Editors note: In respect of AA and NA’s tradition of anonymity for members, the Gabber is using pseudonyms for individuals quoted with first names. In many cases, but not all, even the gender of the individual has been changed.
Perhaps one of the groups most significantly impacted by the pandemic and subsequent shutdowns are people in addiction recovery. Beginning in late February, virtually every 12-step meeting in the area ceased to function. Most Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings are held in churches, schools or other public buildings – all of which were on lockdown. One or two groups meet outside on the beach, but for a time even the beaches were closed. What was an inconvenience for some with long term sobriety was a real challenge for those just beginning the process.
With the exception of those in professional rehabs or in individual counseling, for the most part people in 12-step programs were forced to fend for themselves – and to find ways to help and support each other.
For a town that sometimes describes itself as “a small drinking village with a fishing problem,” there is an active recovery community in Gulfport. Before the virus there were no less than eight AA meetings and three NA meetings meeting regularly in town. Now, the NA meetings have vanished entirely, and there are only two AA meetings, both meeting outdoors.
Flexibility has been paramount. The Gulfport Beach AA meeting that gathers under one of the pavilions on Gulfport Beach every night except Saturday, found itself at Ted Phillips Wood Ibis Park for a time while the beach was locked down. Pinellas County’s central AA office had its hands full trying to keep up with shifting locations and times to help those seeking meetings.
“While I have about a decade of sobriety from alcohol, the closures and adjustments were hard to keep up with at first,” said Susan. “I was used to there being an AA meeting virtually every hour on the hour, from 7 am to midnight, somewhere in southern Pinellas County. Suddenly many of these groups weren’t meeting or had moved. It was very disorienting. I can’t imagine what it must have been like if you were new to the program when this all began.”
Thomas had just gone to his first couple of NA meetings in late February when the lockdown began.
“I was lucky and I have to pat myself on the back a little,” he said. “I took the advice in the first few meetings I was able to attend to get phone numbers of others in recovery and then used them when meetings vanished. I used phone calls to these folks as a replacement. It wasn’t ideal, but at least I did have some support. People with time were more than willing to help and I did feel connected, even if it wasn’t in person.”
Kelly had no idea he would celebrate his sixth anniversary in sobriety in an online meeting, but says that Zoom meetings “have been a Godsend to me.”
“It’s very convenient to be able to attend a meeting from the comfort of your home,” he says. “If you have the camera positioned correctly, you don’t even have to wear pants! I am wondering if I might just continue to meet this way even after the pandemic is over.”
Jokes aside, Kelly admits the format doesn’t work for everyone.
“There are some people in these meetings that I’ve never met in person,” said Kelly. “Absolutely all of my exchanges with them have been online. I know some people are uncomfortable with Zoom meetings, but they have worked really well for me.”
Alessio Perrone is a licensed mental health counselor and the psychosocial team leader for Empath Partners in Care, an advocacy organization for people with HIV/AIDS. All of Perrone’s patients are HIV-positive and he said many of them struggle with one form of addiction or another – particularly with alcohol and, for gay men, crystal meth.
“Perhaps the biggest challenge many of my patients have had is the isolation that comes from a lockdown,” said Perrone. “For those with addiction problems, isolation can be a really dangerous place to be. Some of my patients have financial issues which preclude them from using a computer at home so Zoom meetings can be tough for them. I’ve been speaking to clients I used to see once every two weeks every week now, or more, because they need some kind of support.”
Perrone said that one thing hasn’t changed in the pandemic: People have to want to get help.
“The first question I ask a client with addiction problems is ‘Do you want to stop?’ If they say ‘no’ there’s really nothing I can do for them. But if they say yes, I’m willing to do just about anything for them, including sitting in front of my office computer to find either online or in-person meetings for them.”