How To Stay Sober During A Global Pandemic
“There’s just something to be said for close contact and human proximity.”
For the last nine months, Korey, a 28-year-old in Oregon, has been going to at least four 12-step meetings per week. In addition to those one-hour meetings, she’s been attending three outpatient recovery meetings per week, each three hours long. Weekly in-person support from other people in recovery is how Korey has managed to address her alcohol addiction and stay sober for the longest period of time since her late teens. Last week, she received a call that her outpatient recovery program — like her other recovery support groups — was shutting down because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“That’s nine hours of recovery a week...gone,” Korey told me. When you factor in the 12-step meetings she’d usually be going to, that number climbs to 13 hours. A lack of connection is often what fuels people’s use of alcohol and other drugs, so it makes sense that for many, the connection to others in recovery is a big part of the solution. With much of the world, including Oregon, under orders to quarantine or shelter in place, she and others in recovery have had to find remote ways of maintaining a connection to their support groups.
For John, a 49-year-old recovering drug user in New Mexico who is 96 days sober, 12-step meetings make him feel supported and understood in ways nothing else can. A poet who often performs or gives lectures at universities, he said, “Try to imagine someone coming up to me after a reading and asking me how I am. Can you imagine me saying ‘Well, you know, this morning I really wanted to go buy a bag of dope, but instead I just watched porn for an hour’? It breaks all the norms of social interaction. People have a barrier of shame about what they will and won’t talk about.” At a meeting, however, John said, “Those rules don’t apply. You can talk about anything, and people will nod their head from across the room and go, ‘Yeah, yeah, I can totally understand that.’”
When people in recovery are isolated and don’t have that connection to other people in recovery, Korey said, “The denial kicks in.” Alone, Korey said, she’s likely to minimize, rationalize, and blame others for her addiction. “You start to feel like the whole world is fine and you’re the only one with a problem. And then the self-pity and all these other negative emotions follow, and it just becomes too heavy.” Meetings, she told me, “hold a mirror” up to help her see what’s real and what’s denial.
For those who aren’t comfortable with meetings or want something to supplement their meetings, Dylan Kersh, a psychologist and former program director at Shine a Light Addiction Specialists in San Rafael, California, said many therapists and mental health professionals have extra availability now.
“Many of us are working from home and have more time than usual,” he said. “We also understand the financial stress of this moment, so most of us are offering sliding [fee] scales.” He recommended people interested in finding a therapist check out the Psychology Today website, which allows people to search by location, specialty, and insurance coverage. “Even if a sliding scale isn’t noted on the therapist’s profile, ask,” Kersh said. “We want to help.”
Whether it’s meetings or therapy (or both), Allison, a 48-year-old in California recovering from alcoholism, said talking about how you’re feeling is a big part of a successful recovery. “There’s something about my alcoholism that wants me to stay home and be alone and not talk about it. That [isolation] is just a setup for me to start drinking again. I’ve got to keep the discussion going and talk about how I’m feeling.”
With most IRL 12-step meetings canceled during the pandemic, people in 12-step recovery have used every possible virtual tool to stay connected. The Alcoholics Anonymous Intergroup website (a hub for people to find local and online meetings) lists more than 100 online meetings, though it appears demand might be overwhelming the server. (I tried five different times on Sunday to connect to the website, and each time was unable to because the “server was too slow to respond.”)
I had more success with other websites dedicated to online recovery meetings, like OnlineGroupAA.org, AAOnlineMeeting.net, InTheRooms.com. For members of Narcotics Anonymous, websites like Virtual-NA.org and NA.org/meetingsearch can be useful resources. Other 12-steppers are forgoing the intergroup website and starting their own online meetings, sharing them in private Facebook groups and among the regular members of their in-person meetings. People don’t necessarily have to have a computer or internet connection to attend; meetings run through Zoom have an option in which people can call in by phone, something that’s especially useful for members who aren’t comfortable or proficient with videoconferencing. Allison said it’s been hard for her local Alcoholics Anonymous Central Office to keep up with the flood of new online meetings. “There aren’t enough people or web builders to get it up as fast as it needs to be. So people have just sort of banded together to trade information until everything is [updated].”
Even before the shelter-in-place orders, people in recovery were planning how to access meetings remotely. On March 11, Travis Akers, who is six months sober and recovering from alcoholism, tweeted that he was looking into hosting online recovery meetings and suggested people reach out to him if they were interested in joining. “The response was robust,” he said. “Right away I got like 11 or 12 emails and probably 40 DMs.”
While Akers credits 12-step groups for “saving his life,” not everyone finds them useful. Fortunately, non–12-step recovery programs like SMART Recovery, LifeRing, and Women for Sobriety all have virtual options as well. SMART Recovery has online forums and meetings, LifeRing hosts Zoom meetings, and Women for Sobriety has community forums and phone support.
Allison said the amount of extra time she has during quarantine and the comfort of attending from her home means she’s gone to more meetings than she usually does. “I usually go to three to five meetings a week,” she said. “But since this started, I’ve been going to like three [virtual meetings] a day.”
Marissa, a person in Minnesota who’s recovering from alcoholism, said while there’s “definitely a learning curve” for some people less familiar with technology, as well as some “technical difficulties” to work out. (The time lag while trying to chant a prayer in unison, as is often done at 12-step meetings, was “a mess.”) By the end of the meeting, she still had the same feeling of connection and support as she does after an in-person meeting. But others, like John, have mixed feelings about the new online meetings. “It’s almost sad,” he said. “Everybody looks like ‘I wish I could see you in person.’ No one looks that happy right now. There’s just something to be said for close contact and human proximity.”
