The table where the idea of Alcoholics Anonymous was born sits in kitchen of Stepping Stones, the home of Bill and Lois Wilson in Bedford Hills, N.Y. Tuesday, July 24, 2007. Bill Wilson was co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous and Lois was co-founder of Al-Anon Family Groups. Alcoholics Anonymous is temporarily closing many of its meetings across Canada in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19. AA, which typically meets in churches, legion halls, and other public meeting rooms, is directly affected by government mandates to close facilities where groups may gather in an effort to combat the novel coronavirus pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Karen Vibert-Kennedy

Battling addiction in self-isolation: online AA meetings can help

The focus is on still encouraging a connection

When Alcoholics Anonymous groups started cancelling meetings across Canada and the United States amid the COVID-19 outbreak, some of the organization’s Toronto members turned to their cell phones.

What started weeks ago as a group chat to let people know which AA meetings were closing soon turned into discussions on how to set up online versions of the support network.

Now, AA and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meetings are operating nationwide using Zoom, Google Hangouts and other video-conferencing systems.

“I posted a couple weeks ago in our WhatsApp group saying I would host (a Zoom meeting) at our usual time, and it’s kind of exploded since,” an Ontario woman who asked to remain anonymous said in a phone interview with The Canadian Press. “Now the WhatsApp group has hundreds of people in it and basically every Toronto meeting is online.

“There are Google Docs being circulated with all the meeting ID’s, people are sharing links to meetings happening in L.A. and New York and in other parts of the country. So it’s pretty crazy.”

The woman, a Toronto resident in her 30s, has been sober for four and a half years. She attended her first AA meeting in 2014 after opening up to a coworker about her struggles with alcohol.

While self-isolation and social distancing can hit those with addiction problems hard, the woman said she’s doing well. Speaking to her sponsor by phone almost daily, and participating in multiple online meetings per week has been helpful.

“You can join a meeting anywhere as long as you have the code, so it’s accessible for people who maybe I met a few years ago but don’t live in the city anymore,” she said. “I’m getting to see people who I haven’t seen in a long time and it’s honestly allowing me to (connect) with more members, which is something I didn’t expect.”

Dr. Nancy Hurst, a psychologist in Edmonton, said maintaining connection will be key for those suffering with addiction throughout the duration of the pandemic.

She said social distancing and self-isolation can lead some to “fall into a negative mindset and into destructive patterns.”

“For some people that might be eating too much, for some it might be depression, and for others it might be drinking or other kinds of unhealthy addictions,” Hurst added.

Hurst called the online AA meetings “absolutely essential,” and said she would encourage those who need help to find a support group “that fits for them.”

“You can still connect with people, right? It’s not ideal, it’s not the same, but it’s still a support group,” Hurst said. ”It’s people who are struggling with similar issues.”

READ MORE: How B.C. emptied its hospitals to prepare for COVID-19

Jeff Sturgeon, a social worker/therapist in Calgary, prefers to use the term “physical distancing” rather than social distancing to remove connotations of loneliness.

Sturgeon, like Hurst and others in his field across the country, has adapted his own practises to online or telephone sessions in the wake of the coronavirus spread.

But Sturgeon said therapists also have to adapt their strategies to fit the times.

“Clients are saying that the isolation is making their struggles harder, and think about all the coping we teach — it’s all about getting out of your house, being busy and being physically active,” Sturgeon said. “All those things are gone, at this point, to a great degree.

“So the focus now is on how can we encourage connection?”

Sturgeon said that while family and friends will become increasingly important for those with addiction, people need to be creative with how they connect — having dinner over the phone, playing cards together digitally — and making a routine of it.

“Just reminding them that you’re there all the time,” Sturgeon said. ”So video chatting with them, but not just to check in. … We have to create normalcy in our new normal.”

Annina Schmid, an addictions/feminist counsellor in Toronto, says there’s no blanket description for how self-isolation can affect those with addiction problems.

A lot, she said, will depend on where a person is in their recovery. For some, the social pressures to drink will be eased by not being able to go to a bar. But in severe substance-abuse cases, withdrawal symptoms are possible.

Schmid added that domestic violence rates can also increase during this time.

“The concerns are so many,” Schmid said. “Most of the therapists and counsellors that I know though, we all keep working, we’re an essential profession.

