I haven’t sat in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in 11 weeks. For the past 11 years the longest I’ve been without a meeting is five days, and I normally try and do four a week.
They may not look glamorous when you see them on television and in films - and indeed they’re usually really not - but they give me the uplift of identification and spiritual therapy I need to keep my disease under control.
Somehow, sitting in an old community centre, on a plastic seat with a mug of instant coffee and faded calico banners on the wall, listening to how people burnt their lives to the ground with alcohol and then rebuilt them with the help of AA, is what I need to stay well.
Because, the thing is, alcoholism is more a disease of the mind than a disease of the bottle. Without regular meetings and a 12-step program to follow, my underlying mental issues start to build and a drink can seem like a good idea, whatever proof I’ve had in the past that it’s really not.
Without regular meetings and a 12-step program to follow, my underlying mental issues start to build and a drink can seem like a good idea, whatever proof I’ve had in the past that it’s really not.
A mixture of low self-esteem, over-sensitivity, anxiety, self-pity, lack of perspective, selfishness and resentment start to bubble up. A general uncomfortability that my demons can still subtly tell me can be taken away by alcohol.
The last time I sat with a group of alcoholics and shared was back on a Sunday night in late March, on camping chairs outside of our normal meeting hall. Community centres had been shut and the lockdown was starting at midnight that night. A few of us met in the moonlight without banners.
Now, on some level, I’m being pedantic here.
I haven’t ‘sat in a meeting’ for almost three months, but I’ve attended them regularly online via the many Zoom AA meetings that have been held. And it’s been - literally - a life-saver. But with caveats.
There have been some massive positives with online AA meetings: No travel; a comfy sofa rather than a plastic chair; better coffee; and you can even attend in your pyjamas. (Although I’ve actually done that in real meetings anyway, in my slightly mad earlier days). You can attend as many meetings as you like, when you like. You can also virtually travel to other meetings around the world. I’ve tended to stick to my normal local meetings with the people I know, but many friends have attended meetings in Dublin, or LA, or London.
The meetings have also been great for older people - I know many members in their 70s and 80s who have been able to attend meetings more than normal. For single mums, muting the Zoom microphone when needed is far easier than getting a babysitter. There is discussion going on that Zoom meetings should continue when restrictions are lifted - either replacing or being run in parallel to existing physical meetings.
The meetings have also been great for older people - I know many members in their 70s and 80s who have been able to attend meetings more than normal.
For myself and many of my peers though, we miss the human connection of meeting in person.
There is a thought - Russell Brand is one proponent - that connection is the opposite of addiction, and I’m a strong believer in that. And while watching people share on Zoom gives a measure of identification, I don’t feel it the way I do when I’m in a room with them. Whether we’re socially distanced or not. Intellectually I take in what they’re saying, but I don’t connect on a deeper level with it. I don’t get the genuine change of emotion that I need to keep my spirits uplifted. To some extent I feel I’m going through the motions.
I’m also far too aware of myself. I can see myself the whole time the meeting is running, as well as the homes of the speakers. There are too many distractions. I can’t lose myself in what they’re saying. I guess it’s like the difference between watching a film like Dunkirk at the cinema or on your phone. And to an extent you’ll have felt it with your colleagues if you’re working from home and meeting via Zoom.
Aside from my own selfish concerns, the thing that worries me most is that I haven’t been seeing many newcomers. And we’re living in conditions where alcohol use is up by 40 per cent and depression and anxiety are more rife than ever.
We’re living in conditions where alcohol use is up by 40 per cent and depression and anxiety are more rife than ever.
I’m lucky that the majority of my friends these days are other recovering alcoholics and drug addicts. I can call people or go for a walk and a chat with an alcoholic mate. The whole basis of Alcoholics Anonymous is based on one alcoholic talking to another - and I have the ability to do that easily. I’ve also worked through a 12-step program. And while I can never be complacent, the passage of time means that I don’t crave a drink in the way a newcomer does.
I’m not sure I could have got sober in the current situation, though. As important as the meetings were in my early days, it was the interaction before and after them that really helped get me well and cement me in AA. The old timers shaking my hand and offering a few kind words. Saying I was looking a bit healthier. The guys who had been sober a long time and already been through what I was experiencing, who would take the time to talk to me for an hour in the car park afterwards, listening to my problems. A handshake and a pat on the shoulder when I needed it most.
In the next month or so we should be back at physical meetings. Maybe a touch of the elbow rather than a handshake for now. But I want to go back to sitting with my mates, I want to feel a connection on a deeper level, and I want to look into a newcomers eyes and tell them it’s going to be okay.
*Name has been changed
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