Akers agreed that certain things can’t be replicated in a virtual meeting. “Certainly there are things that are lost. Body language, eye contact — all those can be important to communication,” he said. “But the most important thing is having a space where drunks can talk to other drunks. And that can happen virtually.” Despite their inherent challenges, the demand for these virtual meetings is high. Allison said that because online meetings are accessible to anyone around the world with an internet connection and so many people are stuck inside and feeling anxious, attendance is often larger than it would be in person. On Sunday night, she attended an online meeting with 742 members in attendance.
It’s hard to deny the convenience of these meetings, even if they don’t exactly mirror the typical IRL meetings. I’m 12 years sober from alcohol, and the first seven or eight years of my sobriety were very much defined by 12-step support. I haven’t been to a meeting in several years, partially out of ideological differences but more out of laziness. While reporting this story, I found myself thinking about hitting up a virtual meeting if, after all, it means I don’t have to get off the couch.
But for people in 12-step recovery, the program is about more than just meetings. It’s about “being of service” to people who are newly sober or struggling to get sober. It’s about having commitments at the meetings, like setting up chairs, making coffee, and putting together lists of phone numbers to give newcomers, which gives members a sense of accountability to the group. It’s about “fellowship,” the community and connection outside of meetings, like getting coffee after a meeting, and older members sponsoring, or mentoring, newcomers.
There are 12-steppers doing what they can to recreate those efforts in a virtual setting. Allison started a private Facebook group for the “couple of alcoholics” in her county; within a few days, it had ballooned to 1,500 people. “People are really hungry for fellowship right now,” she said. Some people have set up 24-hour Zoom sessions that are more an informal club than a structured meeting, in which people in recovery can get support from other members “anytime they’re hurting.”
One of the biggest concerns in any 12-step meeting is supporting the newcomer. Walking into a room full of strangers and announcing that your life is falling apart and you’re filled with self-loathing and shame is, to put it mildly, daunting. For some, online meetings offer more anonymity — a chance to dip a toe into the 12-step water with the choice to not show your face or share your name.“It’s definitely easier to be anonymous in virtual meetings,” Allison said. “You can just kind of hang back and not participate.” But existing members are still trying to cobble together a sense of fellowship virtually by staying 20 minutes after the end of meetings to talk to anyone who is new and exchanging phone numbers. And Allison said there are other ways veteran 12-steppers can help: “With so much time on our hands, there’s no reason to not have, like, five sponsees.”
“With so much time on our hands, there’s no reason to not have, like, five sponsees.”
Even with all the resources popping up for virtual meetings, there’s still the issue of how the pandemic is impacting sober living environments — SLEs are residential facilities where people often stay after they’ve left inpatient treatment. Many have nightly check-ins, and sobriety is a requirement of residency — but residents usually go to meetings outside the facility.
“Two of my sponsees have relapsed in just the last week. And both relapses are directly tied to this virus,” Marissa told me. In both cases, the sponsees either lived in a sober living house that had closed or didn't want to quarantine alone, so they moved back in with their ex-partners who were still using. “I’m just feeling really helpless about how to be of service to them because all we can do is talk on the phone or FaceTime,” she added. But it’s not just newcomers who are at risk, she said. “Two of my friends have moved back into less-than-ideal situations just because they don’t want to quarantine alone.”
Doug Casper, owner of Shine a Light Recovery, which operates three sober houses in Marin County, California, said he has no intention of shutting his facilities down, though they have taken strict precautions because of the pandemic. “We’re not allowing visitors anymore, which can be really hard. And we’re organizing virtual tours for potential residents instead of in-person tours.” Casper has also ordered 50 COVID-19 tests, which will be given to current and incoming residents. He’s installed sanitizing stations at the front door of every house and is encouraging residents to follow state and CDC guidelines. “At this point, I don’t think it would be good for anyone if we shut down,” he said.
Kersh said he hasn’t heard of many SLEs closing down either but noted that many outpatient addiction treatment programs are now virtual — so “it’s a great time to get in, as many have extra availability.” He also offered suggestions for general mental health wellness during quarantine: “A lot of the best tools for recovery are things that everyone should be doing during quarantine,” he said. “Getting outside for a walk or some exercise (as long as you’re staying 6 feet away from other people) is important. If you don’t want to go out, do some living room yoga.” He also stressed developing strict routines. “Make a schedule for your day and stick to it. Include times to make calls to people so you have that feeling of connection — especially if you’re early in recovery, when you have a lull in your day, the first thing you think of is a drink or a drug. That’s the best time to reach out to someone and tell them how you’re feeling.”
Sometimes for those who are in recovery, others in the same situation are the only people they have to reach out to. “What’s important for people to understand,” said John, “is that a lot of us have lost touch with our families. We’ve gotten divorced, we’ve lost custody of our children, and we only have other recovering addicts to talk to.” So for someone like John, who finds the virtual meetings lacking, the situation is dire. “Especially if someone is newly sober, all they have is an empty table seated with all of their regrets,” he said.
For now, John is talking to people on the phone and attending virtual meetings, though he’s deeply craving the connection he finds at IRL meetings. “Sometimes I feel like things aren’t real until a person says them to you directly. I’m reading the Facebook messages; I’m reading my [recovery] literature. But it’s just not the same thing as someone looking you in the eye and saying, ‘I am an addict. I totally understand where you are, and we’re going to be okay.’”
Allison said that having attended meetings for the past 12 years and continuing to do so gives her confidence that she can stay sober through this scary, unprecedented pandemic. “The thing about meetings is you hear from people who have stayed sober through the worst situations,” she said. “I know people who have seen their children die, and they managed to stay sober. And so I know no matter what, we can stay sober through this.” ●
Here's a list of addiction recovery resources that I’ve compiled for readers:
12-Step Meetings and Resources: