Getting sober is one thing—and staying sober is another.
Since 1935, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings have been there to help members stay sober—offering a safe place for people to air their thoughts, questions and problems, with the tacit understanding of “what’s said here, stays here.” At least 10 percent of Americans deal with addiction issues, meaning AA and other 12-step programs are huge parts of many people’s lives.
Then came the coronavirus—and a societal shutdown the likes of which the United States hasn’t experienced in more than a century. When people can’t attend meetings … what happens to sobriety?
Enter the internet—and, specifically, Zoom meetings. While some local AA members continue to meet in person—risks to themselves and society be damned—most have turned to Zoom to continue to get the community and support they need.
We recently reached out to nine AA members and asked them how they’re coping as we all ride out the pandemic. We’ll start with D. and D., a couple who met in the program. Instead of physically attending meetings, they’re hosting online meetings daily via Zoom (zoom.us) at 9 a.m. The first meeting they held had 22 attendees. Within four days, attendance had soared to 92—a meeting featuring a screen full of faces on computers, tablets and smart phones.
Zoom’s basic service is free, but meetings on the basic service can last only up to 40 minutes. Therefore, people happily chipped in to upgrade the service, with the extra money collected going to support the AA Central Intergroup Office of the Desert, which remains open on Date Palm Drive in Cathedral City. There, people have always been able to phone in or visit in person to pick up literature, ask questions about meetings, or simply learn about the mysterious disease of alcoholism. The central office now includes a list of Zoom meetings at aainthedesert.org.
D., the wife, got sober at the age of 14 and is a grade-school teacher with 43 years of sobriety; her husband of 14 years has 28 years of sobriety. They found out about Zoom after the husband took a course online several years ago.
“We were contacted for an (online virtual) AA meeting a year and a half ago—an early morning 6 a.m. meeting that went around the world, and we were both asked to be speakers,” the wife said. “There were people in Iceland, Cambodia, on islands, in remote areas of the world, or people here with jobs who had weird hours, and it was difficult for them to get to regular meetings. We had some apprehension—but we liked it.
“Zoom is free for 40 minutes, and anyone can use that. To upgrade, you have to pay. … We have unlimited time now for a whole year for $149.
“My favorite part of our meetings is at the end when everyone reaches toward the screen, and we say a final prayer. We feel a closeness of the spirit, and it’s like holding hands.
“Unfortunately, some people are too afraid of the technology to join us. This morning, there were a couple of people who had ‘slipped’ (drank again) during this coronavirus. … People are struggling, and they are not all finding Zoom right away. For newcomers especially, it’s difficult.
“Initially, we were just going to do this on Sundays. I wasn’t sure that I hadn’t been exposed at school to the virus … so it was a strange time. I wanted to do something normal like our Sunday 9 a.m. meeting. But I saw on Facebook an ad for (online AA meetings), and they were looking for hosts—and our first meeting was so great, and everyone was so touched, that we decided to do it every day.
“We are supposed to be in lockdown. We may be isolated—but we are still connected. That’s why we call this meeting Stay Connected.”
The husband added: “It helped me so much. When you share your sorrows, they divide, and when you share your joys, they multiply. It’s true! It still works online at a Zoom meeting.
“Because of the virus, I couldn’t see my mother in hospice the last two weeks, so it caused me to concentrate more on the meetings. Then I actually found out by being texted during a Zoom meeting … that my mother was beginning to transition. … We interrupted the meeting, which I have never done before, and told everyone what happened, (and) that we had to go. Another member stepped up and acted as host. … We ran out and left our computer on. As we were traveling, we were texted that my mom had transitioned. We were back home 10 hours later, and the computer was still on—the meeting had closed, but we had no idea when it had ended!
“Since then, it has helped me to share at the Zoom meetings, and hear others’ stories about family who had passed away. I felt like I wasn’t alone by sharing at this meeting. … It was the best, to feel the group support … and to my unexpected amazement, I found myself being more open with my emotions, even to a group with a lot of strangers. I didn’t know I was going to do that. People from all over the country chimed in; it was like we were all on a life raft together. Just like AA’s creation of the Grapevine magazine for the loners, it was this forward thinking that got Zoom (meetings) started.”
The wife added: “With phones and texting, we all check on each other and offer support—and we still do that too, being self-quarantined. The technology is harder for older people, but we have younger people who stick around after every meeting to help them. Everyone is helping each other. We have to talk each other through it, so there is an incredible amount of communication going on.
