How the pandemic may have changed AA and recovery culture — in surprisingly hopeful ways — forever

At a recent open meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous — the 86-year-old international peer-support recovery program, which opens some of its meetings to the general public — more than 75 people attended, many expressing powerful human vulnerabilities. It was nothing new for those familiar with the popular 12-step program. But felt especially poignant due to where it took place: on the videoconferencing Zoom, because of the ongoing pandemic.

Virtual AA meetings are being embraced by many who have found unexpected perks when it comes to their recovery. (Photo: Getty Images)
Virtual AA meetings are being embraced by many who have found unexpected perks when it comes to their recovery. (Photo: Getty Images)

“Every minute feels like an hour,” a five-months-sober California-based man shared of his struggle, as many nodded. A woman in New Jersey, on day seven of her sobriety and on the edge of tears, said, “I passed my favorite liquor store today, and I came so frigging close to stopping.”

At the start of the meeting, a U.K.-based man had shared his personal story at length, on occasion of hitting his 30-day sobriety milestone, and the faces in each and every square appeared mesmerized. When he finished speaking, the Las Vegas-based meeting leader thanked the man for his 30 days.

“It’s wonderful you were able to do it here,” he said. “It just goes to show you Zoom works… I love hearing people getting sober on Zoom. It’s the future for AA, I think.”

While early pandemic shutdowns caused panic and anxiety for so many people in 12-step programs due to their reliance on in-person meetings to stay sober — sometimes as many as one or several per day — AA quickly showed itself to be master of the pivot, with many of the program’s estimated 2 million devotees finding themselves shocked, happily so, by how connected they’ve still felt to the fellowship. They now sing the many praises of remote meetings and, like the Las Vegas meeting leader, believe that they’re here to stay beyond the pandemic.

“I’ll never forget the first Zoom meeting we had,” recalls Mike, an Atlanta health consultant who’s 23 years sober and had been going to several local meetings weekly. “It was really amazing and inspiring, honestly. We literally didn’t miss a beat. Everyone was there, and I was like, ‘Holy s***, we can really do this.’ I still felt really connected to everyone.” In fact, he tells Yahoo Life, “There was almost more camaraderie, as we were going through this shared experience, and I felt like it was a huge benefit of being in AA, because [not everyone] had those avenues to deal with their feelings of stress over job loss and health worries.”

Of the dozen or so AA members who shared their experiences with Yahoo Life for this story (anonymously, in accordance with the AA principle), all agreed that while they missed many aspects of in-person meetings — such as the “tangibility” that comes with “hugging, or holding hands during the Serenity Prayer,” the touchstone prayer of AA, notes a New York City woman nearly two years sober — they’ve found huge and surprising benefits in the online gatherings, from simple convenience to a more nuanced and intense connection, and said they hoped it would continue to be an option in the future.

As one man recalled in the open meeting, he’d hit his one year sober anniversary in March, right when everything started shutting down. “I was like, what the hell are we going to do now?” He very quickly found his answer, through Zoom. “Without this,” he said, “I don’t know where I would’ve been.”

What is AA?

“The fellowship,” as it’s called, began in 1935 when two friends in Ohio, Bill W. and Bob S., were trying to figure out how to stay sober. The men found their solution by forming a support group and later developed the 12 steps — starting with accepting one’s inability to control their drinking, and ending with helping others sustain sobriety by sponsoring a new member. The free, anonymous model is now worldwide, comprising over 2 million members in 180 nations.

Alcoholics Anonymous celebrates its 75th anniversary. Also known as AA it was founded by Bill Wilson and Dr Bob Smith in June 1935 in Akron Ohio. It has become a worldwide movement spread out with over 100,000 groups with 2 million members in 150 countries. The two books primarily used are called Alcoholics Anonymous (the "Big Book ") and Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, explaining AA"s fundamental principles. Meetings are informal such as the one started in Paris in 1960 at the American Church at 65 quai dÕOrsay for English speakers such as the US military which led to the first French speaking group 50 years ago in the same room (photo). The WHO estimates that over 140 million people globally are affected by alcoholism. The International AA Convention will be held July 1-4, 2010 in San Antonio,Texas. (Photo by John van Hasselt/Corbis via Getty Images)
Alcoholics Anonymous, founded in 1935, finds its power in peer support. (Photo: John van Hasselt/Corbis via Getty Images)

