The table where the idea of Alcoholics Anonymous was born sits in kitchen of Stepping Stones, the home of Bill and Lois Wilson in Bedford Hills, N.Y. Tuesday, July 24, 2007. Bill Wilson was co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous and Lois was co-founder of Al-Anon Family Groups. Alcoholics Anonymous is temporarily closing many of its meetings across Canada in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19. AA, which typically meets in churches, legion halls, and other public meeting rooms, is directly affected by government mandates to close facilities where groups may gather in an effort to combat the novel coronavirus pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Karen Vibert-Kennedy

Battling addiction in self-isolation: online AA meetings can help

The focus is on still encouraging a connection

When Alcoholics Anonymous groups started cancelling meetings across Canada and the United States amid the COVID-19 outbreak, some of the organization’s Toronto members turned to their cell phones.

What started weeks ago as a group chat to let people know which AA meetings were closing soon turned into discussions on how to set up online versions of the support network.

Now, AA and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meetings are operating nationwide using Zoom, Google Hangouts and other video-conferencing systems.

“I posted a couple weeks ago in our WhatsApp group saying I would host (a Zoom meeting) at our usual time, and it’s kind of exploded since,” an Ontario woman who asked to remain anonymous said in a phone interview with The Canadian Press. “Now the WhatsApp group has hundreds of people in it and basically every Toronto meeting is online.

“There are Google Docs being circulated with all the meeting ID’s, people are sharing links to meetings happening in L.A. and New York and in other parts of the country. So it’s pretty crazy.”

The woman, a Toronto resident in her 30s, has been sober for four and a half years. She attended her first AA meeting in 2014 after opening up to a coworker about her struggles with alcohol.

While self-isolation and social distancing can hit those with addiction problems hard, the woman said she’s doing well. Speaking to her sponsor by phone almost daily, and participating in multiple online meetings per week has been helpful.

“You can join a meeting anywhere as long as you have the code, so it’s accessible for people who maybe I met a few years ago but don’t live in the city anymore,” she said. “I’m getting to see people who I haven’t seen in a long time and it’s honestly allowing me to (connect) with more members, which is something I didn’t expect.”

Dr. Nancy Hurst, a psychologist in Edmonton, said maintaining connection will be key for those suffering with addiction throughout the duration of the pandemic.

She said social distancing and self-isolation can lead some to “fall into a negative mindset and into destructive patterns.”

“For some people that might be eating too much, for some it might be depression, and for others it might be drinking or other kinds of unhealthy addictions,” Hurst added.

Hurst called the online AA meetings “absolutely essential,” and said she would encourage those who need help to find a support group “that fits for them.”

“You can still connect with people, right? It’s not ideal, it’s not the same, but it’s still a support group,” Hurst said. ”It’s people who are struggling with similar issues.”

READ MORE: How B.C. emptied its hospitals to prepare for COVID-19

Jeff Sturgeon, a social worker/therapist in Calgary, prefers to use the term “physical distancing” rather than social distancing to remove connotations of loneliness.

Sturgeon, like Hurst and others in his field across the country, has adapted his own practises to online or telephone sessions in the wake of the coronavirus spread.

But Sturgeon said therapists also have to adapt their strategies to fit the times.

“Clients are saying that the isolation is making their struggles harder, and think about all the coping we teach — it’s all about getting out of your house, being busy and being physically active,” Sturgeon said. “All those things are gone, at this point, to a great degree.

“So the focus now is on how can we encourage connection?”

Sturgeon said that while family and friends will become increasingly important for those with addiction, people need to be creative with how they connect — having dinner over the phone, playing cards together digitally — and making a routine of it.

“Just reminding them that you’re there all the time,” Sturgeon said. ”So video chatting with them, but not just to check in. … We have to create normalcy in our new normal.”

Annina Schmid, an addictions/feminist counsellor in Toronto, says there’s no blanket description for how self-isolation can affect those with addiction problems.

A lot, she said, will depend on where a person is in their recovery. For some, the social pressures to drink will be eased by not being able to go to a bar. But in severe substance-abuse cases, withdrawal symptoms are possible.

Schmid added that domestic violence rates can also increase during this time.

“The concerns are so many,” Schmid said. “Most of the therapists and counsellors that I know though, we all keep working, we’re an essential profession.

“Of course, you run into the problem where that’s only beneficial for those who can afford it or have coverage. … And there’s definitely plenty of resources for AA and NA meetings online, but I think that the change in routine can be really difficult for people.”

Schmid sees other potential negatives to online AA meetings, including a lack of privacy for people self-isolating in a full house. Still, she said, it’s better than not getting help when needed.

“I think that right now the drawbacks are actually not that bad comparatively,” Schmid said. ”In terms of the connection … it’s not less effective than meeting in person.”

The Toronto woman who helped set up one of the first Zoom meetings in the city is aware of those challenges. But she hopes newcomers to AA will think about joining their online sessions.

“It is a little bit harder to connect when you’re not face to face. So that’s been the biggest concern,” she said.

“But we’re really just trying to make it as accessible as possible to people in early recovery. They’re the most vulnerable group right now.”

READ MORE: ‘Nothing concrete’: Tenants, landlords lack details after B.C. unveils COVID-19 rental aid

___

For more information on online AA meetings: www.aa.org/pages/en_US/regional-correspondent-us-and-canada

Melissa Couto, The Canadian Press

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

In photos: Modified, yet traditional graduation gives Penticton graduates a sense of normalcy

Students around Penticton take part in pre-recorded graduation ceremonies

Penticton RCMP arrest man found ‘unlawfully in home’

Police are asking anyone with information to contact them

‘It’s about equality’ says Penticton man rallying for Black Lives Matter

“Canada is not exempt from racism and oppression,” said Geoff Stathers, standing with his #BLM sign

No active confirmed COVID-19 cases in Interior Health: BCCDC

Numbers from the BCCDC’s dashboard show 193 of the 195 COVID-19 cases in the region have recovered

COLUMN: Efforts preserve and promote local agriculture

Farming will remain an important element in the region

22 new COVID-19 test-positives, one death following days of low case counts in B.C.

Health officials urged British Columbians to ‘stand together while staying apart’

‘We either make a difference or we don’t’: Revelstoke teen leads protest in support of BLM

Revelstoke joined cities across the world protesting against racism and police brutality

Cyclist ‘seriously injured’ after collision with dump truck in Kelowna

The woman sustained injuries to one of her legs, according to RCMP

Seniors to receive up to $500 in promised COVID-19 emergency aid in early July

The Liberal government first promised the extra help in mid-May, but had to create a new system to deliver the aid

Kamloops holds Black Lives Matter rally despite cancellation of protest

Organizers announced cancellation of the event after receiving criticism on social media

Helicopter, dogs used in North Okanagan highway arrest

Revelstoke, North Okanagan RCMP team up to nab Alberta man, stolen BMW

Undisclosed video evidence comes to light in West Kelowna murder trial

‘They’ve disclosed hundreds of pieces of evidence. Why would this have gotten missed?’ - defence lawyer

Vernon Walmart staffer finds $7K lost by Enderby business owner

Entrepreneur elated after Walmart worker, who lost his own business to COVID, returned lost deposit

Summerland council to continue online meetings

Virtual meetings remain to comply with COVID-19 restrictions

Most Read