AA under quarantine: How coronavirus is changing 12-step recovery programs

Denver, Colo., Mar 24, 2020 / 04:00 am (CNA).- Ian, a 30 year-old living and working in an addiction recovery community in southern Florida, is somewhat used to paradoxical living conditions. Ian has been clean and sober for ten years, and he lives in an area he says is densely populated with recovering addicts. Seven minutes from his house, though, is spring break territory.

Ian finds the contrast puzzling.

“(The surrounding) community is very spring break-esque, but it's also the largest recovery community in the United States. It's the largest recovery community for people that are getting sober or staying sober…so it's just weird because it's two polar extremes,” he told CNA. 

Last week highlighted the differences between the communities even more, as the sober living community observed social distancing and isolation per federal coronavirus guidelines, while hordes of spring-break revelers hit the beach and blithely partied on.

“It's really polarized at this point,” Ian said. “There are people that are clearly trying to keep their space, and then there's people that just don't care.”

‘It’s affected everything’

Spring breakers notwithstanding, the addiction recovery community in Florida and across the United States is scrambling to make group and sponsor meetings as available and effective as possible, while observing federal and state guidelines which dictate that no more than 10 people may gather together, and in some cases, that people cannot leave their homes except for essential supplies and emergencies.

“It's really affected everything,” Ian said of the coronavirus restrictions.

Ian told CNA he qualifies for membership in multiple 12-step programs, including Heroin Anonymous, but that he has remained the most active in Alcoholics Anonymous.

Despite what people might think about Alcoholics Anonymous meetings based on movies or T.V. shows, Ian said that the primary reason for in-person meetings is not so much therapy as it is to offer a place for newcomers to meet others in recovery and to find a sponsor.

“The idea is that someone who is brand new has a place to go where they can meet someone who's not brand new, and in that process get involved with the 12 steps,” he said. “It's the catalyst of all other things, i.e., the newcomer really getting involved with the 12 steps.”

“If you bring them to a group that is really enthusiastic…they get almost attacked by people that are trying to help people. And so before you even know it, you've got a sponsor,” and a community, or at least the prospect of onem he added.

Involvement in Alcoholics Anonymous varies from person to person, but typically, a member of AA attends meetings at least once a week (often more frequently), and has regular meetings with a sponsor, who is usually a member with more years in recovery offering guidance through the 12 steps of recovery.

While coronavirus restrictions have put a damper on in-person interactions, Ian said he and his friends anticipated that lockdowns and quarantines were possible in the face of coronavirus, and they worked to put together Zoom online conference meetings, as well as a master spreadsheet of anyone available to sponsor new people.

“We're going to be actually sending this to every local halfway house and treatment center and saying, ‘Hey, if you have new people that need sponsors, all of these people are willing to take as many as possible until it becomes unbearable,’” he said.

Back to the roots

“Father C”, a priest in Pennsylvania who is in recovery from alcohol addiction, spoke to CNA on the condition of anonymity. He said that in some ways, remote ways of connecting people in recovery to one another are a throwback to the early days of Alcoholics Anonymous, when the organization, founded in 1935, reached new people primarily by telephone.

“Groups only got organized because one alcoholic reached out to another and shared the message of his own recovery through the practice and the steps,” “Father C” told CNA.

Before they had texting or other digital ways of organizing meetings, “two people meeting together…even on the telephone, was a meeting to them,” he said.

Only after the telephone became more common in American homes, and the word about Alcoholics Anonymous got out, were organizers able to establish bigger group meetings.

Dave, a Catholic father of six in recovery in Maryland, said that mail was also used in the early days of AA.

“So the history is that Bill Wilson got sober in New York and Dr. Bob Smith got sober in Akron, Ohio. And Bill was in Ohio at the time when they started; Bill got Bob sober. And then they hung out and they would go to these Oxford Group meetings. Oxford Group is a Protestant group that had some of the basic tenants of AA,” he said.

“When Alcoholics Anonymous started, it was mainly these disparate groups of people that would exchange letters before there were meetings everywhere. So it's a little bit of how things were in the beginning, but just with a 21st century spin on it,” he added.

More isolation, but more ways to connect

Joelle is a wife and mother in her 50s in Fresno, California who has been in recovery through AA for 10 years. She serves as an event planner for AA (though, all upcoming events have been canceled).

The move to virtual meetings means that newcomers will have to be especially proactive about reaching out for help, Joelle told CNA.

“We have a principle, a little refrain, that we say. It's: ‘When anyone, anywhere, reaches out for help, we want the hand of AA to always be there. And for that I am responsible.’ Well, in this time, (newcomers) really are going to have to reach out. They're going to have to find us,” Joelle added.

“Because usually somebody drops into a meeting and they don't leave that meeting without some phone numbers and exchanging numbers so that they don't get lost in AA. But, obviously that's not possible right now.”

The “big saving grace” at the moment has been videoconferencing, Joelle said. The groups with which she’s involved have set up online conference meetings via Zoom, and put the word out via Facebook and word of mouth about the change. So far, attendance has been high.

“One of the meetings I go to is an every-morning-meeting, every day of the week, at 6:30 a.m. And a lot of the people who come to that meeting, they're kind of hit-and-miss because some days they need to be at work at 7:30 and coming to a 6:30 meeting doesn't make sense. But now that we're on Zoom, all of them are coming,” she said.

They’re also picking up people from other groups who have not yet organized virtual meetings, she said.