It’s far from the only approach to recovery out there — and has, in fact, been controversial over the decades for being led by peers rather than professionals. Still, a recent, extensive analysis of 35 studies, out of the Stanford School of Medicine, found AA to be “the most effective path to abstinence.” It was almost always “more effective than psychotherapy in achieving abstinence,” according to a news release about the findings, and it lowered health care costs and worked because of its reliance on social interaction. “If you want to change your behavior,” noted lead author and professor of psychiatry Keith Humphreys, “find some other people who are trying to make the same change.”

Enter COVID-19: The ‘perfect storm’

Alcohol and the pandemic have been strongly linked when it’s come to how people are coping, or not coping, with the isolation and uncertainty of these past 10 months. Research has found that Americans in general have been drinking more: A September study noted that binge drinking had spiked since the pandemic began, particularly among women, and an October commentary for the Journal of Internal Medicine grappled with the issue.

And despite many virtual-AA attendees finding silver linings, there’s no denying that the situation has had dire potential for those already struggling with addiction, with the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism calling the combo “the perfect storm” in a July commentary for the American Journal of Psychiatry. Not only are those struggling with alcohol and substance abuse prone to higher medical risk factors, the piece noted, but social isolation could threaten an individual’s sobriety.

One study found that binge drinking had spiked since the pandemic began, particularly among women. (Photo: Getty Images)
One study found that binge drinking had spiked since the pandemic began, particularly among women. (Photo: Getty Images)

“There is reason to think that people active in recovery would find these times much more difficult — first, they are more likely to get COVID and more likely to get a more severe case,” explains psychologist Deni Carise, chief science officer at Recovery Centers of America, a group of six rehab centers that follows the 12-step model, and a person in long-term recovery herself. “Through 12-step programs, a huge part of recovery is meeting with other people whose driving goal is to stay in recovery — so to have those go away or cut back was very difficult. There are over 66,000 AA groups in the U.S., and to have those close down was pretty frightening.”

But, she adds, “we ramped up very quickly,” switching to telehealth for all outpatient services, “as did most of the field.” That includes the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, which has 17 treatment locations, and had presciently been working to sharpen virtual services for years, according to Samantha Pauley, director of outpatient services. She and others in the field say that the initial response was mixed.

“They were fearful in the beginning, and it’s an adjustment — you’re on a little square on a screen,” adds Sandy Davis, a Pittsburgh-based psychologist with an expertise in addiction, speaking of her clients. (Not to mention that initially there were ‘Zoombombers,’ now kept out with tighter security.) “But people do still stay after the meeting to dialogue, to pass out their phone numbers. They’re incredibly helpful to people who are in distress, and most have gained new friendships, because a lot of the meetings are now national.”

The unexpected benefits of meeting virtually

Now, says Carise, “We’ll all best be served if there will be a hybrid in the future,” with virtual meetings kept firmly in the mix. She cites benefits such as convenience — especially if someone lives a far drive from their meeting — as well as a less intimidating way to return after having relapsed, a situation that often keeps people from coming back, out of shame.

“And what if somebody is afraid to come to treatment in the first place? They might be able to start virtually more easily, and then eventually show up,” she says.

“My first time walking into the room I was terrified … and that fear kept me from showing up for a long time,” a North Carolina high school teacher, 64 (who requested that no part of her name be used), tells Yahoo Life. “I often wonder if having had this digital option of just dropping in, if I had known that I could just listen, that maybe I might’ve clicked on that link just to see what it was all about.”

Since getting sober in 2005, she’s averaged three “maintenance” meetings weekly and recalls her fear at the initial shutdown. “It wasn’t just for me that I felt dread, but we have our doors open to anyone. Anyone who has a desire to stop drinking is a member. … And to have the door closed? It was like, that isn’t how we roll. We need that connection.”

It's customary for attendees at AA meetings to hold hands while reciting the Serenity Prayer.

