For one woman in recovery, staying sober during a pandemic has been a lesson in resilience

A woman wearing a purple scarf and blue sweater
Heather Russell, 45, says she's thrived unexpectedly in 2020, despite the pandemic. She has focused on physical and mental resilience — running a virtual 5K, and maintaining nearly two years of sobriety.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Heather Russell has a nickname for her adopted state: "People refer to Minnesota as Minnesober,” she said.

It was Minnesota’s robust rehabilitation and recovery community that drew her to the state two years ago from Wisconsin.

That’s how, in March of 2020, Russell found herself living in a sober house for women in St. Paul, after a stint in inpatient treatment for alcohol addiction.

At 45, Russell has been in inpatient treatment for alcohol addiction five times, and completed six outpatient programs. Most of her adult life, she said, her alcoholism prevented her from being emotionally available for her three children, who are now adults. Sometimes, when she was in an inpatient program, it made her physically unavailable, too.

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Despite her attempts at recovery, every time Russell was out of the protective environment of treatment, she said, she would eventually find her way back to her addiction.

"I didn't realize until later on that treatment really is just the beginning of living in recovery,” she said.

But when she completed her latest round of treatment, in 2019, Russell said something clicked in a way it hadn't before. She let go of this idea that she was a victim of her disease.

"The responsible person in me, the grown-up Heather, kind of took charge,” she said. “That has helped me stay out of victim mode."

And then the pandemic hit — and with it, Russell's worries.

Her Alcoholics Anonymous meetings abruptly ended.

"That was my first worry: What am I going to do without my meetings? These are a big part of my recovery,” she said.

And then there were the worries about the virus itself: What would happen if she or her loved ones got sick? Or died? "And am I going to be able to stay sober if things get really bad? Or is it just going to become too much and I'm going to reach for that bottle again?” she said.

As the pandemic spring continued and her world became smaller and smaller, Russell searched for guidance and perspective. One expert she turned to early on was Dr. Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist and director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.

Russell said one now-familiar piece of advice he often repeated — in interviews and media appearances throughout the springtime — stuck with her.

"I keep telling people we are handling this like this is a coronavirus blizzard,” Osterholm told podcast host Joe Rogan in March 2020. “But this is a coronavirus winter."

He said the same thing, over and over again. Russell said when she heard Osterholm say it, she initially panicked. "And once that subsided, I said: ‘OK, if that's the case, what can I do to ensure that my sobriety stays intact?’ ”

So, as she prepared for the coronavirus winter, instead of focusing on drinking, she focused on resilience — and on building new habits.

She made sure to get good sleep. She started exercising — she even ran her first 5K race. And she threw herself into her work at an outpatient family clinic, where she assists patients who come in with concerns they have COVID-19.

And she fell in love — of all places, at the grocery store.

"I had a crush on the guy who worked at the grocery store I shopped at,” she said.

One day, while shopping, Russell was mulling the fragility of life, thinking of her own mortality — prompted by grim coronavirus headlines — and decided to go for it. She asked him for his number.

"Because, who knows?” she said. “I could be dead in a couple months.”

Her now-partner, she said, is also in recovery — and their love has grown, in spite of being unable to go on traditional dates.

But the most gratifying part of 2020 has been being able to support her kids in ways alcohol had prevented in the past.

"I'm totally present. My head is clear,” she said. “I'm able to connect with them while sober, which is a gift."

Russell said that for her, 2021 seems to be blossoming with opportunity emerging from the struggles of last year and all the years that came before that.

"It's enabled me to dig deep and find the strength and reliance that I didn't really know I had, because it hadn't been tested in this way before,” she said. “And that makes me hopeful."

Hopeful, she said, that she will be able to get through adversity in the future, no matter what it looks like.

While AA meetings paused temporarily many are now available online. You can find resources near you using their meeting locator here.

Looking back, looking ahead: As 2020 comes to a close, several MPR News reporters have been checking back in with people they met earlier in the pandemic — about how their lives have changed, and about what they're hopeful for in the new year.

COVID-19 in Minnesota

Data in these graphs are based on the Minnesota Department of Health's cumulative totals released at 11 a.m. daily. You can find more detailed statistics on COVID-19 at the Health Department website.

The coronavirus is transmitted through respiratory droplets, coughs and sneezes, similar to the way the flu can spread.