No Distancing Required: 12-Step Programs Go Virtual

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No Distancing Required: 12-Step Programs Go Virtual

Life doesn’t look the same right now for most of us, as we practice social distancing, move work and school into our living rooms, and follow government orders to stay home in hopes of “flattening the curve” and ending the COVID-19 virus.


For people who depend on 12-Step programs and in-person meetings to maintain their sobriety, or who start abusing drugs or alcohol during these scary times and realize they need help, can no longer turn to the traditional model of face-to-face support, heartfelt sharing of stories, and the comfort of being in a room full of your peers. You can’t give someone a welcoming hug or an encouraging pat on the back when we are all supposed to stay six feet apart.


Thankfully, technology is giving people in recovery new ways to connect and pursue their sobriety together. This includes 12-Step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) and other efforts to help people get and stay sober.


Do 12-Step Programs Even Work?


People looking for a recovery support group after they have completed addiction treatment can benefit greatly from a 12-Step approach, but it’s important to research your options and determine if a spiritual approach such as AA will meet your needs. If you don’t adhere to the structure of the program or attend meetings, you won’t receive the full benefits. As with any recovery program, you must be fully committed to succeed.


The “Anonymous” portion of these programs makes it difficult to report official success rates. Some members don’t participate in studies because they don’t want to breach the anonymity of the group. Others might not want to admit to relapsing. But some studies have shown promising results about the effectiveness of 12-Step programs.


One study by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs measured the abstinence rates of males recovering from alcohol abuse after 12 months. Approximately 20-25% of those who didn’t attend a 12-Step program were abstinent after 12 months, but the abstinence rate was nearly twice as high for those who attended AA or another similar 12-Step program.


Staying Connected


There is no doubt that the social distancing required by the COVID-19 outbreak is putting a strain on families impacted by addiction. Isolation can be dangerous, especially when it comes to maintaining sobriety. If you have already started a 12-Step program, you don’t want to lose your connection to the tools you have learned to stay healthy and strong. Fortunately, we live in a digital age that gives us many ways to connect electronically—from emails and texts to podcasts and video conferencing. Social media platforms give us a positive way to engage and connect as well. 


A recent memo from the General Services Office of AA confirms that groups that are unable to meet at their usual meeting places have started meeting digitally. Many groups are in the process of making contingency plans in case they are unable to meet in person for a long period of time. These include creating contact lists, keeping in touch by email or social media, and meeting online.


If groups are still able to meet in person, they are making several changes to customs at their meetings as well—for example, not shaking or holding hands, and temporarily suspending all food hospitality.


Remote Meetings


As gatherings of more than 10 people are banned across the country and typical meeting places like churches are closed, remote meetings have become the only option for many. In some ways, remote meetings are a throwback to the early days of AA, when the organization (which was founded in 1935) reached new people primarily by telephone.


Most remote meetings today are dial-in or use video conferencing tools. While the format may take some getting used to, remote meetings are proving to have many unexpected benefits. If the thought of an in-person meeting makes you uncomfortable, a phone call or video chat can be a great alternative. Now that most of us have extra time at home, you may be able to attend more remote meetings than you ever could in person. Remote meetings require no travel time, and there are no geographic boundaries. Even though the attendees are not physically together, they can still share stories, encourage one another, acknowledge milestones, and verbally commit to their sobriety. They are still able to connect—albeit in a different way.


Remote meetings do have some potential barriers. Some people may not have access to the necessary equipment if they are elderly, cannot afford it, or rely on the public library (which is now closed) for computer access. They may have technical difficulties, such as bad connections, to keep them from participating fully. Perhaps the greatest barrier is the hardest to quantify—the lack of physical human connection. This is especially true for newcomers, who typically come to in-person meetings to meet others in recovery and find a sponsor. Obviously, this will be a different experience during a phone call or video chat.


Involvement in AA varies from person to person, but a member of AA usually attends meetings at least once a week (often more) and has regular meetings with a sponsor as well. It will take effort for AA members to coordinate and plan remote meetings, identify who is available to sponsor new people, and other tasks but they understand the importance of connecting in times like these. 


Find Support


It’s likely that many people will discover during this time of social isolation that they are alcoholics or drug addicts. Addiction may thrive in isolation, but recovery thrives in connectedness. You don’t have to fight this battle alone.


The Kimberly Center is here to help you live a healthier, happier, and more productive life, free from substance abuse. Call us at 855-452-3683 to learn more about our programs and take the first step today.

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