By Shereen Siewert
As the words “Cancel Everything” began to trend on Twitter and people joked on social media about self-quarantines with stockpiles of whiskey and tequila, others quietly began to worry what would happen to the 12-step meetings they rely on in their battle against addiction.
Emily, a 55-year-old northern Wisconsin woman who asked that her last name be withheld, said she started attending AA meetings more than 15 years ago and attends meetings almost daily.
Those meetings, Emily said, are the lifeboat that keeps her afloat. Right now, her biggest concern is what will happen if the country or her local community heads toward a lockdown.
“I can’t even think about it,” Emily said. “It’s especially hard for people who are early in their recovery. Or people who could be summoning up the courage to get to that first meeting, only to find they can’t. That can prevent help at a time when it’s so crucial.”
Like everything else, addiction recovery meetings are adapting to the COVID-19 outbreak. And while some areas of the country have ordered full lockdowns, local meetings are still happening in central and northern Wisconsin.
For now, the Alano Club in Wausau is staying open for meetings, according to a group spokeswoman. Sanitizing meeting areas, avoiding holding hands during prayer and reminding people to stay away if they’re sick is the new normal, though additional precautions and changes could also be implemented.
Likewise, the Partners in Recovery Club in Ashland also is staying open for meetings, said Peter Wasson, a former Kronenwetter resident now living in Ashland and celebrated 28 years of sobriety in November. Wasson is also a volunteer at the club.
“It’s such a hard thing to manage because if we turn people away, we may be protecting them from one disease but helping their chronic disease of addiction to flourish,” Wasson said.
More than 20 million Americans experience a substance use disorder, according to the American Addiction Center, though only an estimated 10 percent access treatment. Depending on the severity of their disease and access to economic and social supports, many people struggling with addiction cycle in and out of emergency departments, treatment centers, homeless shelters, jails and prisons.
“Individuals with (substance abuse disorder) are more likely to experience homelessness or incarceration than those in the general population,” wrote Nora Volkow, MD, director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA), in Nora’s Blog, “and these circumstances pose unique challenges regarding COVID-19 transmission.”
Regular meetings are vital to people in recovery all the time, but especially during times when they’re under stress — and this certainly qualifies, Wasson said.
“It’s so important because when we meet and share our fears and insecurities and things causing us stress, it all somehow becomes more manageable – and our impulse to drink or use to help manage the stress diminishes,” Wasson said.
According to a memo on the national Alcoholics Anonymous site, some groups are discussing precautions, while others are creating contingency plans in case they can’t meet in person. Those plans, according to the memo, include exchanging phone numbers, emails and social media accounts so members can check in on one another. Other groups are working toward digital solutions such as Zoom and Skype meetings.
The Alano Club in Wausau and the Partners in Recovery Club in Ashland are among the groups working to put together a schedule of digital meetings that can help, if necessary, to maintain the vital face-to-face contact necessary in battling addiction.
The memo also pointed members to www.aa-intergroup.org, a directory of virtual meetings in different time zones, which are conducted by phone, email, video conference and 24-hour-a-day chat rooms. There are dozens of groups on the list.
For Spanish speakers in rural areas, there’s Grupo Universal de AA, which conducts meetings through Skype. There’s a Wednesday Text Chat for people who are hard of hearing, which uses the Zoom platforrm. A Safe Place serves members of the LGBTQ community, while there are additional programs for family members who need support dealing with a loved one’s addiction.
Social distancing, the primary preventive measure advised by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, poses unique problems for people experiencing substance abuse disorders and attempting to achieve or maintain long-term recovery.
Staying connected, Emily said, is the key to it all.
For additional resources, visit the Alcoholics Anonymous website.