On September 6th, 2021, Michael Kenneth Williams was found dead in his home in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Early reports claimed that drug paraphernalia was found in the apartment and the death was being investigated as a drug overdose. A toxicology report released on September 24th confirmed that cocaine, fentanyl, and heroin were present in his system.
The news of Willams’ death sent shockwaves throughout New York, and particularly in the neighborhood of Williamsburg, where Williams lived. To locals, especially those struggling with addiction, his death has felt like a symbol of a larger, recent shift, into a period where hope seems to be scarce.
“It just seems like everybody is relapsing,” says Sonya P, a member of the Williamsburg recovery community who tells Rolling Stone that she’s lost four friends in the past few months to overdoses. Sonya has been sober from opioids for nearly six years, but she says she’s seen the toll this pandemic has taken on others in recovery. “It’s a unique experience being in a populated metropolitan area like New York City where everyone is focused on the same source of pain. You feel it.” she says. She cites the days following the attacks on September 11th as the last time she experienced a palpable feeling of melancholy, or since she’s seen so many sober individuals relapse in a short period of time.
The stress of the pandemic has left few unscathed, but for those in recovery from addiction, the isolation, financial stress, and psychological uncertainty that arrived in the Spring of 2020 have made it hard to stay sober. Overdose deaths hit a record-breaking 93,000 in the U.S. during 2020, and in New York alone, they rose by 20 percent. While the stress related to the pandemic is clearly a factor, the ubiquity of fentanyl in the U.S.’s heroin supply has created a powder keg.
The danger of a possible opioid overdose is heightened when a user relapses, often because they will take the same amount of the drug they took when they were actively addicted, not realizing their tolerance has diminished. The explosion of fentanyl has amped up that risk exponentially. According to the CDC, overdose deaths scaled to record-breaking highs in 2020 and brought the largest single-year increase in overdose deaths from opioids since 1999, which is considered by many to be the commencement of the opioid crisis.
“There was a fear amongst the local dope fiends when the pandemic started that the heroin faucet would run dry, but that didn’t happen. Or maybe we just didn’t notice because all of the fentanyl that took its place,” says Simon R., a Williamsburg local and heroin user who agrees that relapse has become increasingly common since the start of the pandemic. Simon says that fentanyl also brings with it a plethora of unique withdrawal symptoms that are even more insidious than heroin withdrawals. “It comes on in waves of total, unbridled pain, fear, and despair. You can go from laughing and smiling to doubled over and crying in an instant.”
Dave. M, host of the New York-based recovery podcast Dopey, resides over a large online recovery community via the show’s Twitter followers and the Facebook Group, “The Dopey Nation.” There, Dave says he’s seen the shockwaves the pandemic has wrought on the recovery community. “There’s a fantasy that happens when you’re using that nothing means anything,” he says. “I think the lockdown simulates that feeling, that feeling of having nothing going on.” He adds that often it’s an individual’s job or dedication to a 12-step program that counteracts the urge to allow that mindset to take hold. Those same people have seen the job market decimated and their 12-step meetings shut down. “I’ve seen people use the pandemic as an opportunity to become sober. But I’ve also seen lots of relapse during this time.”
Simon says his relapse happened just before the 2020 presidential election, and was marked by a feeling that “there was no light at the end of the tunnel.” By the time, he felt like there was some degree of hope, he says, he’d fallen too far. “I relapsed because I found myself thinking about life after the lockdown and I felt like I couldn’t imagine a future in which I could be happy. Now, I can’t imagine a future in which I’m not miserable. I’m afraid, and I just don’t know how to change it.”
George Mumford, a recovering addict and leading practitioner of the burgeoning “mindfulness movement,” is perhaps best known for bringing mindfulness techniques to the Jordan-era Chicago Bulls and to other athletes like Kobe Bryant. Mumford says he often thinks about how he would fare in an environment like this one if he were still active in his addiction. He emphasizes that addiction is a disease of alienation, and that the loss of the “safe environment” of 12-step meetings and the engagement that comes with them is highly detrimental. “Zoom may work for some, but I think recovery is tied very closely to being able to see a future that you want to live in,” Mumford says. Social and political factors, he believes, have added to that pessimism. For too long, he says, there haven’t been “enough adults in the room saying everything is going to be okay.”
The despondence felt by some over Williams’s death appears to come from the perception that he was doing well, or had “gotten over,” his addiction. Many point to a February 2021 interview on WTF with Marc Maron as evidence. During the interview, when the topic of relapse came up, Williams said, “relapse is part of my story but I’m living good today.” Regarding this comment, Simon remarks “that’s the kind of answer I’d give If I were going through it”
“All it takes is one bad thought,” says Mumford, who has come to see recovery as a process of consciousness-raising. When asked about the perception amongst some that Williams had moved past addiction, Mumford recounts an old Native American adage of a grandfather telling his grandson that each of us has two wolves fighting within our hearts. One wolf represents fear, the other represents love. “Eventually the grandson asks, which wolf wins the fight?’ and the grandfather responds, ‘the one you feed.’”
On the podcast, Maron didn’t pry or ask Williams what he meant by “I’m living good today.” Perhaps Maron inferred that Williams was going through a difficult time or figured that if he wanted to go into detail about how long he’d been sober, he would have. There was no need because, ultimately, it was the last part of Williams’s answer that mattered most, particularly during times like these: “All we’ve got is today.”