“So our meeting is bigger and more vital than ever. I also think the stressful situation makes people want more AA meetings.”

Joelle said she sees this time as “kind of a mixed bag.”

One the one hand, she said, social isolation can be really bad for addicts. She predicts that a lot of people will discover during their time of social isolation that they are alcoholics or drug addicts.

“There's going to be people who figure out they're alcoholic during this time because being trapped at home, instead of busy with work and activities, heavy drinkers are very likely going to figure out that there's an issue there,” she said. “But how are they going to get ahold of us?”

Because 12-step groups typically happen locally, Joelle said she would encourage those looking for a meeting to do an internet search with the name of their city plus “AA meetings,” or whichever recovery group they need. 

“You're going to find all kinds of meetings,” she said. She encouraged newcomers and those long in recovery to take advantage of extra time at home to connect to even more virtual meetings than they might normally be able to attend in person.

“I would say we need more connection, not less, when there's stress,” Joelle said. “So home isolation is really rough for an alcoholic. But being able to attend more meetings because you're sitting at home and so you don't have conflict…in some ways it's more convenient for people now. In other ways, you're still sitting at home by yourself.”

Joelle said she thinks this time might pave the way for more virtual meetings in the future for AA, even after the threat of coronavirus has passed.

“AA already has conference call meetings, which I know is kind of old-fashioned, dial-in meetings…but from my perspective, there's plenty of times when you would want to have someone able to Zoom in, because maybe they've got cancer and they're in chemo, and so they're stuck at home, they can't come. I really believe this will be the wave of the future in terms of giving people more options.”

The steps at a social distance

While being able to host online meetings has been convenient in many ways, Ian said he still had many concerns about people in recovery programs, particularly those who are in early recovery.

Often, those in early recovery will take part-time jobs as restaurant servers or cashiers so they can focus on their recovery, Ian said, but a “huge influx” of people are losing such jobs in his community, he said.

“We're just having a lot of people not only not have an income, but also not be able to participate both in meetings and fellowship, which is as, if not equally, important as meeting attendance,” he said. Fellowship typically involves 40-50 people or so going out for dinner or just hanging out together after meetings. Get-togethers of that size are now banned throughout the country.

Ian said he is also concerned about newcomers who were working the steps for the first time, because, somewhat like the sacraments of the Catholic Church, there is something particularly effective about completing those steps in person.

For example, he said, the fourth step of AA, which is to make “a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves,” is typically undertaken in person, with one’s sponsor. It is similar to the sacrament of confession, where sins are stated to a priest in person.

“There's something about doing that face to face with someone and seeing someone's face not judging you,” he said. “Like someone looking at you and being like, ‘He doesn't think I'm a scumbag or a loser.’”

“When you remove that facial component, even through FaceTime, you've obviously diminished the effectiveness or efficacy of that step,” he said. “So there's all these other underlying limitations that we're going to tease out over the next few weeks or months potentially.”

Staying close to God when Masses are canceled

Another component of recovery that will be challenging for Catholics at this time will be remaining close to God when all public Masses and other liturgical celebrations have been canceled throughout the United States.

Connecting with a higher power is crucial for all 12-step recovery programs, but doing so can be hard for Catholics who can’t attend Mass or go to confession regularly due to coronavirus restrictions.

Christine N., a Catholic in recovery in Annapolis, Maryland, said she was “devastated” when Masses were canceled, because she had recently been trying to attend daily Mass as well as Sunday Mass. Now, she said, she’s been watching her local parish’s livestream of morning Mass, and she said she might watch Bishop Robert Barron’s streamed Masses as well.

She encouraged fellow alcoholics and others in recovery to stay the course and to trust God.

“I, and all Catholics, need to continue to pray and have faith that God will never abandon us and that he is with us,” she said. “Believe that, and we'll get through it. But it definitely feels like a test.”

Dave said that he and his family are part of a movement, started in France, called Teams of Our Lady, which are small faith groups that meet monthly for a shared meal and fellowship, and they also have a rule of life by which they try to live. Their group just had their first online meeting yesterday.

Dave said he encourages Catholics to find virtual ways to connect and share about their faith with other Catholics or Christians.

“I think we have to be willing to share more openly with other people of our faith of what's going on, share the difficulties, and connect (with each other),” he said, adding that he had also heard of stay-at-home virtual retreats being put on by some priests in Maryland.

Joelle said that for the past few weeks, she has been saying a daily rosary and a morning meditation and turning to prayer more often throughout the day. She encouraged Catholics to “stay out of fear” and to look for ways that God is calling them to be of service every day.

“I am constantly looking for the role that God is assigning me right now,” she said.

“I want to focus on the present and especially on being in service in the present…for me it means using my cooking skills and time to get meals to people who are shut in, especially to people over 65 or who otherwise have health concerns. To be able to take them a meal and leave it on their doorstep and make sure they're okay, and go grocery shopping for them so they aren't exposed. Those are things that help Catholics and they help alcoholics too.”

“Father C” said he thinks it is fitting that Catholics are all experiencing a great spiritual hunger for the sacraments during Lent. He said his advice for Catholics in recovery is similar to his advice for other addicts in recovery: "Keep coming back."

“Stay close, be involved, do service even in the smallest things,” he said. “Think of one another and pray for one another. Even with the social distance, there needn't be spiritual distance.”

“If God will make the greatest good come forth on the greatest evil, the death of the Son, well, would not God be able and willing to make good come out of this, even those lives that end up being lost to it?” he added.

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