To arrest alcoholism for the vast majority of those struggling with substance disorders, we must first arrest COVID.
As large-scale lockdowns commenced to blunt the spread of COVID-19, members of Alcoholics Anonymous around the world took swift action. In many cases, the same dedicated folks who regularly serve as meeting chairpersons – the glue that binds local groups together even in the best of times – embarked on self-taught scramble drills to fulfill their duties online, typically via Zoom. In mere days, AA went digital.
This expedient, comprehensive cyberization of AA was nothing short of remarkable. Among other pleasant surprises, it showed an adaptability that a program whose keystone literature has barely changed in 85 years might seem incapable of mustering. While AA’s traditions and principles are supported by an understandable stubbornness – the program works, so why fix what isn’t broken? – this success can lead to a dearth of malleability. Considering this, the Zoom rooms that promptly sprouted by the thousands have shown an impressive nimbleness, albeit one born of necessity.
Nearly a year later… we’re still Zoomin’ along. It was never meant to last this long. And therein lies a distinctive issue the pandemic has inescapably exacerbated: inequality.
The uneven impact of COVID-19 has long been evident. Economically, white collar workers who can earn a living from laptops have fared far better than blue collar and service industry workers, who are more likely to lose both jobs and vital health insurance. Communities of color have seen higher rates of hospitalization and death than whites, and children from lower-income families face obstacles to remote schooling that more affluent students do not.
But boardrooms and classrooms aren’t the only mission-critical environments Zoom is struggling to replicate. The rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous are also significantly diminished by digitization. And as with other walks of society, a chasm in AA has emerged between the haves and the have nots.
Getting Sober vs. Staying Sober
While inequality in other landscapes typically involves economics – white collar vs working collar, privileged student vs. disadvantaged one – AA’s COVID-caused gap generally goes like this: those with longstanding sobriety remain sober, while newcomers struggle mightily to achieve and sustain sobriety. And every day that Zoom substitutes for in-person gatherings, that gap yawns ever wider.
Some of this has been well publicized. Unsurprisingly the added anxiety, fear and isolation COVID-19 has caused lends itself to increased risks for alcoholism and substance abuse. Hard data shows overdoses increasing, and analysts noticed marked upticks in alcohol consumption from the very first week of stay-at-home restrictions.
These are, however, mere figures. While it’s easy to track indicators of substance disorders, more difficult is assessing the challenges COVID poses to those ready to leave the bottles and baggies behind. Here, the growing recovery gap birthed by the pandemic lies in two truths: Getting sober is really hard, while remaining so is comparably easy.
I have been a sober member of Alcoholics Anonymous for nine years, and can unequivocally state that, as far as getting and staying sober goes, AA’s Zoom rooms are an unworkably far cry from the in-person meetings that have served as lifelines for countless millions. AA works – I am living proof. But Zoom does not – and I fear it’s costing lives.
For most addicts, myself included, getting sober is arguably the most arduous endeavor – and most rewarding accomplishment – of our lives. We come in broken and, with the help of others who’ve walked the path before us, slowly emerge stronger, 2.0 versions of ourselves. We accrue wisdom and develop tools we never possessed prior, even before descending into addiction’s depths. We become weller than well.
But we did not – we could not – do it alone. AA thrives on the principle that addiction and alcoholism are “takes one to help one” diseases. Those with longstanding recovery pay their experience forward to the next generation of newcomers.
And for those newcomers, including me in 2011, there is something magical about an AA meeting – something whose spirituality is tied to physical symbols and experiences. The 12 Steps posted to show our adherence to principles over personalities. The formality of the introductory readings – reverence to a text written in 1935 that remains penetratingly current today. The Serenity Prayer said in unison by dozens gathered for one primary purpose: arresting addiction.
Recovery lives and breathes behind those closed church basement doors. The sing-song “Hi Chris” from scores of fellow alcoholics as I identity myself as one of them, at once humbled and empowered. The hoots, hollers and applause received by a newcomer celebrating another day free of drugs and booze. The enraptured silence of a group listening to someone who once drank or drugged like them explain his downfall and ultimate redemption through the 12 Steps, sober mentors and fellowship.
And finally, a circle of sober drunks, hands linked, closing the gathering as they opened it: united. Standing together against a common enemy.
The best in-person meetings are instructive, inspiring, fortifying. The best Zoom meetings are… well, a heaping pile of meh. If you think teaching a six-year-old arithmetic is difficult online, try teaching a 26-year-old not to drink himself to death during the other 23 hours in his isolated day.
Instead of awed silence there is muted awkwardness. Instead of a room full of engaged sober drunks there is a Brady Bunch screen of stacked, often distracted faces. Instead of hugging and handholding there is, simply, nothing.
A Temporary Necessity, Not a Long-term Solution
AA has an essence that cannot be digitalized and, because of this, many with substantial recovery time have limited their attendance during the pandemic. Others have undoubtedly abandoned it entirely. We’ve worked the Steps, adopted the principles, and have already proven durable through protracted emergencies, alcohol-related and otherwise, We have the luxury of time, and don’t want Zoom eroding our esteem for AA. With vaccines on the way, we can wait this thing out safely and soberly.
Newcomers, though, cannot. And therein lies the inequality COVID has foist upon recovery. It has significantly diminished the effectiveness of the most prolific recovery program in human history – and those most affected by it are the ones most threatened by active alcoholism and addiction.
Is it possible to achieve and sustain sobriety via Zoom AA? Of course. But it is exceptionally difficult. Remote rooms have made an exceedingly challenging, existentially important process exponentially harder. To arrest alcoholism for the vast majority of those struggling with substance disorders, we must first arrest COVID.
We’ve been living with this pandemic for nearly a full year. Its protracted nature brings with it a concern separate from the nearly half a million dead Americans: the concern that we start seeing these emergency measures as the new normal.
Zooms rooms are not normal. They are a stopgap measure – a backup generator in an only-option scenario. This lack of alternatives is especially evident in the wintertime in cold-weather areas. No one is meeting in a park that just got 30 inches of snow, as much of my home state of New Jersey recently did.
We all owe a debt of gratitude to the men and women who so quickly and capably pivoted to hosting Zoom meetings during widespread lockdowns. But we must remember that their sterling examples of sober service are merely making lemonade from lemons. They are keeping the AA ship afloat during a 100-year storm.
AA will persevere. We will navigate this storm online for as long as necessary. But once the pandemic subsides, online meetings should return to being the exception rather than the rule.