One thing I’ve always hated about Alcoholics Anonymous meetings is the part where you hold hands at the conclusion and say the ‘Serenity Prayer’ together. It’s not the prayer itself that I object to; it’s the cutesy addendum we recite: “Keep coming back, it works if you work it, so work it ‘cause you’re worth it”. After a powerful and soul-restoring fellowship, it can feel like being mugged by a Ned Flanders-fronted L’Oréal ad.
The “keep coming back” part is a key message though, and one that’s been impossible to adhere to with the outbreak of Covid-19. Recovering alcoholics need meetings, but meetings aren’t healthy places to be right now, especially if there’s hand-holding. Fortunately, there are a number of meetings online – some of which have existed for a while, and some that have sprung up in reaction to the challenges everybody is now facing.
As someone new to this world, I’ve found that the Skype meetings are similar to what I’ve been used to, and the Zoom-based meetings have followed a more secular format with fewer traditions in place – though I must stress that is only my own experience so far. Other tips I can share include figuring out the time lag between your time zone and Eastern time, and making sure you arrive 15 minutes early if you’re desperate for a meeting given that Zoom’s capacity is capped at 100 participants.
I know what you’re thinking: the first rule of AA is that you don’t talk about AA. So why am I waiving my anonymity? Perhaps because finding meetings online can be fiddly. It’s important to state that I don’t represent AA in any capacity, but it took me a few days to figure out how to find these meetings, despite having been sober for nearly 10 years. I also know I’m not the only one, and that now must be a particularly confusing time for anyone new to the programme. The present is a deeply strange time to be trying to get clean. I found it deeply surreal when I woke up in a psychiatric ward bed in 2010 after a punishing three-month bender; I can’t begin to imagine what a global pandemic would have added to that experience.
For the uninitiated, Alcoholics Anonymous was founded during the dust bowl depression era of the mid-’30s in Akron, Ohio by two men who had run out of ideas and answers. They realised in coming together that only alcoholics could assuage each other’s problems. Bill W., as he was known, wrote what has come to be known as the “Big Book”, and while some of it was specific to its time, it has remained surprisingly durable and effective since then, with the programme Bill W. and Dr. Bob devised serving as the cornerstone of all subsequent 12-step recovery programmes. Anyone who has attended a meeting will notice the peculiar aphorisms, the shibboleths and the occasionally grating platitudes. It can be daunting navigating your way in, and the mention of “God” – whether that’s the Christian God or a “God as you understand him” – can be off-putting (especially if you’re an atheist, or understand God to be a “her”).
For 75 years, AA has remained largely the same, but with this crisis I anticipate many more meetings springing up online and staying online. In a world where everything has been available at the push of a button, it makes sense that you can hop onto a platform and listen to people from all over the world spill their guts, while you chat with other recovering addicts online.
Furthermore, meetings online may be better tailored to your needs. In the town I live, it’s more difficult to find agnostic or atheist-based meetings, but there’s an abundance online if you know where to look, and I expect them to proliferate as this crisis continues. You may not be meeting face to face with a sponsor, and you may not be receiving a huge enveloping hug from somebody who has been through an experience similar to you: but during a pandemic where we’re in lockdown, an online meeting might just keep you sober.
Lastly, recovering alcoholics are advised to monitor their sobriety one day at a time, never looking too far into the future. It’s a simple transferable philosophy that may help in the coming months.
And the ‘Serenity Prayer’ is worth remembering, whether you want to use the word “God” or not: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”