For folks in Alcoholics Anonymous, sobriety is hard enough already.
In a pandemic, all the more so, as crowd-size restrictions suspend the 12-step meetings so many rely on to cope with emotions that make it tempting to use.
Recovering addict Omar Torres (who gave SJI permission to use his name for this piece) says people like him now find themselves caught between two diseases—both of them fatal. “If we don’t go, we’re going to relapse,” he says. “If we meet up in person, we spread the coronavirus. It’s a life-or-death situation either way.”
Thankfully, 12-steppers the world over have found other ways to connect.
“Like everybody else, we had no idea what to do at first,” says Torres, a 38-year-old San Jose native who’s three years clean. “During the first calls to limit gatherings, people kept going to some AA and NA meetings. There would be 15 people, then 10 and the number kept going down until they did the shelter-in-place and we could no longer meet.”
Since addicts need peer support to survive, he says, they began “meeting” on everyone’s favorite new app: Zoom. The digital 12-step sessions are unofficial, Torres explains. But they comprise many of the same regulars from local in-person meetings.
On Tuesday last week, Torres says he tuned in for a 7:30pm meeting in which the chair was from L.A. A few days later, he logged on to share his personal story in a virtual version of one of his favorite LGBTQ Narcotics Anonymous groups. “Zoom is making life easier for a lot of people,” he says. “People can choose to go audio-only and remain completely anonymous if they like. And we also got some people from out of state.”
The out-of-state drop-ins are one of the positive things to come out of the challenge of physical disconnect, Torres says. Some people logging on say they had no idea they were joining a group out here in California.
“One woman we had the other day told us, ‘You just saved my life,’” Torres recounts. “It’s amazing because we get to interact with people from all over. It expands our community.”
Between meetings, many of the usual 12-steppers Torres used to interact with in cramped rooms of church basements and local community centers have instead been texting on WhatsApp, posting to a private Facebook group and responding to cries for help with impromptu Zoom meetings.
“For me, like for a lot of us, I have to remain connected to my group of folks because this disease, when you isolate, makes you think crazy thoughts,” Torres says. “The anxiety makes you want to pick up again or use or drink. And if you’re not connected to those meetings, to your tribe, you put yourself in a life-or-death situation.”