Coping With COVID-19 Crisis: A Connected Friend Of Bill W’s On Staying Sober And Recovery In The Age Of Isolation

Editors’ Note: With full acknowledgment of the big-picture implications of a pandemic that has already claimed thousands of lives, cratered global economies and closed international borders, Deadline’s Coping With COVID-19 Crisis series is a forum for those in the entertainment space grappling with myriad consequences of seeing a great industry screech to a halt. The hope is for an exchange of ideas and experiences, and suggestions on how businesses and individuals can best ride out a crisis that doesn’t look like it will abate any time soon. If you have a story, email [email protected]

“Adversity truly introduces us to ourselves,” the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous declares. Certainly for so many, recovery from booze or drugs or both is a constant battle, no matter how many days, weeks, months or years sober or clean they are and how many chips they have acquired. Now, along with job losses, subsequent economic challenges and more, add to that battle the stress of living in the coronavirus pandemic. Suddenly, face-to-face support systems like dropping into a 12-step meeting evaporate as stay-at-home orders keep us isolated to flatten the curve, but struggling in other ways.

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Today we have a poignant column fittingly penned in anonymity by a longtime member of the entertainment industry who reveals their journey the past few weeks in this unprecedented era. It comes at a time when technology has taken on a new role for those in AA and other programs, and a different kind of learning curve has kicked in.

By the way, the rest of that Big Book quote is: “We need never deal with our adversities alone as long as we can find another alcoholic in a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous.”

***

My name is M. and I’m an alcoholic.

Like my brothers and sisters in the program of Alcoholics Anonymous, I struggled with the characteristic “restlessness, irritability, and discontentedness” for years – until I discovered drugs and alcohol. They had a magical power to fit the shape of every hole inside me, plaster over all the surface cracks, and buoy me in the rough seas of my everyday life.

Then, as it does, my medicine became my poison.

My attempts to manage the side effects quickly gave way to absolute dependence, widespread disappointment, the erosion of trust and relationships, the collapse of executive function, and total system failure.

Not a minute too soon, the program, meetings, and fellowship of AA began to work together to build me a new life centered around emotional honesty, acceptance and sobriety; three ideas which heretofore had no value to me. Now, in my second tour of sustained abstinence from drugs and alcohol, I can scarcely imagine life without those notions, in or outside of AA.

In the weeks before the coronavirus forced major cities into lockdown, I attended about one Alcoholics Anonymous meeting a week in person, sometimes fewer when traveling for work. Having attended meetings in the likes of Mumbai, Tokyo, Zagreb, Cape Town, Barcelona and Buenos Aires, this is both a poor excuse and a simple statement of fact. There are AA meetings absolutely everywhere, and now they are pushing their way into my laptop screen.

To support a program built around the simple idea of two alcoholics sharing their experience, strength, and hope; and for a community framed by hugs, hand-holding, tight rows of folding chairs, meeting greeters, and face-to-face confessionals; what AA has done in the face of the new reality of COVID-19 isolation is truly remarkable.

Two weeks ago, while I was still in New York City on a job that was about to be shut down, I got a group text proposing that we migrate our Thursday stag meeting to the Zoom platform. We had our first such online meeting a few days later.

It worked well enough, pretty much everyone was visible/audible and the novelty of communing in this way was exciting. There were the guys with the art directed backgrounds arriving well-lit and presentable, the guys with their faces super close to the camera looking like every dad selfie on Facebook, and the newcomers with no video who can’t manage to find the mute button or shut up their dogs or kids. It was great to hear them all.

It was proposed that we hold the meeting every night at the same time.

OK, great.

Then a friend from New York set up a Zoom meeting as well. Then another out of LA. Then another. And another. Then this morning, I received a Google Doc containing links and information for 491 Zoom meetings around the world.

After a few days of doubling and tripling up on meetings, I found I didn’t have much to share beyond re-emphasizing that I still enjoyed being isolated, how I felt about the latest COVID-19 stats, and that I was grateful.

