Revamping Recovery in the Age of COVID-19
In the age of COVID-19, with church basements and recovery clubs now mostly empty, recovering substance users are using their creativity and resilience to keep their groups alive. These groups are the life blood of recovery to lead members in accepting the reality of their addiction and focusing their energy on changes they can make in themselves rather than the instability of life around them (AA Big Book, 1939).
Two AA members (using pseudonyms here) express this sentiment in recent interviews. Janice, 26 years sober, says, “There’s a page in the Big Book – page 417 – the first line is ‘acceptance is the answer to all my problems today.’” (The Big Book is the primary text of Alcoholics Anonymous) (personal communication, April 2020).
Stephanie, 12 years sober, echoes that view. For her, the age of COVID-19 means it’s back to basics. “I just have to keep working and do what I was taught early on,” she said. “If I think we’re going to be like this through the summer, then I get nervous. I can only handle today. My sponsor says, ‘When you’re struggling get in the middle of the herd.’” (personal communication, April 2020).
Janice and Stephanie represent just two of many who need the safety of “the herd” during a time that presents a whole new level of challenges to foster resiliency. Though the challenges are many, there are also opportunities that have arisen in the midst of this, as we will discuss later.
What happens when the herd is scattered? When social distancing started in early March 2020 the group rooms started shutting down, which upended the world of recovery groups.
White (2020) notes several of the challenges that these groups are now facing. First, the age demographic of many groups is higher with co-occurring health conditions putting them more at risk for the virus. In addition, those in early recovery are not prepared to handle the compiled stressors on their emotional, relational, and financial well-being.
For those who are just out of treatment programs, the financial strain is especially troublesome. Dave, who works at a local recovery home, sees this firsthand. He shares, “A lot of them have problems filing for unemployment. Money seems to be the biggest issue with a lot of the clients right now.” In a time that most people are just in survival mode, those in recovery are still attempting to establish an entirely new lifestyle without the customary face-to-face meetings. Dave sees this as another obstacle and comments, “I think a lot of people who just came in aren’t going to 3-4 meetings a week because they’re not used to doing that” (personal communication, April 2020).
The groups quickly turned to platforms like Zoom and Facebook in March, but these presented other challenges. Dave said that AA traditionalists used to look down on virtual meetings and still can be wary of technology that is new to them. Further, not every leader has mastered the use of the “mute” button to better guide the group. The technology can also make the communication pretty choppy. “The prayers are the most interesting because if we say the Lord’s prayer or the serenity prayer it’s just voices, voices, voices. If you’re in the room, people say it together,” said Janice.
On top of the emotional, relational, financial, and technological challenges is a harsh reality that remains unchanged in spite of COVID-19. “There are still dealers who are out there selling,” Janice said.
Despite the numerous challenges, the resilience of the recovery community is emerging. “There is a larger, less told story: the remarkable resilience of people in recovery and communities of recovery as they face the threats posed by the pandemic” (White, 2020, n.p.). If acceptance is the goal for the new normal, then resilience is the path.
Some treatment facilities have been able to extend stays for their inpatient rehab programs. Some recovery groups still meet in person, though the handshakes and hugs are not advised. However, the vast majority have migrated to online meetings.
Cherry Hill therapist, Chelsea Laliberte Barnes, MA, LPC, is a Smart Recovery group facilitator and cofounder of Live4Lali. “It doesn’t really feel all that different,” she said. “For one hour a day, people are able to connect and get the tools that they need. That one hour of being in group is an escape for them, just in a different format. I’ve had a number of people say it feels like they’re in a group room because you’re not in a circle, but you’re able to open up and share and say ‘these are my people’” (personal communication, April 2020).
Dave says likewise. “I think people are more comfortable sometimes because they’re in their home in their beds.” Janice adds, “I think some people share a little bit more because when you’re in the rooms in a meeting you have this sense of time. When you’re at home people seem to talk a little bit longer. I think there is more sharing going on.”
Janice cites another advantage of online meetings: access. “There are people who are able to go to a lot more meetings. If they’re in a wheelchair, they don’t have a car, or have anxiety about going out, there is a lot more opportunity to get to meetings. I could find a meeting this very minute just going to some Facebook Groups.” Janice’s recovery circle continues to expand through participation in the AA Worldwide Primary Purpose group. “I’ve sat in meetings with people all over the world, and it’s amazing. People are sharing their experience, strength, and hope.”
While change almost always brings anxiety, people in recovery bring their resilience. “I was surprised one night when I went to an online Big Book meeting and there were two girls in there,” Janice said. “One was just coming back from a relapse and was trying to reconnect, and for another girl it was her first meeting. It was extremely encouraging.”
These attitudes suggest that many in recovery are indeed taking life on COVID-19’s terms. “We can take the precautions, but we can’t change what’s going on around us in the world. We can’t see each other and give hugs and meet up with each other like we have for years, but we will be able to in the future,” Janice said. And there is one thing she’s not been missing: “That awful, bad coffee.”
Perhaps Stephanie best sums up the hope that is going around the virtual rooms: “It may make us stronger once this is all lifted.”
Alcoholics Anonymous: https://www.aa.org/
Online Intergroup of AA: https://aa-intergroup.org/
Faces and Voices of Recovery: https://facesandvoicesofrecovery.org/
In The Rooms: https://www.intherooms.com/home/
Smart Recovery: https://www.smartrecovery.org/
Pseudonyms were used for AA members interviewed above to respect their anonymity. Interviews were conducted in late April 2020.
Anonymous. (1939). Acceptance Is The Answer. This Imperfect Journey. https://thisimperfectjourney.wordpress.com/2012/03/18/acceptance-is-the-answer/
White, B. (2020, May 5). COVID-19 and Addiction Recovery. Faces and Voices of Recovery. https://facesandvoicesofrecovery.org/resource/covid-19-and-addiction-recovery-bill-white-ken-pomerance-ronald-tannebaum/
John Dichtl is a therapist in private practice at Cherry Hill Counseling in Vernon Hills, Illinois. While John has broad experience with many therapeutic issues, his treatment focus includes adults, older teens, and couples work, along with issues such as mood disorders and addictions. John holds graduate degrees in both therapy and theology.
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