12-Step Recovery Programs Adapt in the Age of Social Distancing

Raymond B. has been spending the last few days stripping and cleaning the floors at the Alano Club in Sparks, a local branch of a nationwide nonprofit that offers locations for 12-step recovery meetings. He finds solace in being of use and keeping busy since the daily roster of meetings at the club was brought to an abrupt halt in March due to the coronavirus outbreak.

The club, originally founded as a meeting place for Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), now also hosts 12-step meetings for Narcotics Anonymous (NA), Overeaters Anonymous (OA), Sex Addicts Anonymous (SAA) and others.

Fourteen years ago, Raymond, a New Yorker who struggled with alcohol addiction and homelessness, was urged by a friend in Nevada to move here and start the recovery process. Once here, Raymond sought support through meetings at the Alano Club. Thanks to those meetings and the help he’s found through AA, Raymond remains sober and now serves as the Alano Club’s chairman of the board.

“It worked for me,” he said. “It changed my life.”

Since the state’s closure of non-essential businesses in mid-March, he’s managed to keep his own recovery on track through virtual meetings.

“Thank God for Zoom and FaceTime and people who are already in recovery who already know each other and have each other’s phone numbers,” Raymond said. “So for a person like me who’s been around a while, it’s pretty simple.”

But the lack of a location and physical meetings presents worrisome challenges for those in the early phases of their recovery.

“If I were to arrive here from New York City during this crisis, I would be screwed. So my concern is for the new person that’s just getting out of the hospital or rehab, or sitting in detox, and would like to stop drinking — it’s a lot harder for them to connect,” he said.

From his own experience, those struggling with addiction often don’t have, and can’t afford, technology, and often may not even have homes or phones at all, making it easier to relapse once the safety net of a hospital or rehab facility is gone.

“The people I feel are being affected by this the most are the people just looking to get in and get some help,” Raymond said. “Zoom and FaceTime and a hotline help, but, you know, many of these people can’t afford a smartphone, let alone figure out how to get on Zoom just to try to stop drinking.”

Add to that the 12-step program’s fundamental commitment to anonymity — so essential to the recovery process — and staying in contact with others takes on another layer of difficulty.

The Living Stones Church on Sierra Street in Reno is one of several houses of worship in northern Nevada that host addiction recovery groups – photo: Brian Bahouth/The Sierra Nevada Ally

One Reno man (who preferred to remain anonymous) shared that he has attended NA meetings all over the Reno-Sparks area, including at the Alano Club and Living Stones Church in Reno, and has remained clean for 21 months. As he explained, after Governor Sisolak’s ban on gatherings of 10 or more people, it took a few days to get the online meetings up and running. The local NA fellowship, using contributions from meeting participants, footed the bill for the Zoom subscription, and over the course of a weekend, a handful of virtual meetings were established. Within days, round-the-clock meetings were the norm.

In all, he said, the experience has been good, although several meetings were hijacked by hackers who sneaked into Zoom and displayed disturbing images of pornography, bestiality, drug and alcohol use and more — particularly troubling for recovering addicts in a fragile mental state. Fortunately, those problems were short-lived.

“For me, it wasn’t all that tough to transition to virtual meetings,” the man added. “But there were people out there who were rebelling against this whole thing. Addicts don’t like change, so some of them are really suffering.”

He pointed out that the shift to virtual meetings meant rethinking the most basic tenets of a 12-step program.

“For any newcomer, we always repeat the same three things: Go to meetings. Get a sponsor. Work the steps,” he said. “The meetings are a very important part of that because for a lot of us, we caused our own isolation as part of our addictions. And in NA, we hug. We greet others with a hug, because in our addiction a lot of us didn’t have that. We isolated ourselves so much that we were just totally alone, or we thought we were, so the hugs are a huge part of what we do.”

Raymond agreed that the in-person meeting is an essential component of recovery that simply can’t be replicated in a virtual meeting. “You get the emotions, you see and feel body language, and you just connect with people better in person than online,” he said.

Nonetheless, both men have also seen positives emerging from the new social distancing norms. For Raymond, Zoom offers an unprecedented level of access to meetings. “I can go on Zoom and join meetings anywhere … I can even go to meetings in New York City, where I know people, so it’s actually beautiful.”

And as the anonymous gentleman from NA pointed out, virtual meetings have created a new sense of intimacy and accessibility. Meetings now take place 24/7 all around the world, and the global NA organization has even staged 24-hour marathon sessions with speakers from around the world. “We had speakers from England, Australia, Ireland, Africa and all over the United States. That was really powerful, that we all have the same thoughts, issues, difficulties and strengths,” he said, adding that he has attended up to 14 virtual meetings a week since the shift happened.

For many 12-steppers who work odd shifts and typically couldn’t attend live meetings, virtual meetings mean greater access. The man hopes some online options will remain long after the COVID-19 threat has passed.

“You just have to get past that ‘go to meetings’ thing. It doesn’t matter how it’s done. What’s cool is that with the Zoom format, you get to be in a person’s living room … so it’s been a little more intimate than when we’re in a room together. You’re sort of invited into their home, and I think people open up a little more when they’re in that setting.”

Still, both men look forward to a time when they can return to live meetings and the camaraderie and support they bring. “I know a lot of newcomers out there who have never been to an actual meeting,” said the anonymous NA member. “So our program is continuing to work, regardless of not having that physical presence. And we’re trying to keep everyone excited for the time that we can go back to our meetings again.”

Jessica Santina is an award-winning writer and editor with nearly 20 years’ experience contributing to numerous local and regional publications. Read more about her here. Support Jessica’s work in The Ally.

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