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The Coronavirus Has Pushed Alcoholics Anonymous Meetings Online, And Regulars Are Worried About Newcomers

AA members are concerned for people in early recovery, who might not have the support network in place to help prevent a relapse during this pandemic.

"I would not want to be in early recovery right now," Matthew told BuzzFeed News.

The three Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings he chairs each week in Sydney's inner west have all moved online as Australians stop social gatherings to slow the spread of the new coronavirus.

"When people are in early recovery the only thing they can do when they get home is to go straight to a meeting. I was pretty much at a meeting every day for the first few months," Matthew — a pseudonym to protect his privacy — said. "A lot of things happen in meetings that will help someone in early recovery get through one more day, and often it is sometimes getting through an hour or a minute at a time."

AA is an international support group aimed to help members stay sober. The only prerequisite you need to attend is "a desire to stop drinking". Research released this month by the Stanford School of Medicine claimed the meetings were the most effective path to abstinence.

"I think it is a dangerous time for people in addiction," Matthew said. "A big part of alcoholism is that alcoholics will tend to go into their own space and separate from everyone else and in meetings you get the opposite of that: connection, which is a very big part of recovery."

He said those new to meetings might not yet have a sponsor — a more experienced AA member who can guide you through the 12 steps and chat on the phone if needed.

The online meetings still offered a form of connection but he said "it wasn't the same … The dynamic was very different and it is different from having 20 or 30 people in the same room".

Eight people dialled in to Friday's meeting.

Matthew, who has been sober for four years, said moving meetings online made it impossible to hold what is referred to by some members as “the meeting after the meeting” — an important element of AA.

"After the meeting a lot of people will have heard someone in early sobriety share [their experiences] and they'll go and speak to them and offer support... there's a saying in AA that people in early recovery are the 'most important people in the room' and they are because they remind us of where we were," he said. "The other thing that makes me nervous is we rely on the older members with experience heavily and they're not as on board with technology."

Old-timer Mick said figuring Zoom out was a "headspin", but he managed to get a handle on it a month before Australia had its first confirmed case of COVID-19, as he wanted people from around the country to be able to attend his meetings, one of the only explicitly secular iterations of AA in Australia.

Mick, who has been sober for just over 21 years, usually has around eight people in a library at his meeting in Bulimba, Brisbane and sets up a camera to stream dozens of others joining the meeting on Zoom.

"I'm still of the belief that whilst Zoom and Skype and all of these other online things are a valuable service at a time like this, there is no substitute or replacement for a face-to-face meeting where you can look people in the eye and shake their hand," the 72-year-old told BuzzFeed News. "On any given night we have people online from as far north as Cairns and as far south as Melbourne."

The library has now closed due to social distancing measures and so Mick will conduct all meetings online, which he says is "totally unchartered territory".

"If you understand a bit about the nature of the alcoholic, we are forever looking for an excuse to have a drink, whether that is after 20 minutes, 20 days or 20 years," he said.

"For an alcoholic who is wavering a bit, suddenly all the meetings are closed and so 'it wasn't really my fault that I picked up a drink'. There will people who will relapse either because of [the pandemic] or because it is an excuse to do so."

In early sobriety Mick attended up to six meetings a week and now he runs one meeting on a Thursday and spends "half his time talking to alcoholics". Mick said there is "no greater satisfaction" for an AA member than to be instrumental in the sobriety of another AA member.

"We haven't emptied the pubs but I can probably point at four or five people who I think there is a fair chance that if it wasn't for our meetings they may not be sober today," he said. "If we all say 'bugger this I've been sober for 20 years, I don't need to go back' there is nobody with that experience there for the new members to look up to and emulate."

There are two other reasons why Mick attends meetings, even after two decades of sobriety: "It reminds me that I am in fact an alcoholic and I can hear other people tell their stories of recovery and I can identify with those and remind myself that this is positive."

Polly — a pseudonym to protect her privacy — attends three or four AA meetings a week.

“Although my sobriety has been broken, I have 10 years of sobriety in my adulthood thanks to AA,” the 50-year-old told BuzzFeed News.

Polly is worried about how the new coronavirus pandemic will impact members.

“People drink for a lot of reasons but a really big one for a lot of our alcoholics is that feeling of isolation and disconnectedness,” she said. “At a time like this where we’ve got social distancing, it is really important to try to have continuity with the people who get us, and nobody gets an alcoholic like another alcoholic.”

She attended one of her last in-person AA meetings at a rehab in Sydney’s north last week. More than 50 other participants dialled in via Zoom.

“Most people sat on mute,” she said.

The meeting was much the same, although the part where members are encouraged to identify how many days they have remained sober — often to a room full of applause — wasn’t included.

Polly was hopeful that people who might have been previously too nervous to attend an in-person meeting might attend the growing number of online meetings.

“It would be a really good way to anonymously drop in to a meeting because you’re not having to show your face, but obviously it really is for alcoholics because we need to feel safe and we need to feel anonymous and the secretary asks that no-one record the Zoom meeting,” she said. “When people first come to a meeting we are so helpful and we all mill around them and make them feel welcome because that is what was done for us.”

Polly is grateful to have a job she can do from home and will be relying on her support network — many of her friends are also in recovery — and returning to the AA literature.

Polly thinks meetings should move online as everyone aims to do their part to slow the spread of the coronavirus but worries not everyone will have access to online meetings.

“Whilst the coronavirus is deadly, so is alcoholism,” she said.

You can contact the National 24/7 Alcohol and Other Drugs Hotline on 1800 250 015 or access counselling online here and if you're looking for an online AA meeting the list is being updated here.