For people who struggle with addiction, staying sober can be a daily challenge, even in the best of times, with a stable routine, healthy sleep schedule, and support systems that are readily accessible. The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown Americans’ lives into disarray, bringing with it varying degrees of stress, financial hardship, anxiety, even loneliness and boredom, as health organizations and governments increasingly recommend staying home as much as possible, all of which can trigger relapses. And when in-person support groups are an essential part of the routine, a call for “social distancing” from other people may help slow the spread of disease, but it raises other problems.
For members of Alcoholics Anonymous, in-person meetings are a cornerstone of the program. One member who spoke to Rolling Stone said when he first joined, it was recommended that he attend a meeting every day for 90 days. People who have been sober for years still go to meetings multiple times a week. AA, which new research shows leads to longer stretches of abstinence than other treatment programs, is known for never closing, even after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But as New York and much of the rest of the country shuts down to stem the spread of the new coronavirus — with concert venues, churches, restaurants, and movie theaters closing — some people in the 12-step program have found themselves without access to an integral part of their recovery or sobriety routine. Even as AA leadership urges meetings to move online, some members vow to keep attending in person as long as possible.
Each AA group is independent, so a regional governing body advises on best practices and offers information — like keeping a running list of the already hundreds of canceled meetings out of about 5,000 scheduled to be held regularly in the New York area — but each group decides for itself whether to continue holding meetings in person. Reagan Reed, executive director of New York’s Intergroup Association of AA, the central hub of AA information for New York, hopes groups holding meetings will decide to cancel in-person get-togethers. “I’m trying to provide up-to-date information as well as alternative ways for alcoholics to stay in touch with other alcoholics and stay sober,” she says. “We’re recommending that people keep a close phone network with one another, text each other, and switch over to holding their meetings via Zoom or Google hangouts.” The AA call line remains open, even though the office, otherwise open 365 days a year, closed down Friday night. They’re running the answering service remotely through volunteers.
For some members, the transition to virtual support groups has been relatively smooth. Alexandra, who asked to be identified by only her first name, attends meetings one to three times a week. She’s already moved to a Zoom meeting with her biggest weekly get-together, and canceled a monthly visit with another group to a rehab facility in Brooklyn, for the safety of the residents. She’s also leaning on phone calls with friends, and a secret Facebook group of New York women in recovery. Sober for the first time eight years ago, and a year-and-a-half now, she acknowledged that the risks of relapse grow with isolation, especially for people in the early stages of recovery. “One woman [in the Facebook group] said she’d bought Everclear because the store was out of hand sanitizer and rubbing alcohol and now she’s thinking about drinking it,” Alexandra says. “Things like that are concerning.”
The circumstances remind her of when Hurricane Sandy left close to two million New Yorkers without power for weeks or longer in 2012. “For people who have drug or alcohol problems, it’ll be a lot worse if they’re isolated and hoarding alcohol or drugs, afraid they’ll run out,” she says. “I know during Sandy I had a lot of wine in my home and it wasn’t great.”
As fears surrounding the COVID-19 outbreak grow, some people rely on their AA meetings to talk about it, even as the threat of in-person socializing grows. Scott, a New York musician who asked to be referred to by an alias, is 12 years sober, and says it’s been a comfort to gather at meetings. “At 12-step meetings people are very relieved to see each other there,” he says. “[The coronavirus] is all anybody talks about. It finds its way into every person’s share.” He’s not worried about being able to find a meeting to attend, with so many available in and around New York. “I think people who go would go to whatever they had to. There’s been talk of moving meetings outside,” he says. “And people just don’t hold hands at the end.”
John Teufel, an attorney who’s four years sober and usually attends meetings in Manhattan or Brooklyn once or twice a week, knows he could “tough it out” for a while without in-person meetings, even if he’d prefer not to. “Tonight I wanted to go to a meeting and I don’t know if it’s a great idea, even if I do find meetings that are still running,” he said on Friday. “The motto in AA is one day at a time. You’re hearing that a lot right now.”
The people Teufel worries most about are those who are new to the program. “It’s the most dangerous for people in early recovery where meetings are the most important,” he says. He also notes members of other Anon groups may not have as many options for meetings as AA does, for those who still rely on meeting in person, despite the risks. One of his AA meeting sites that’s recently closed is Manhattan’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center, where he notes Crystal Meth Anonymous also meets, with far fewer additional locations in New York to fall back on.
For drug and crystal meth addicts trying to stop using, CMA holds a couple dozen weekly meetings between New York’s boroughs and neighboring Westchester County. Luis, a sober member of CMA who manages a Manhattan design studio and asked to be identified by a pseudonym, says the group has reacted nimbly to move meetings online, with Zoom meetings held on Saturday and Sunday. He attended an in-person meeting Saturday, as well, and plans to go to a mix of in-person and online gatherings for his typical four a week. “The way I am looking at it, it’s just like if I would need to go to the grocery store — I’m still going to be interacting with humans in the same manner,” Luis said on a call on his way to a meeting. “I will attend meetings on a regular basis as long as it’s safe to, while being responsible and hygienic with myself and limiting physical touch with other people.”
For Jessica McCarthy, despite the warnings, not showing up isn’t an option. McCarthy has been sober for four years and attends meetings in Rockland County, New York, north of Manhattan and across the Hudson River from the COVID-19 outbreak in New Rochelle. She remembers her first day of sobriety — January 1st, 2016 — and how badly she felt she needed to connect with someone in AA. She was in a bad marriage, concerned for her daughter, and she had a moment of feeling like she’d hit rock bottom.
Luckily, she says, AA doesn’t close for holidays like New Year’s Day, or she might have lost her nerve. “If they had been closed, I can’t imagine when the next time would have been that I would’ve gone to a meeting, when I would’ve felt that desperation,” McCarthy says. On Saturday, she and a couple other members planned to show up for a meeting at a church in Nyack, New York, despite it being canceled, and wait outside in case someone came by, needing to talk. “Tonight, we’re still gonna be there,” she said that day. “A representative needs to be there, maybe not to shake their hand or give them a hug, but at least give them a phone number. Let them know they’re not alone.”