Like everyone else, members of the recovery community in Los Angeles migrated quickly from traditional meetings in church halls and community centers to virtual “meetings” when coronavirus hit. But unlike for other groups, forced to hold book discussions remotely or go online for Pilates classes, the stakes were high.
Times of extreme stress can be life or death for a struggling addict or alcoholic, and meeting with others who are also trying to navigate sobriety is essential even in the best of times.
But the online shift was awkward at first. Meeting via telephone and laptop felt weird. Was I attending a meeting my fellows, or just watching one on TV?
And the new technology also brought some previously unknown problems. Women-only meetings found men joining their sessions, and men’s meetings drew women. Larger online meetings began to be disrupted by Internet “trolls” who crashed into virtual rooms spewing profanities, assaulting members of the group by name or screen-sharing images of pornography or violence. Sometimes people attended in their pajamas, or underwear, or from bed.
But there have been unexpected benefits, too. Currently more than 700 L.A.-based virtual meetings are being held each week, at all hours of the night and day. People who had struggled to find time for one or two meetings a week now attend two or three meetings a day. Members who have moved to other cities have been able to join their home groups again. And I have traveled to other meetings, joining a friend’s “sober dads” group that meets twice a week in Brooklyn and another friend’s favorite meeting in Paris, even though it meant logging on at 5:30 a.m.
I started noticing something else, too. Some people joining us online said they felt safer in the virtual meetings than they did in the real ones — depressed shut-ins who found meeting attendance overwhelming, or shy people who found it easier to share their feelings from the safety of their own homes.
Going forward, I know people will be happy to gather in person again. But I can also imagine the online 12-step circuit continuing. Newcomers could take their first steps virtually, even beginning their recovery in distant communities where they aren’t known. People living in places where there aren’t meetings would have somewhere to turn.
Any time is a hard time for alcoholics and addicts to forgo drugs and drink, and right now is harder than usual. One positive legacy of COVID-19 might be online meetings that will help people stay clean and sober long after the current contagion has passed.
Chas F. is a Los Angeles writer and recovering alcoholic.