Sober fun while social distancing is a challenge for people who struggle with addiction, staying sober can be a daily challenge, even in the best of times, with a stable routine, healthy sleep schedule, and support systems that are readily accessible. The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown Americans’ lives into disarray, bringing with it varying degrees of stress, financial hardship, anxiety, even loneliness and boredom, as health organizations and governments increasingly recommend staying home as much as possible, all of which can trigger relapses. And when in-person support groups are an essential part of the routine, a call for “social distancing” from other people may help slow the spread of disease, but it raises other problems.
For members of Alcoholics Anonymous, in-person meetings are a cornerstone of the program. One member who spoke to Rolling Stone said when he first joined, it was recommended that he attend a meeting every day for 90 days. People who have been sober for years still go to meetings multiple times a week. AA, which new research shows leads to longer stretches of abstinence than other treatment programs, is known for never closing, even after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But as New York and much of the rest of the country shuts down to stem the spread of the new coronavirus — with concert venues, churches, restaurants, and movie theaters closing — some people in the 12-step program have found themselves without access to an integral part of their recovery or sobriety routine. Even as AA leadership urges meetings to move online, some members vow to keep attending in person as long as possible.
Each AA group is independent, so a regional governing body advises on best practices and offers information — like keeping a running list of the already hundreds of canceled meetings out of about 5,000 scheduled to be held regularly in the New York area — but each group decides for itself whether to continue holding meetings in person. Reagan Reed, executive director of New York’s Intergroup Association of AA, the central hub of AA information for New York, hopes groups holding meetings will decide to cancel in-person get-togethers. “I’m trying to provide up-to-date information as well as alternative ways for alcoholics to stay in touch with other alcoholics and stay sober,” she says. “We’re recommending that people keep a close phone network with one another, text each other, and switch over to holding their meetings via Zoom or Google hangouts.” The AA call line remains open, even though the office, otherwise open 365 days a year, closed down Friday night. They’re running the answering service remotely through volunteers.
For some members, the transition to virtual support groups has been relatively smooth. Alexandra, who asked to be identified by only her first name, attends meetings one to three times a week. She’s already moved to a Zoom meeting with her biggest weekly get-together, and canceled a monthly visit with another group to a rehab facility in Brooklyn, for the safety of the residents. She’s also leaning on phone calls with friends, and a secret Facebook group of New York women in recovery. Sober for the first time eight years ago, and a year-and-a-half now, she acknowledged that the risks of relapse grow with isolation, especially for people in the early stages of recovery. “One woman [in the Facebook group] said she’d bought Everclear because the store was out of hand sanitizer and rubbing alcohol and now she’s thinking about drinking it,” Alexandra says. “Things like that are concerning.”
The circumstances remind her of when Hurricane Sandy left close to two million New Yorkers without power for weeks or longer in 2012. “For people who have drug or alcohol problems, it’ll be a lot worse if they’re isolated and hoarding alcohol or drugs, afraid they’ll run out,” she says. “I know during Sandy I had a lot of wine in my home and it wasn’t great.”
As fears surrounding the COVID-19 outbreak grow, some people rely on their AA meetings to talk about it, even as the threat of in-person socializing grows. Scott, a New York musician who asked to be referred to by an alias, is 12 years sober, and says it’s been a comfort to gather at meetings. “At 12-step meetings people are very relieved to see each other there,” he says. “[The coronavirus] is all anybody talks about. It finds its way into every person’s share.” He’s not worried about being able to find a meeting to attend, with so many available in and around New York. “I think people who go would go to whatever they had to. There’s been talk of moving meetings outside,” he says. “And people just don’t hold hands at the end.”
John Teufel, an attorney who’s four years sober and usually attends meetings in Manhattan or Brooklyn once or twice a week, knows he could “tough it out” for a while without in-person meetings, even if he’d prefer not to. “Tonight I wanted to go to a meeting and I don’t know if it’s a great idea, even if I do find meetings that are still running,” he said on Friday. “The motto in AA is one day at a time. You’re hearing that a lot right now.”
The people Teufel worries most about are those who are new to the program. “It’s the most dangerous for people in early recovery where meetings are the most important,” he says. He also notes members of other Anon groups may not have as many options for meetings as AA does, for those who still rely on meeting in person, despite the risks. One of his AA meeting sites that’s recently closed is Manhattan’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center, where he notes Crystal Meth Anonymous also meets, with far fewer additional locations in New York to fall back on.
If any addict or loved one of an drug or alcohol addict would like to meet and talk with other families going thru addiction, James Reidy, certified interventionist in the philadelphia area will be holding Zoom meetings to bring everyone together online to discuss their challenges and victories with others.
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