Members of AA say they miss the in-person meetings where people often hug and hold hands. They say the stay-at-home orders to combat the novel coronavirus have created additional feelings of isolation, which those addicted to alcohol already are facing. And they are worried that people who want to join AA might have trouble finding a meeting or feeling comfortable joining a Zoom call where most everyone else generally knows each other.
AA, founded by two Christian men in 1935, is seen by researchers as one of the most effective and least expensive tools offering treatment. Although it is one of the most popular of the many community-based programs that take place in churches and other community buildings across the nation, AA has moved away from explicit religious ties.
Still, the steps often hold spiritual meaning for participants. Several of AA’s 12 steps refer either to a deity or to religious practices, such as prayer. The steps include a kind of confession, asking “Him to remove our shortcomings.” The final step includes mention of a “spiritual awakening” as a result of AA’s steps.
Experts who study Alcoholics Anonymous and alcohol addiction say they have seen a huge boom in home delivery sales of alcohol during the social isolation period, which they fear will fuel alcohol disorders. As bars have been closed, many Americans have been drinking at home, where social barriers from drinking in excess are more removed.
“There’s going to be a big need on the other side of this when people are out and about,” said John F. Kelly, a professor of psychiatry in addiction medicine at Harvard Medical School.
At the same time, Kelly said, many longtime members of AA were able to draw on resources they have learned through the network to cope with isolation periods.
“Existing members have this rich social network potentially at their fingertips,” he said.
During the pandemic, a 24/7 Washington-area hotline has directed people to Zoom meetings. Even as the Washington area has started to reopen, a hotline operator said this week that she was not aware of any in-person meetings taking place in the region.
Attending a Zoom AA meeting is a far cry from decades of AA tradition, in which people would often exchange hugs and hold hands in prayer. Lewis R., who in keeping with AA practice was interviewed on condition that his last name not be used, remembers taking down the folding chairs from his first meeting in 1985 at Chevy Chase Presbyterian Church in Northwest D.C., where people would drink coffee, eat doughnuts and smoke.
“I had people who took an interest in me and would spend time with me physically,” Lewis said. “We would just sit and have coffee and laugh. I felt a wave of belonging. That whole thing is missing now.”
In the 1980s, Lewis said, meetings were one of the only places in the city where people with HIV/AIDS could get a hug or an invitation to go out for coffee. Once he was stable in his sobriety, he became a sponsor to those affected at a time when many people did not understand how HIV/AIDS spread.
As most in-person AA meetings are on pause or resuming with limitations, Lewis fears for newcomers who might be seeking the kind of physical connection he found. He said there used to be a hotline for people who wanted help, and a volunteer would pick them up for a meeting. He said that isn’t available now.
“The true fruits of AA are combating loneliness of isolation,” said Lewis, who lost his job at Marriott in March and sponsors nine people. He and other AA members expect a surge of newcomers as people emerge from isolation.
Every day, he joins 7 a.m. Zoom meetings to work on the program’s 12 steps, which he said provide him a sense of stability.
“If you work the steps and use the tools, it leads to solitude,” he said. “Solitude is where we gain an appreciation of being alone, of being in our own skin, of being in service to others.”
A new year is a popular time of year for people to stop drinking. But researchers often see a big drop in consistency in voluntary activity around month three, which was right around when states began orders closing doors and shutting down large meetings.
Fear and stress around disease and job loss has likely led many to turn to drinking to cope, said Keith Humphreys, a psychiatry professor at Stanford University. Longtime AA members might mourn the loss of intimacy in meetings, but they have networks to help them stay on track. But for newcomers, the experience of joining a Zoom call is more passive than the act of going to a meeting.
“You can get away with hanging back on the Internet in a way you can’t when you’re sitting in a room,” Humphreys said. “You can put your name up on the screen, not put your picture up, and have a beer.”
Tara Q., a member who studied online AA meetings in 2007 when she was a graduate student at Georgetown University, said the online meetings at the time functioned more like an instant messaging chat room. She said older members liked the meetings more than the younger people, who were often looking for more social connection.
“They were fine if you were home bound. It was certainly better than nothing,” she said. “There’s organic connection as you are spilling out of a room that cannot be replicated online.”
During the pandemic, more specific groups have formed, including ones for people of color and people in the LGBT community, Shayla M. said. First-generation immigrants, she said, will sometimes share about the stigma of self-identifying as an alcoholic.
“When you hear your own story coming out of someone’s mouth, it’s crazy,” she said. “You can relate to people. There’s a lot of exchanging of phone numbers and checking in with each other.”
During a recent meeting, Katherine R. said childhood friends of hers were able to join a virtual AA meeting to watch her celebrate her 11 years in recovery. But, she said, it is easier to notice when someone is missing from an in-person meeting than if they “ghost” online.
“I miss the meeting after the meeting when we would go out and get ice cream, hang out with a bunch of people and talk about the program,” she said.
(A Washington Post reporter viewed the recent Zoom-based AA meeting with the consent of the co-hosts, and members were notified at the beginning of the session.)
Each AA meeting is different, but some parts are universal. Meetings are about an hour long, and members read aloud from sections from an AA book that outlines the 12 steps. They celebrate milestones, such as someone’s full year of continuous sobriety.
“Hi, I’m Lawrence, I’m an alcoholic,” one member announced before he spoke on the theme of gratitude. Some of the 30 members waved to him, but about half of the group kept their cameras turned off. A few more people shared.
The Washington-based meeting recently ended by collectively saying the famous “Serenity Prayer,” which is attributed to the late theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can
and the wisdom to know the difference
If they were meeting in person, the co-host would normally grab someone’s hand before the prayer, and that person would grab the next person’s hand, and so on. This time, she fumbled around the computer for a few seconds to find the button to unmute everyone.