AA and other 12-step groups find ‘lifeline’ in holding meetings online

Al-Anon, a similar program to AA for families and others affected by problem drinkers, also is moving meetings to Zoom.

Alcoholics Anonymous, Al-Anon and other 12-step groups, many of which are locked out of their regular meeting sites because of the coronavirus pandemic, are Zooming along.

Zoom, an online meeting app, has become a popular alternative to physical meetings, enabling recovering alcoholics to stay sober.

Meetings, which many AA members attend daily, are at the heart of 12-step programs, where members share their struggles and successes, griefs and joys.

“It’s a lifeline that keeps me sober,” said a member using the alias of Tom because he’s a minister in an area church. The real names of AA members are not being used in order to protect the anonymity of the groups’ members.

“There’s a saying in AA that I get drunk, but we get sober.”

He said he started a Zoom meeting at the same time as his regular meeting and “it’s slowly taking shape. The first two days we had eight people … and today we had 21.”

Finding out that he couldn’t go to his daily meeting wasn’t easy. “It was very daunting and quite depressing to not meet with those people who I’ve been meeting with for years on end every single day,” said Tom, who has been sober 14 years.

The Zoom meetings have been a godsend, he said. “Now we’re grooving on it. I get to see you; I get to hear you. It’s slowly becoming A-OK. I can’t wait for tomorrow’s meeting already.”

Not every regular meeting has closed. Tom’s church serves as host to a number of 12-step groups, including Co-Dependents Anonymous and daily AA meetings. Knowing how important meetings are, especially to newcomers and travelers, Tom has given each group the choice of whether to meet, and some have continued to get together.

For those that continue to meet, Tom supplies gloves and disinfectant and insists that all surfaces, including doorknobs, faucet handles and light switches, be cleaned, and windows and doors be left open. He stops by and closes them afterward.

Three meetings that Frank, the alias of a Guilford AA member, goes to are still open, but Frank is going to online meetings only. “We’re encouraged in AA to be responsible … living right in every way that we can,” he said. He said he took the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s advice to avoid groups of people seriously.

“I go to meetings mostly along the Connecticut shore from Branford up to Essex,” Frank said. “In the course of a week I walk into five or six different rooms full of people. … I think it’s wrong to go to an inside AA meeting at this time. I don’t judge anyone. I’m not telling people who are still going that they’re wrong, but I’m not going.

“What if everyone in the room is healthy but me and I seem to have picked it up?” Frank said. When everyone returns to their families, “all of a sudden I’ve infected a thousand people without knowing it.”

Zoom is free for meetings of 40 minutes or less, so Frank is paying the $15 a month for longer meetings, less than he would put in the basket at his regular meetings. He’s set up daily meetings at 7:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Also, he said, “I’ve just set up a site which will be a drop-in site, so people at any time of the day can drop in and talk to an alcoholic.”

Frank has been sober for 40 years, but said, “I believe that we all do this a day at a time and that I have to do everything that the newcomer does to stay sober,” including reading AA literature, getting a sponsor and working the 12 steps.

“It’s been a great help to me,” he said. “I get a lot of strength from being with people who are like me, who have the same personality I do. Alcoholics are not like other people. It’s a disease. We’re in this big lifeboat together and doing this online has been enormously helpful to me.”

He said members have started joining the meeting early and staying on afterward to chat, just as they do at regular meetings.

“The fear of the unknown has always been one of my greatest fears,” Frank said, and, with the uncertainty of the pandemic, “I’ve never experienced so many unknowns at the same time. Thanks to my friends online I’m getting that sense of peace again.”

Mary of Guilford (also an alias) said she did go to a face-to-face meeting. “There were four of us and we sat 6 feet apart. … There are some meetings that are meeting outdoors,” such as on the Guilford beach, she said.

Mary has been signing in to online meetings and said High Watch Recovery Center in Kent, founded in 1939 as the world’s first 12-step treatment center, offers three online AA meetings a day, as well as a Narcotics Anonymous meeting.

“It’s not the same, but it’s still connection,” she said. “The most important part is to stay connected.”

She worries about how newcomers will find the online meetings. “I don’t know how they would find the resources that I have because I’m getting them from people that I know from meetings,” Mary said.

Fred from Branford is the chairman for the AA answering service in the south-central part of Connecticut and is working to get online meetings posted on the state’s website, ct-aa.org. If people call the state hotline, “they will tell a caller that they can go to the website,” he said. The hotline numbers are 866-783-7712 (866-STEPS-12) for English and 855-377-2628 for Spanish.

“This is going to be extremely difficult for newcomers who decide they need and want AA but can’t walk into a scheduled AA meeting,” Fred said. “We haven’t yet developed the ambiance, the etiquette of how to bring a newcomer to AA into an online meeting, but it’s very good for existing members.”

Al-Anon, a similar program to AA for families and others affected by problem drinkers, also is moving meetings to Zoom. Jean of West Haven, whose Saturday morning group moved to Yale Health on Lock Street after Church of the Redeemer closed last year, now has set up a Zoom meeting because Yale Health is not allowing the group to meet.

“It was disappointing. I immediately got on the phone and started talking to people,” Jean said. “The safest thing feels like doing it virtually, where we can at least hear people’s voices and get the experience, strength and hope that we always get at a meeting.”

She said now that her other activities are shut down, including yoga and dancing, “this is where the reassurance comes for me.”

An Al-Anon member from Wolcott, who chose Meryl as her alias, said her group held its first Zoom meeting on Tuesday. “It was great; it was really good, so we’re going to do a meeting Sunday night and we’re going to do one Monday morning,” she said.

Meryl said she’s usually busy with meetings and volunteering at the state literature-distribution center in Hartford. Now she and her husband, who is an AA member, are pretty much staying at home. “I’m going stir-crazy a little bit,” she said.

While the online meetings are not the same as physically being together, she said, “It’s wonderful that we have this. I was thinking we’d all be a bunch of lunatics if we couldn’t connect somehow. It’s great that we have it, but I would prefer to be at a face-to-face meeting, absolutely.”

Connecticut Media Group