Congregating in church basements and other often-cramped quarters with people in recovery from addiction has long been key to staying sober for many. But the coronavirus means the meetings, hand-holding and close connection that come with the process present new risks.
Kenny Pomerance, who co-founded the online recovery community “In The Rooms” in 2008, said meetings are “essentially a lifeline” during the outbreak.
“If someone is afraid to attend a meeting due to the coronavirus, then they might be more apt to relapse, especially in early recovery,” said Pomerance, whose group was started for people unable to make face-to-face meetings. “The added stress and potential financial uncertainty is also a concern.”
Other recovery groups are adapting to coronavirus. Alcoholics Anonymous’ General Service Office in New York City reported its members take precautions that include avoiding handshakes and hand-holding, along with stepping up cleanliness.
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Lowell Cauffiel, a true crime author, screenwriter and producer in Hollywood, attends 12-step support meetings there and said he hasn’t seen a drop in attendance.
“I haven’t noticed any difference other than lack of handshakes and people putting their arms around each other during prayer,” Cauffiel said. “I find people have a positive attitude as a big part of recovery is not embracing fear.”
Some AA groups have contingency plans in case they have to halt in-person meetings and are developing contact lists so they can meet by phone or online. AA has online meetings where members can provide information just in case.
The group Smart Recovery, which hosts about 2,200 meetings in the USA, has about 150 meetings in California and 30 in Washington – the states hardest hit by coronavirus.
Its number of online meetings is growing, and more of its in-person meetings have canceled lately, executive director Mark Ruth said. The group is rolling out plans for facilitators of face-to-face meetings to offer online classes as an alternative. The organization has more than 130 live online video meetings.
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In The Rooms has nearly 600,000 online members who participate in 131 recovery meetings a week. Remote access is available around the world.
AA remains the biggest, with 66,345 groups in the USA totaling 1,361,838 members, it reported in January. The service office said groups make sure meeting hospitality tables are sanitary or they are temporarily “suspending food hospitality.”
In Savage, Minnesota, Vanessa Van Vorst said early this week that at the 12-step recovery meetings she attends, “we have hand sanitizer all over.” She and others worried that the sanitizer “smells like vodka,” which could trigger people new to the program to relapse.
By Thursday, she reported her groups decided “we will have to figure out online meetings.”
“I’m scared for our at risk members and also scared for alcoholics in general without having the meetings that keep us sober,” she said. “Online just won’t be the same. We won’t have the fellowship that we so desperately need.”
Cauffiel said he doesn’t worry about the hand sanitizer.
“People are not as fragile as outsiders presume,” he said. “That’s why they are at a meeting, to reject triggers, as well as feel the protection of being in a group.”
Those used to the companionship that comes with meeting face-to-face shouldn’t be too disappointed with the online experience, Pomerance said.
“We’ve done our best to come up with a unique platform which gives the warmth and caring you’d find in any in-person meeting,” he said. “The only things missing are the hugs.”
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Coronavirus social distancing hard for AA groups, sobriety, recovery