“Of course, you run into the problem where that’s only beneficial for those who can afford it or have coverage. … And there’s definitely plenty of resources for AA and NA meetings online, but I think that the change in routine can be really difficult for people.”

Schmid sees other potential negatives to online AA meetings, including a lack of privacy for people self-isolating in a full house. Still, she said, it’s better than not getting help when needed.

“I think that right now the drawbacks are actually not that bad comparatively,” Schmid said. ”In terms of the connection … it’s not less effective than meeting in person.”

The Toronto woman who helped set up one of the first Zoom meetings in the city is aware of those challenges. But she hopes newcomers to AA will think about joining their online sessions.

“It is a little bit harder to connect when you’re not face to face. So that’s been the biggest concern,” she said.

“But we’re really just trying to make it as accessible as possible to people in early recovery. They’re the most vulnerable group right now.”

READ MORE: ‘Nothing concrete’: Tenants, landlords lack details after B.C. unveils COVID-19 rental aid

___

For more information on online AA meetings: www.aa.org/pages/en_US/regional-correspondent-us-and-canada

Melissa Couto, The Canadian Press

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Julia Strobach. File Photo
Nearing seventh anniversary, Valley RCMP continue search for Julia Strobach

“We know that someone has information that will help us locate her.”

Comox author Loraine Hartley, with a few copies of her debut novel, “My Delightfully Dysfunctional Family.” Photo supplied
Comox author pens novel about life in a blended family

Generally speaking, authors write their books, then determine a title. But not… Continue reading

Police reported more than 2.2 million Criminal Code incidents (excluding traffic offences) in 2019 within Canada- 164,784 more than in 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graeme Roy
Crime Severity Index on the rise with the Valley, Canada: StatsCan

There were 1,450 actual incidents in the Comox Valley in 2019

Joyce Jay enjoys a moment with Georgia, her son Ed’s dog, at her Comox home. Joyce is 103 years old. Scott Stanfield photo
Comox centenarian recalls wartime Britain, moving to Canada

Joyce Jay isn’t one to shy away from adventure. She wanted to… Continue reading

The distance education program through Navigate (NIDES) has been seen some large gains in enrolment. Image, screenshot
Comox Valley school enrolment up despite fewer kids in class

Growth being driven heavily by increase in distance education numbers

Physical distancing signs are a common sight in B.C. stores and businesses. THE CANADIAN PRESS
272 more COVID-19 cases for B.C., outbreak at oil sands project

Three new health care outbreaks, three declared over

Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

This house at 414 Royal Ave. became notorious for its residents’ and visitors’ penchant for attracting police. It was also the site of a gruesome torture in August 2018. It was demolished in 2019. KTW
6-year sentence for Kamloops man who helped carve ‘rat’ into flesh of fellow gang member

Ricky Dennis was one of three men involved in the August 2018 attack

Cpl. Nathan Berze, media officer for the Mission RCMP, giving an update on the investigation at 11:30 a.m., Oct. 30. Patrick Penner photo.
VIDEO: Prisoner convicted of first-degree murder still at large from Mission Institution

When 10 p.m. count was conducted, staff discovered Roderick Muchikekwanape had disappeared

Among the pumpkin carvings created this year by Rick Chong of Abbotsford is this tribute to fallen officer Cont. Allan Young.
Abbotsford pumpkin carver’s creations include fallen police officer

Rick Chong carves and displays 30 pumpkins every year

An online fundraising campaign in support of the six-year-old boy, Edgar Colby, who was hit by a car on Range Road Oct. 25 has raised more than $62,000 in a day. (Submitted)
$62K raised in 1 day for boy in coma at BC Children’s after being hit by vehicle in Yukon

The boy’s aunt says the family is “very grateful” for the support they’ve received from the community

It’s volleyball season at schools in the Comox Valley, in a cohorted environment. Tournament play or matches between schools are not happening during COVID. File photo
Comox Valley Schools re-opens sports at practice level

Comox Valley Schools has re-opened sports at a practice level, but as… Continue reading

Police service dog Herc helped RCMP locate and arrest suspects in the Ladysmith area on Oct. 23, 2020, related to a stolen vehicle. (Submitted)
RCMP nab prolific property offender in Ladysmith with assist from police dog Herc

Police attempted to stop the vehicle but it fled from the area towards Chemainus.

Most Read