“You’ll see a girl, 18, helping someone who is 85. It’s great.”
Kirk is a snowbird, a retired firefighter with 23 years in AA. Accustomed to attending five meetings a week, he now relies on Zoom for his meetings at 6:30 a.m., as well as another meeting originating back home.
“I see my old friends at the meetings! I almost feel like a newcomer—I had a lot of fear and uncertainty about the technology, like when I first walked into the rooms of AA,” he said. “I don’t know what I’m doing, but I am going to keep doing what they tell me.
“I need a hip replacement and am taking a lot of Advil and Tylenol—we can’t do surgery on it right now. My doctor says this virus thing is a monster; everyone is so overwhelmed. It gives me goosebumps.
“I have not heard of anyone picking up a drink over this yet … yet. I am pretty bewildered by this; I think we are totally underestimating the power of this thing. None of us has ever done anything like this. … I think it’s going to get worse. I hear the doctors interviewed on TV, and their voices shake sometimes.
“I was cleaning up the yard yesterday, just to get out of my own head. Hopefully we will know more in another month or so. … We have to go back (home) at the first of April, and then we will come back down here until the end of May.
“I suggest that people pick up the phone and call someone you haven’t called in a while … and get connected! When I do, I can feel the anxiety leaving my body. Clean the closets; clean the garage—and stay away from the refrigerator! Bicycle riding is great. … Walking the dog is great.”
L., from Indio, has 29 years in the program; his wife, has 32. They met in the program years ago.
“I was all for the meetings shutting down because of the coronavirus. The meetings can be Petri dishes, because people go to them even when they are feeling sick,” the husband said. “They should have been closed sooner. I support them staying closed as long as this virus is a threat. I have a lot of people I am close to, and we are staying in touch on the phone, going to online meetings a bit, and practicing prayer and meditation at home.
“I met with one sponsee, wearing a mask, sitting seven feet away, sitting outside. It is the last face-to-face I will do, because he is in a recovery home, and people there are sick. Who knows how widespread this is?
“Having a wife in the program is an advantage, as she has a source of interaction other than me, with all her AA girlfriends, so the pressure is not on us to be each other’s source of entertainment. The online meetings I like, but not as much as in person, though it is a good way to stay connected.
“I am not living in fear. … We are taking all the precautions we can. We are in quarantine and go out only when we have to. … We have one N95 mask, and I wear that when I go out shopping. When I bring food home, I have a Tupperware container with water and bleach, and I wipe down everything.
“(My wife) and I are actually getting along better. … I don’t know why, but it is. We are on the same page.”
His wife adds: “I appreciate the online meetings. … I’ve been doing meditation and music—and making cookies! I’m trying to keep a positive attitude. I am doing good, staying healthy and feeling good.
“This is really strange, isn’t it? I think in the end, good will come from this. A lot of people are coming together in love and peace and gratitude.”
Scott, in Redlands, just celebrated three years of sobriety.
“AA changed my life, because it allows me to help other people,” he said. “I am a 100 percent disabled veteran with dual diagnosis—I have to treat everything. I had to learn skills to stay sane and sober, both. I work the 12 steps, and my sponsor allows me the freedom to work with my psychologist as well.
“… In AA, I learned to practice ‘radical acceptance.’ When I came to AA, I had no place else to go. Now I help other people, especially at (a center in Redlands)—first, by staying sober, and also by being involved in my 1,018 days.
“At first, I was a chronic relapser, but now I don’t relapse anymore, because I take every day as a gift from God. I have learned to build a life worth living, rather than destroying things. Part of the process is learning to love yourself. It was difficult, but I learned to believe in myself. Now I teach the guys I sponsor about assets and liabilities; you can look in your heart and decide who you want to be.
“I sponsor two newcomers, and one has relapsed, but came back; it had nothing to do with the coronavirus. You see, the opposite of addiction is not sobriety; it is connection, and that’s why the rooms of AA are so valuable—that’s where we connect. We have to learn to pick up that phone and call our sponsors, call our sponsees, and join meetings online.
“The way to get through this time is this: If we don’t change our paradigms to changing circumstances, it isn’t going to work. We need to accept the change and be willing to change our behavior. It is a battle for all of us … but we’re not doing this alone. Even if technology is too much, we can all still use the phone!”
