Battling an addiction is a never easy at the best of times, but during lockdown the absence of in-person support groups for recovering addicts has seen many people struggle not to spiral back into destructive and life-threatening behaviour.
*Laurie, who has been in recovery for alcohol and drug addiction for four months, says that the coronavirus pandemic has affected her life badly.
“In the 12-step [Alcoholics Anonymous] programme you're encouraged to look for a higher power. As an atheist, God doesn't really wash with me, so I look for a higher power in human connectivity - the spiritual human connection we get by sharing our stories with each other in person. The hugs, the eye contact, the smiles.”
Although she’s joined AA Zoom meetings, it’s just not the same, she says.
“Everyone's mic has to be muted, you can't hug each other, you can't see everyone at once.”
One of the things she’s missed most about remote meetings are her bi-weekly service shifts.
“I have two service posts a week where I make the tea and greet people, which forces me to be there early. Service is a huge part of early recovery because it forces you into a meeting because everyone is relying on you.”
“With the lack of meetings, I don't do any service, which is an incentive to potentially miss meetings.”
Laurie first decided to quit alcohol and drugs a few years ago, and credits a month-long rehab stay with changing her life for the better.
“But it's not rehab that will keep you sober, it's rehab that will take you out of the situation. The meetings were my saving grace.”
Online meetings, she says, are just not the same and many others have also dropped out of the online meeting as lockdown has dragged on.
“Isolation is a huge part of that. In the meetings, we talk about isolation as a negative thing. People are losing the plot.”
Although Laurie fears the end of lockdown, because it will bring new opportunities to fall off the wagon, she can’t wait to be at meetings again.
“Being able to see my sponsor at meetings and see my other friends in recovery and meeting new people will help,” she says.
“The meetings will keep me clean.”
*Matt is having a similar experience.
“When I heard that meetings were shutting down, my first thought was,‘this is not a good thing for our most vulnerable members, but it's only two weeks’. Well, it's now been months since any in-person meetings have been held,” he says.
He entered rehab as a “broken-down, suicidal alcoholic and compulsive gambler” five years ago and has been a regular at support meetings.
“The spiritual message and connection to other members that I found has kept me clean, transformed my life, and given me meaning and peace of mind that I would not have thought possible.”
However, it is a challenge for him to take part in online meetings as they don't offer the same connection with others as an in-person meeting.
"In-person meetings are a sanctuary. They're a safe place to escape daily problems and work on a path forward in life with the goal of staying clean."
Doctors and legal officials know that support meetings, “help alcoholics in ways that are unique and not available anywhere else,” says Matt.
While Virginia* – who’s been attending in-person meetings since 2011 – has missed in-person gatherings she admires the resilience she’s seen from members since the lockdown was implemented five months ago.
“Like many AA members, I found I needed the meetings more than ever when the coronavirus quarantine cancelled the in-person ones,” she says.
And soon after remote meetings commenced, she realised she wasn’t the only one.
“In a Zoom meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous last week, a waifish figure with rheumy eyes was in the centre of the screen. ‘I have several hours clean,’ the person said, ‘I need help’.”
“I caught my breath to see someone so addled, probably still drunk or high, make this disclosure to a crowd of internet strangers who couldn’t, not really, look one another in the eye.”
“At that, the small streaming videos of members across the top of the Zoom interface burst into applause. Of course, the applause was silent, since we were all streaming the meeting and we were all on mute.”
Virginia says that despite not sharing the room the way
they used to it was a relief to see the familiar ceremony taking place in their
small corner of the internet.
“Still, knowing I’m on the internet discussing the most shameful part of my life, and changing my profile hastily to delete my last name, makes me freshly nervous about how candid I can be in this setting.”
“But I keep going, and the online meetings are packed. In one Zoom I attended last week, a woman with a fake tropical beach background surveyed the images of the 50-plus people who’d showed up.”
“AA is like a freaking cockroach,” she told the virtual assembly. “Like, you can’t kill us.” There was a pause. “I mean ‘cockroach’ in a good way.”
A representative for Alcoholics Anonymous South Africa says that while in-person meetings have not yet been given the greenlight, they are liaising with government to try and resume as soon as possible.
In the meantime, they have gone to great lengths to ensure that all members have access to remote meetings and support services throughout lockdown.
“For those who can manage to do Zoom we loaded 150 meetings on the AA website and interestingly we’ve even found that we even get at least four to six international visitors logging in as well.”
The spokesperson explains that for those who don’t have the resources to use Zoom, they have also been holding meetings on WhatsApp.
“For WhatsApp meetings we create a group and appoint a chairperson who then shares recordings of all the speakers and sharers to those in the group,” he explains.
“It is an inexpensive way to host a meeting and has proven popular among members.”
They have also waived the subscription fee on their internal quarterly publication, Regmaker, which features recovery stories from members for members.
“Now more than ever we have needed to show good faith and ensure that our members get the support they need despite lockdown restrictions,” he explains.
“Of course, trust the alcoholics to be resourceful – we’ll support each other no matter what.”
* Not their real names. Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous maintain a tradition of protecting members’ identities.
For more information on AASA visit https://www.aasouthafrica.org.za/
SOURCES: BBC.COM, NYTIMES.COM, YAHOO.COM