Social distancing prompts adjustments to addiction recovery

AA building
Worthington Alcoholics Anonymous, along with other addiction recovery groups, is unable to hold its regular meetings due to social distancing rules. (Tim Middagh/The Globe)

WORTHINGTON ― While staying at home and isolated from others seems an effective strategy for slowing the spread of COVID-19, social distancing also has social consequences, such as added stress on those who regularly attend addiction recovery meetings.

Roger Bowman ― a pseudonym to preserve anonymity ― was used to attending an Alcoholic Anonymous meeting once or twice a week.

“Meetings are extremely important, no matter how much sobriety you have,” he said. “They keep me grounded and in check.”

Cole Harper, a Lakeside Church pastor who oversees the church’s Celebrate Recovery program, explained why meetings are so vital to the addiction recovery process.

Addiction has its root in a number of unmet psychological needs, he said, one of which is a sense of belonging with other people.


“Sobriety is not the opposite of addiction: connection is,” he said, paraphrasing journalist Johann Hari.

For Bowman, AA is “a spiritual program. I get to talk to people who ‘get me’ and understand my thinking.”

Harper added that group meetings are redemptive in nature and “a necessary component” in recovery.

Celebrate Recovery’s Wednesday night meetings typically open with a song service and short lesson about one of the 12 steps or eight values of the program. Then everyone breaks into open-share groups, divided by gender and into addiction and life issues groups. Each group’s facilitator shares notes from the lesson and directs a discussion about the step or value taught.

In open-share groups, Harper explained, folks share the highs and lows of their week and evaluate “how they’re doing on their road to recovery.”

Bowman shared similar feelings about his meetings with AA.

“AA meetings have helped me live life on life’s terms,” he said. “Life isn’t easy at times, but I’m glad I have a program of recovery to keep me grounded.”

Meetings offer connection to people who, due to stigma and shame, tend to isolate themselves from other people, Harper said.


When social distancing protocols were put it place, he said, “it dropped an algae bloom on our tendency to isolate.” Without this social scaffolding, recovering addicts are much more likely to relapse, he said.

Typically, if a recovering addict misses a meeting or stops going to work, it’s a warning sign that relapse is imminent or has already happened, Harper said. But thanks to coronavirus, everyone is missing meetings and many are not going to work.

“Our physiology doesn’t care whether those things are ‘your fault,’” he said. “It just knows ritual.”

Recovering addicts are having to deal with the mental consequences of relapse without actually having relapse, and that can quickly take a toll on a person’s psyche, Harper said.

Addiction recovery groups of all types had to act quickly to establish alternative means of meeting.

Worthington AA is using a couple of strategies, Bowman said. Some groups are still meeting in person, but with fewer than 10 people. Others are using Zoom to meet virtually. AA members are also checking in with each other individually on the phone and through video chat.

“It’s great to attend Zoom meetings with people across the country and not just locally,” Bowman said.

However, meeting online does have drawbacks, he said.


“Zoom meetings are great, but for some people, they don’t seem to work, as they don’t understand the technology or don’t have access to Internet like others do,” he said.

Harper has seen similar results with Celebrate Recovery. Navigating recovery on a digital platform “is a skill set that, until March, nobody was thinking about,” he explained. “It forced us to be creative in problem solving.”

A few new considerations are now part of open-share groups, which are conducted through Zoom. Celebrate Recovery organizers emphasized that open-share groups needed to remain safe spaces. Zoom’s default is for the program to record meetings and store them on its server. Group facilitators had to learn the process for turning off this function.

During meetings themselves, facilitators require that every participant has their camera on and wears headphones, in order to maintain privacy for everyone. If someone else appears in a group member’s screen, the facilitator can remove that member from the discussion, so no personal information is revealed to anyone outside the group.

The song service and lesson is offered through Facebook live, so people can participate by making comments and asking questions. Harper said that each week, online interaction grows.

“It’s been better received the longer it goes on,” he said.

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