Truth is this was more recovery than I had seen in months and it was wearing me out.

Continual group texts reminding me of upcoming meetings interspersed with unrelated memes or Mr. T Gifs forced me to mute the chains. I had to pull back. I was feeling put-upon, and I was getting resentful.

Still, I know for many that the platform works well and, by and large, the message gets through.

Yet, and this is my take, it is hard to imagine that this model is sustainable. In my opinion, and this may simply be an insurmountable reality of this pandemic right now, the digital meeting is missing two key things: equal access and human contact.

In a pre-coronavirus era, the only price for admission to a church basement AA meeting is a memorable enough ass-whooping, a desire to stop drinking or drugging, and maybe a dollar if you have one. That’s it. In exchange, you get to be sober for a day, maybe tomorrow too if you are willing to do the work.

By comparison, to attend an AA meeting on Zoom, one needs a smart phone or computer, some basic degree of online literacy, and an invitation from another drunk with same. Surprisingly, this simple list of prerequisites now precludes the attendance of a number of alcoholics who may be skittering along their own personal bottoms without a phone or a home, but who nevertheless have their valuable experiences.

Often, it is this very Group of Drunks whose carnal testimonies have a way of reinvigorating the base and reminding those of us more comfortable in sobriety of our own humble beginnings in AA. Their presence also re-opens our eyes to the fact that continuous sobriety is dependent upon a willingness to help those still struggling to get this thing.

I have been to plenty of meetings with alcoholic men and women who will have their only meal of the day (coffee and a donut) at that meeting. Yet these same individuals also have an astonishingly profound understanding of the principals of AA, of human nature, and the willingness to share these insights with the group such that their words can move even most closed-off alcoholics to take the first step.

AA, specifically the actual AA meeting itself, has a way of bringing together people who would not usually mix.

The Big Book of AA likens this phenomenon to one of a shipwreck, wherein surviving passengers from different classes of service and walks of life suddenly find themselves sharing in an intense and life-changing event, forging a connection between them that cuts through class, race, age, gender or any other qualifier one might wish to assign a person.

Life as an active alcoholic or addict is a tough row to hoe. When one’s medicine becomes one’s poison, the best one can hope for is to manage the side-effects while on a steep downward spiral.

By contrast, to be an alcoholic as a sober member of AA is another experience entirely; hope is restored, the world is revealed, the expression “multiply joy, divide pain” comes to mind. When I meet someone who casually drops an AA-ism into a conversation or orders a cranberry and soda at dinner with the client, the kinship I suddenly feel towards them is so incredibly extra.

We alcoholics have grown reliant on in-person human contact and cross-cultural diversity for our very survival.

Now as humans forced to live in isolation during these COVID-19 times, the closing of in-person meetings and their migration to digital platforms will probably work to homogenize the groups that went digital, and at least temporarily dismantle others. On hold too are the Hospitals & Institutions panels, where members urgently bring meetings to rehabs and jails.

I do worry that this isolation will break down the fabric of diversity woven into our recovery culture. I also know that with confirmed coronavirus cases growing every day that shuttering such in-person gatherings is the only responsible thing to do.

Additionally, I deeply appreciate the Zoom meeting secretaries who make sure, even in the face of a global health pandemic, to still stick to the format, manage the time, assign the readings, and run the whole thing by the quasi-Robert’s Rules of Order which we have adopted.

After thousands of these meetings, there is a certain ol’ reliability to the rhythm of a well-run AA meeting. It has a way of keeping everyone in their lane and focused on the same thing: sharing from the heart about their experience with alcoholism and how they are staying in the solution.

So, yes, things are different, but in these uncertain times, with fear run rampant, I am still so grateful to still have a community of friends with whom I can continue to share my feelings, my struggles, my joy – and for a weirdly OK digital platform on which to convene.

I’ll keep coming back.

A list of online meetings can be found here. Thankfully, many of these meetings can be accessed with just a regular phone, so call if you need to.

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