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Topics: Ethical Living | Society

How AA is reinventing fellowship

During COVID-19, members still find ways to support one another

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Megan* is new to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). A mother of two from Orillia, Ont., she recently escaped the sex trade and went to rehab for alcohol and cocaine addiction. She came out of treatment on January 23 and joined a local AA group for women. For Megan, regular meetings have been critical.

“I’m currently in and out of sobriety,” she says. “If I don’t get to a meeting at least twice a day, then I’m drinking.” But just as Megan got her foot in the door of AA, COVID-19 slammed it shut.

Fellowship forms the backbone of AA. For the last 85 years, members have met in church basements and community centres to exchange stories and support one another in sobriety. There are more than two million members around the world, and for many of them —especially newcomers — a meeting can make the difference between sobriety and relapse.

After COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, churches were forced to close their doors. Then, as the virus spread and governments imposed physical distancing, most AA groups cancelled meetings altogether. Instead of giving up on each other, however, members took their meetings online. 

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Megan, who is 25, had no problem adapting to the new format. In fact, she set up the weekly Zoom meeting for her home group. She logs into other meetings as well, including those she normally can’t travel to. She’s even connected with friends from the treatment home she was in. “It’s actually a really nice way that we’ve all banded together and are supporting each other through this crisis.”

Peter* is on the other end of the AA spectrum. He has been sober since 1993 and has made thousands of friends in the program, from all over the world. “When you walk into a meeting in another country,” he says, “You still feel at home.”

Online meetings have given him the opportunity to see people he’s met on his travels. He has joined Zoom meetings throughout Ontario, one in New Brunswick and another in California. “I think everybody who is in the program and has been here for a while is testing it out, trying to get to other meetings.”

Although Peter appreciates the video meetings, he worries that newcomers are being left out. You need an invite to join a Zoom meeting, and to get an invite you have to share your email —something not everyone is comfortable doing. At a physical meeting, someone usually approaches newcomers to see if they need help and to make them feel at home. With video meetings, you don’t have that opportunity.

“There are things you would talk about in your home group meeting that you don’t necessarily want to talk about online.”

Peter says that in AA, the meaningful connections happen face-to-face. Before a meeting, members socialize in smaller groups, catching up or getting to know one another. Afterwards, some go out for a coffee. People are usually more comfortable asking questions one-on-one than in a group. 

People might not open up as much in a video conference, either. “There are things you would talk about in your home group meeting that you don’t necessarily want to talk about online, when you don’t know all the people that are there,” adds Peter. 

Although video meetings aren’t perfect, Peter hopes they continue. They’ve already expanded the program’s reach to those who can’t leave home — whether they’re in a nursing home, live in a remote area or are suffering from an illness. “This pandemic is forcing us to think about how can we better reach the still-suffering alcoholic,” Peter says.

As for Megan, she’ll keep going to Zoom meetings long after the pandemic is over. They’ve shown her that AA is a global community, one she wants to be a part of. “It’s like one big family,” she says. “No matter where you are, who you are, or where you’re from, you’re welcome, and we’ll accept you with loving arms as long as you have a desire to stop drinking.”

*Name changed upon request.

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