European-born Lena, now with 22 months of sobriety, lives in Palm Desert with a sober roommate.
“We actually have open meetings outdoors at noon each day, out in the fresh air, and we have a meeting (where) we hike to up at the cross at 8 a.m. … We are between four and nine people there every day,” Lena said. “I never had so many friends in my life! My sobriety is completely different as a result of this. … It’s like I didn’t know who I was.
“I started to use alcohol late in life, like after 40, and the progression was very fast. I came to California in 2017. I now volunteer and have a part-time job, but I am a dental assistant and don’t have my license yet. I went back to college late.
“I miss meetings … but Zoom meetings, thank God for them. It’s all over the country, which is great. So I am hiking in the morning, walking in the evening, and (having) Zoom meetings in between. I know several people who have ‘picked up’ (relapsed) over this, out of frustration, fear or justifying it—or they don’t want to go to meetings. Everyone who goes to meetings regularly stays sober, even with this stupid virus.
“I am very active. I have a very good sponsor, and we usually go to women’s meetings together. … I feel positive—it’s a great life, even with financial insecurity. God is everything or nothing, right? So I guess He’s everything!”
John, of La Quinta, celebrated 36 years of sobriety two weeks ago.
“When the meetings shut down, I knew I had to take care of myself—by phone, online, or even at outdoor early-morning park meetings … where I went only once,” he says. “I am now in a 15-day lockdown.
“I respect what the president is doing; he is the CEO of the country. … I can’t imagine where we would be if we hadn’t shut down. I have five sponsees right now, and I have to take care of them! I am going to stay in contact with them, and with other people, and with God.
“I am kind of retired from physical work. The online meetings have been a challenge technologically. Yesterday was the first day I seriously tried to do an online meeting, with partial success. I plan to definitely try again. My sponsees are doing really good; one guy is home with his kids, painting the house together!
“There are still (physical) meetings actually happening, and he is going to those in person. I didn’t get on him about it, but if we are all staying home, I think he should, too. I have another sponsee who is a nurse, and he is still working; he is doing OK. I say to him, ‘Take care of yourself, even with that protective gear!’ Another one is a kind of a hermit who never leaves the house much anyhow; we are only in touch by phone now, although we have met in person every week for five years.
“Another sponsee is moving! In the middle of this! He is lugging stuff right now.
“I used to go to meetings every day, and I love them. Acceptance is a big part of our program, and now we have to accept this new way of life. … We can’t get uptight about the new rules. Like the 12 steps of AA, we have to stay sober by doing them, and so we have to follow these rules in our civilian life to stay alive.
“God is asking a lot of us right now, but I think everyone will be just fine.”
In the city of Coachella is Joe, who plans to celebrate 21 years of sobriety in April.
“While this coronavirus is impacting people worldwide, I think it’s brought us closer than ever before,” he says. “We educate each other and stress the importance of being connected.
“We now have meetings in our home every day—sponsees and family, about 10 people. We aren’t worried about the virus; we are sanitizing and keeping our distance a bit, but we are not locking our doors.
“When I was overseas as a Marine, we had an Iraqi translator, and he used to walk around freely where everyone else was ducking flying bullets. He had no weapon. We asked why he did this, and he replied, ‘If it is meant for me to die, I will.’ I remember two other Marines under fire—one was taking cover; the other wasn’t, and he said to his friend, ‘Don’t bother hiding; you can’t die yet. You gotta get those teeth fixed first!’
“I won’t live in fear! I have to remind myself not to listen to my head, to live in a neutral zone … so I can’t go around thinking I might get the virus. My head will always try to feed me negative information. Every time we cough or sneeze now, we think we have the virus!
“There is a reason for all the principles of AA—we have to use the ideas, not just think of them as words. Now that we are home with our family all the time, I stay away from the news, because my mind gets worked on by it. AA tells me how to direct my day, and I am a whole lot better. It is a daily event, and if I don’t live in faith, then I can hear my mind talking to me. … It is stuff that is no good for me or anyone else. That’s why we hold these little get-togethers.
“People are so grateful for these! One gal just got 30 days (of sobriety). Another guy is 14 years old, and he just got two months of sobriety. To hear them say they need this makes it worth it—every time. I think I have had more get-togethers now than ever before; it is making us closer, while the rest of the world is isolating!
“I’m not yet going to meetings on Zoom. I say: Keep removing fear whenever it comes up; we are not running the show!”