She was thrilled to find it intact online.

“We were no longer physically connected, but we were immediately digitally connected. I was very surprised at how easy the transition was for me and some of my friends. I almost felt closer to them, because I wasn’t way across the room.” Further, she says, it’s life-changing for single moms who can’t afford sitters, as well as people who are sick or disabled.

Not to mention that it’s expanded her recovery world. “My meeting yesterday had 45 people in it, not just from around the country but around the world. So, my whole world has gotten so much bigger, and the connections have gone so much further. It’s somewhat miraculous.” When the actual doors reopen, she says, “I will go to both.”

John of New York City, 55, has mixed feelings. He first got sober at local meetings in 2019, and says, “I’m grateful I got that, initially. … The energy of the rooms, I miss that — and going out afterward, really seeing someone, kneecap to kneecap and eyeball to eyeball. On Zoom, you’re kind of alone, even though you’re not.” Still, he says, “Thank God for Zoom. Sometimes you feel that energy I felt at a real meeting.”

Cody, a 29-year-old artist, had been sober for just a couple of months when everything shut down. “I remember it was our last real meeting, and we were deciding what to do, and this one man started crying and got emotional and that really scared me,” he recalls. But at the next meeting, the first online, he says, “everyone was so emotional and crying and relieved, and it was really powerful.”

A 49-year-old man in Massachusetts with seven years sobriety — working not only AA, but Adult Children of Alcoholics and Al-Anon (for family and friends of alcoholics) programs — says he’s grateful for the ability to join meetings from home. “Even though isolation is a problem, I will say I appreciate … the solitude,” he says. “When you’re isolating, that’s a characteristic of addiction. But solitude, for me, is having an opportunity to be with myself and go deeper, whether with step work [of the 12 steps], reading the literature or working closely with a sponsor. … I’ve gotten to go deeper with what I pick up in the meetings.”

Attending various meetings around the country and the world, rather than just locally, he adds, “has allowed us to expand our recovery in a way that we wouldn’t have previously.” He’s also noticed people speaking more on Zoom than in brick-and-mortar rooms. “It’s weirder to just be quiet on Zoom … and people seem less intimidated to share.”

The benefits of being in AA during a pandemic

Another surprise for many in recovery has been that it’s prepared them, mentally, to handle coronavirus-related anxiety. “I didn’t think the pandemic would be so easy for me,” the Massachusetts man says. “But I’m accustomed to the ‘one day at a time’ way of living.”

That phrase — “one day at a time” — is a touchstone of 12-step recovery, rooted in the writings of Bill W., who noted, “On a day-at-a-time basis, I am confident I can stay away from a drink for one day. So I set out with confidence. At the end of the day, I have the reward of achievement. Achievement feels good and that makes me want more!” In recovery, the approach to living day by day allows for daily reprieve, the ability to start over, staying present and tackling one problem at a time, making sobriety — and life in general — more manageable.

“The tools of the program have enabled most people in recovery to deal with the uncertainty — not that anybody likes it — but with the uncertainty and also the unpredictability of the pandemic, and the ups and downs of it,” Davis says, adding that AA philosophies such as “‘one day at a time,’ ‘don’t project’ and ‘don’t catastrophize’ have definitely enabled people to get through this.”

Carise agrees that the wisdom of 12-step programs has been fortifying for many. “People in recovery know a number of things: You can change your life any day you want. You can recommit to your goals any day. We also are pretty resilient people — we tend to really go with the flow, and tend to be better in chaos, in some ways,” she explains. “It’s maybe why the initial COVID stress wasn’t as tough as this longterm, chronic stress. We’re really taught to live one day at a time, focus on solutions and not problems, put personalities aside and look at the higher goal: to help the next person.”

The North Carolina teacher agrees that she felt prepared for the crisis due to her years in AA. “It’s a program of action, and it’s a very peaceful way to live,” she says. “I love the fact that when calamity hits, the program has taught me to face it with serenity, say, ‘yeah,’ and just focus on what’s right in front of us. For us, it was, ‘How do we keep our doors open?’ And we found the digital doors were just as effective — and in some cases more effective.”

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