in pandemic days.
But with self-medication can come dependency, followed by addiction that often requires detox and re-learning skills to manage life without abusing substances, he said.
“It’s fairly easy to sit at home and drink — ‘I can Uber Eats my alcohol to the house, I can sit and drink, I’m not bothering anybody,’” Mr. Epley said. “But when the world opens up and you have to go to your job and you have to get out of the house and you have to interact with friends and family, that’s when the impact of COVID, the impact of isolation, the impact of the anxiety of existing in this society will play a role.”
For those reasons, both Mr. Epley and Dr. Cohen said they anticipate a spike during the reentry phase of the pandemic, and both of their facilities are equipped to handle the demand with a hybrid model that incorporates in-person visits with virtual Telehealth treatment — which they developed during the height of the shutdown.
“It really felt like we were flying the plane and building it all at the same time,” Dr. Cohen said. “It took a while to get everything running.”
Quannacut — which prides itself for its “revolutionary” and “cutting edge” methodology, the director said — works from a medical-psychotherapeutic approach, as opposed to a 12-step-based treatment program. It looks at substance use as a symptom of the true problem, he explained, and relies on both traditional medicine and therapy to treat it.
“I expect that some of those issues that people have been holding onto, their problems, are gonna start to manifest,” Dr. Cohen said. “The fact that we know the usage has gone up — alcohol, opiates, et cetera — then we figure, eventually, they end up here.”
While Dr. Cohen suspects that most of Quannacut’s patients already had established issues that were exacerbated by the pandemic, he doesn’t doubt that two to five years from now, trauma-related substance abuse issues stemming from COVID-19 will emerge.
At Seafield, Mr. Epley said his staff is already fielding those ramifications.
“We’ve seen more trauma victims coming in for treatment. But it’s not unlike post 9/11,” he said. “We saw that over a two- or three-year period, where it was pretty intense. What we’re seeing now are people in their 20s or early 30s who were impacted by 9/11 at a level that they didn’t really know.”
He expects this will be the same from COVID-19’s impact, a fallout that the East End will feel for decades to come, he said. This is where Southampton Town’s task force comes back in and, as soon as he’s able, Mr. Scott said he will relaunch his public awareness campaigns, which start with directing anyone struggling to their website, findhelpsouthampton.com.
“The more people know about addiction and how it starts and where to look and how to fight it, the better off we are,” he said. “I’m really one of those people that thought that addicts, people who were addicted to prescription drugs or drugs in general, were broken-down people who were on skid row, but we’ve found the majority of these victims of this are really victims of a disease — a disease of the mind and the body.”
His efforts are all in memory of his late granddaughter, 22-year-old Hallie Rae Ulrich, a Pierson High School graduate whose body was found on the side of the road in East Hampton after she overdosed on heroin. The very next day, her boyfriend overdosed and died, too.
“It was a terrible tragedy,” Mr. Scott said.
She was “a good kid,” he said, a passionate art student who was sensitive, warm and, above all else, deeply loving. When the former News 12 Long Island anchor signed off for the last time in September 2017, he told his audience that he would spend his retirement fighting opioid addiction.
That is precisely what he has done. And he challenges others to view those struggling with substance abuse through a different lens, too.
“They’re really good people and led good and, many times, productive lives and just got into trouble and couldn’t help themselves,” he said. “I changed the way I thought about these people and realized they were lovable children; a lot of them were good people. Don’t think of them as criminals. It’s a disease, it’s a terrible disease.”