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“All that was missing were the hugs”: Virtual Recovery in the Era of the Pandemic

Updated: Aug 13, 2023

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Michael Brownrigg. Michael recently received his PhD in US history from Northwestern University, where he studied the relationship between emotion, white masculinity, and capitalism to explain the emergence of an antinarcotic consensus in America at the turn of the twentieth century. 

“Important Update regarding meetings,” read an announcement on the website of the Eastern Massachusetts Central Service Committee of Alcoholics Anonymous in early March. “Due to the Covid-19 health risk note that most meetings have been suspended by the host facility until further notice.” Similar posts appeared on the sites of AA chapters across the nation as the novel Corona virus grew increasingly widespread, prompting state and local governments to enact precautionary measures such as closures of businesses, schools, churches—wherever people could gather—to  slow its transmission. As officials encouraged citizens to stay at home and practice social distancing, alcohol and drug addicts found themselves in a particularly precarious state: isolated and struggling to cope alone with the mounting stress of living with the frightening specter of a global pandemic.  

Because of precautionary measures to stem the spread of COVID-19, the sites where traditional recovery meetings were held faced mass closures, disrupting networks and leaving addicts without a vital source of support.

Public health officials warned that the loneliness of quarantine and abrupt rupture to the routines and networks provided by traditional, in-person recovery communities would cause a massive spike in relapses. The disarray pervading American society fostered a cascade of triggers, they argued, that threatened to upend the lives of addicts and sabotage their sobriety. Officials and leaders of recovery communities voiced dismay when contemplating the dire consequences of mass unemployment and its attendant financial hardships, the fear of uncertainty caused by the risk of displacement and dispossession, boredom, absence of structure and routine, abusive home environments, and the deaths of loved ones. Psychologists have suggested that the magnitude and sheer volume of these losses can engender a considerably acute form of grief, what has been called Covid or pandemic grief. Addicts were viewed as particularly susceptible to resorting to self-destructive behaviors when mourning their losses.

These compounding concerns generated a frenzy of action as organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous scrambled to find solutions. Reagan Reed, the executive director of New York’s Intergroup Association of AA, captured the confusion and disorder confronting recovery communities as they searched for answers. “I’m trying to provide up-to-date information as well as alternative ways for alcoholics to stay in touch with other alcoholics and stay sober,” she wrote. “We’re recommending that people keep a close phone network with one another, text each other, and switch over to holding their meetings via Zoom or Google hangouts.” 

Recovering alcoholics, in other words, were encouraged to take it upon themselves to stay connected as officials and volunteers began the transition to online venues of support. AA was but one of the many institutions Americans relied on that seemed on the verge of collapse. This proved especially problematic for older or veteran members of AA forced to learn an entirely new mode and lexicon of recovery. Familiarizing oneself with the strange world of DM’s (direct messages), quit drinking apps, tweets, Instagram stories and posts—the whole social media landscape—was suddenly imperative to remain sober. Even providing financial support for the organization through donations underwent a dramatic shift. In lieu of the petty cash or spare change exchanged at meetings, members were directed to give through Venmo or PayPal. If mustering the desire and commitment to achieve recovery through traditional means was difficult, doing so electronically appeared even more daunting.

And the organization had its own technological issues. Going virtual in such an ad hoc fashion came with a host of complications. Designing and operating the sites often became a logistical nightmare and servers were frequently overwhelmed, frustrating members who were met with error messages when trying to join a group. Even after sorting out these technical problems, the virtual format continued to bedevil users. Attending a meeting now entailed navigating a labyrinth of passcodes to access specially designated links, a precaution required to help prevent the possibility of Zoom Bombing. And then there were the inevitable connectivity issues due to limited bandwidth. As members shared their stories their images were sometimes pixelated, and their voices cut in and out due to lag times. Distortions like these could greatly diminish the power and intimacy inherent in the very act of storytelling. Gestures, body language, and facial expressions are central to how these stories are related and received, how they are embodied by the teller and felt by the audience. The shift to virtual platforms thus threatened a, if not the, cornerstone of AA in its degradation of the narrative form. Technical difficulties even made chanting the Serenity Prayer in unison, a ritual used to conclude meetings, a practice fraught with digital peril. 

