How I've been using free, virtual Alcoholics Anonymous meetings to connect and stay sober while under COVID-19 isolation

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How I've been using free, virtual Alcoholics Anonymous meetings to connect and stay sober while under COVID-19 isolation

AA meeting

  • Hundreds of online AA meetings are now available from all over the world, connecting people in some of the hardest-hit areas of the COVID-19 outbreak.
  • The meetings address a vulnerability for alcoholics - isolation - and help to recreate the community that keeps many sober.
  • AA meetings were held online previously, but never this many, with this many people attending.
  • The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking. You can find online meetings here.
  • In accordance with AA's tradition of anonymity, the author is writing under a pseudonym.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

I recently celebrated 14 years' sobriety. Except, I couldn't actually celebrate, not in the way we usually do in my Twelve Step meetings.

Normally my friends would clap and cheer and hug me while I pick up a "chip," as we call them in AA - a copper medallion with my number of years - XIV - on it.

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But the church in the Castro District of San Francisco isn't holding my "home group" meeting, nor are the churches and recreation centers and meeting halls in New York, and Seattle, and so many other places around the country right now. They are empty of the folding chairs and ancient coffee makers and vulnerable speeches and corny jokes that constitute AA.

We are all in our separate homes. And that can be dangerous, because alcoholics are notorious for isolating, for withdrawing from social situations - sometimes with a bottle.

So on Tuesday night I went to an AA meeting in New York, and one in Seattle. And on Wednesday I went to one here in San Francisco.

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I "went to" the meetings on video conferencing apps, which have been a phenomenon of the COVID-19 lockdowns. The data being shared on Zoom meetings has boomed by an estimated 2000%. A video conference meeting doesn't really take place in any one location, of course - unless that location is the cloud. But groups based all over the world are hosting their meetings online, with their core members and using their format. There are meetings in China, and Italy, and Spain, and New Orleans - seemingly everywhere the virus has been, and many places where its effect is just beginning to be felt.

When I posted on social media about the wealth of online meetings now available - there are hundreds - reporters from news outlets approached me. My employer, Business Insider, asked if I would like to write a piece myself. I'm doing so under a pseudonym to protect my anonymity, and to protect AA from the possibility of seeming like I speak for the program. I do not. This is just my experience.

Now, as for why I am writing this: People need to know - maybe you or someone you are close to - that you can fire up Zoom or Google Hangouts, or Cisco WebEx, or a conference call, and spill your guts to a meeting, or just sit quietly listening. You may have been to thousands of AA meetings, or none. The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking. You can find online meetings here.

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Virtual meetings can help

AA meetings were held online previously, but never this many, with this many people attending. This mass adoption raíces issues about anonymity, and community. Not everyone has a computer. Maybe online meetings are too convenient, and don't provide the experience that has helped millions get sober.

If you drink normally, you may be wondering "Why not just drink - even if you have a problem? Right now, while locked down, who could that hurt?" I can answer that. I drank myself into the emergency room years ago. I know many people who did. Do you think hospitals need that right now? Do you think healthcare workers need to deal with millions of people whose immune systems are severely compromised by binge drinking?

What if we need to drive someone to the hospital? I drove many times in a blackout. What if, drunk, I needed more booze and went on a calamitous excursion to get it?

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Instead, I can try to be of service to someone who is alone or suffering. That service is what keeps me sober.

We don't divulge what happens in AA meetings. (We have a saying: "What you hear here, what you say here, when you leave here, let it stay here.") But I can tell you that folks in the Seattle meeting I attended were feeling the effects of the virus and shutdown very acutely. It was good to be there, to talk and to listen.

More than 100 people were on the video-conference meeting from New York, from all over the world. At the end of the meeting there was a moment of silence that was profound. It reminded me that I am never alone in my alcoholism. I can always, even now, find help and give help.

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Deep in that peaceful stillness, something happened that I will never, ever forget. Someone, somewhere flushed a toilet. And the entire call exploded in raucous laughter. It was perhaps the happiest moment I have had since my city was asked to shelter in place.

Web conferencing is uniting the virus-stricken world, one embarrassing day at a time.

Sam Malone is the pseudonym of a Business Insider employee and a member of Alcoholics Anonymous.

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