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Messenger: An alcoholic finds comfort in digital family, as pandemic shuts down meetings

Messenger: An alcoholic finds comfort in digital family, as pandemic shuts down meetings




Patrick is an alcoholic.

A couple of weeks ago, he did something he’s been doing weekly or more for 10 years.

He went to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.

He doesn’t go to the same location each time, but he has his favorites. There are about 100 such meetings a day in St. Louis, morning to night, in church basements and back offices and dedicated AA halls throughout the region.

“If I’m not in regular contact with people who are also committed to sobriety, I can easily lose sight of how important it is to my life,” Patrick told me. He’s 48 and lives in St. Louis. He asked that I use only his first name, as AA values anonymity.

After that meeting in mid-March, everything changed. The coronavirus pandemic quickly shut down any meetings of 50 or more, then 10 or more, and now in both the city of St. Louis and St. Louis County, stay-at-home orders issued by Mayor Lyda Krewson and County Executive Sam Page make face-to-face meetings with his fellow alcoholics virtually impossible.

For people like Patrick, the new normal that is self-isolation creates a special set of worries.

“This pandemic provides a perfect opportunity to isolate, which is often the first step to relapsing,” he says. “I have been sober for just over 10 years, but it’s something I have to work at consciously. I’m not struggling on a minute-by-minute basis, but there’s enough alcohol in every single grocery store within a mile of my home to finish me off. I’m aware of this and that’s why I go to meetings. In addition to the opportunity to meet great people, they keep me accountable.”

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Enter Zoom, the now prolific web video meeting service that is being used by schools, businesses, and yes, Alcoholics Anonymous.

Last week, Patrick attended his first AA meeting remotely.

He was skeptical at first, but has quickly become a fan of the digital AA meeting.

“I was caught a little off guard at how powerful it was to connect with the people I know and love, people I support in sobriety and in life and who support me,” he said. “Over the past several years, I’ve been hypercritical of what I’ve snidely referred to as computerized communications. This bizarre era we’re entering is changing my tune already.”

While some local meetings have gone dark, many have made a transition to meeting remotely. The national AA organization sent a letter to local chapters with resources on how to take their meetings online.

Patrick worries about the new attendee, the person who finally realized he or she had a problem and needed help, who worked up the courage to attend an AA meeting and now won’t have the personal touch. No  handshakes, no hugs nor the camaraderie of a new family.

But he hopes they will give it a try anyway.

“The online meetings (both those I’ve been to and those I’ve heard about from others) have been notably larger, with people attending via Zoom as well as just dialing in on a conference number. I’m not crazy about video meetings but it was powerful to actually see people,” Patrick said.

“It is important for people who are just starting out in sobriety to be able to attend meetings and know that there’s a lot of support for them and what they’re going through. Nobody does this alone. I got sober in a room of familiar faces and voices. We held hands when the meeting was over and hugged each other and passed snacks around and had potlucks. I cannot imagine getting sober under these conditions, but I’ve been amazed thus far by the technology. I’ve been a naysayer on most things Internet-related for the past decade, but it’s really proving its value in terms of helping people get connected in some very important ways.”

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To find an AA meeting in the St. Louis region, go to aastl.org/meetings or http://eamo.org/, which also contains a list of online meetings.

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