“It’s almost sad,” one AA member asserted when lamenting the nature of virtual meetings. “Everybody looks like ‘I wish I could see you in person.’ No one looks that happy right now. There’s just something to be said for close contact and human proximity.” “Sometimes I feel like things aren’t real,” they continued, “until a person says them to you directly. I’m reading the Facebook messages; I’m reading my [recovery] literature. But it’s just not the same thing as someone looking you in the eye and saying, ‘I am an addict. I totally understand where you are, and we’re going to be okay.’” Looking one in the eye is rather difficult when members can opt to leave their webcam off, appearing in the group meeting as a blank avatar with only a screen name. Another member voiced similar concerns regarding the absence of the kind of emotional immediacy of in-person meetings, despairing the loss of organic connections dependent upon physical presence, on human touch. “I had people who took an interest in me and would spend time with me physically,” they said. “We would just sit and have coffee and laugh. I felt a wave of belonging. That whole thing is missing now.”

And then there is the problem of maintaining the virtue of service to others in a virtual setting. Being of service, as it is referred to in organizational lingo, is considered vital to belonging and contributing to AA. The practice helps to reinforce an individual’s commitment to sobriety by creating a sense of attachment and purpose meant to transcend the self. Performing responsibilities at meetings, even tasks as mundane as setting up chairs, preparing the coffee and donuts, and providing newcomers with member phone numbers, are ways of demonstrating accountability to the larger group. The shift to digital meetings thus endangered the notion of fellowship whereby members felt physically and viscerally part of a community where connections were often forged and strengthened, a form of camaraderie further bolstered outside of meetings where they gathered to reflect on how to negotiate and maintain sobriety. “I’m scared for our at risk members and also scared for alcoholics in general without having the meetings that keep us sober,” one member stated, “Online just won’t be the same. We won’t have the fellowship that we so desperately need.”

Yet, despite the technological hazards and initial shock felt by many members who craved the intimacy of traditional, in-person meetings, virtual recovery communities have been a remarkable success. The AA digital platform allows for group sessions to be held at all hours of the day, and can be attended by hundreds of recovering alcoholics from across the globe. One woman in recovery considered being part of the process exhilarating, noting how radical the shift to virtual space was when saying, “It’s pretty magical . . . I feel like I’m lucky enough to see a lot of the grass-roots movement” happening in the recovery community. What many have found to be truly magical is the convenience afforded by virtual meetings that has permitted many individuals to retain a modicum of structure in a period in which they otherwise feel adrift. According to one member, “Being in quarantine is so isolating, but the meetings are a grounding, calm piece of continuity in the midst of the chaos and disruption . .  . They’re the one aspect of my pre-quarantine routine I’ve been able to maintain.” 

Members could also maintain their recovery routines from the comfort of their couch, a much less daunting prospect than attending a meeting in the stereotypically dingy rooms AA is often associated with in popular culture. “For me,” noted another recovering alcoholic, “finding support in the virtual world was less frightening than walking into a rehab facility or an AA meeting.” The digital platform, they believed, provided even greater anonymity and thus a stronger sense of security that prompted them to be more candid and vulnerable when sharing. Additionally, when reflecting on how the geographical diversity afforded by virtual meetings enriched the AA experience by exposing members to a wider variety of experiences with addiction, they asserted that, “I have met a hugely diverse mix of people who have helped me to see how the threads of addiction weave through communities and across state lines.”

Many believed that the cornerstones of AA that others saw as being eroded, namely interpersonal connection and emotional support, also have survived the transition to online platforms. “We’ve done our best to come up with a unique platform which gives the warmth and caring you’d find in any in-person meeting,” Kenny Pomerance, co-founder of the online recovery community In The Rooms, exclaimed. “The only things missing are the hugs.” And while hugging and holding hands may no longer be possible, they have endured as vital features constituting the affective atmosphere of meetings, albeit electronically. When reflecting on the phenomenon of digital transfers of affect in these novel AA settings, the writer and recovering alcoholic Britni de la Cretaz noted that, “My entire mood lifts and I feel more hopeful than I did before I logged on; that feeling of a warm hug comes through, even virtually.” 

Although the nature of virtual meetings has significantly altered the experience of sharing one’s story, emotional connection thus continues to figure prominently in the established rituals of the support group. As one AA member put it, “When someone speaks and shares good news, the screen fills with Brady Bunch squares full of people giving silent applause, dozens of people cheering you on from wherever they are. It’s a sight that makes me tear up each time.” The exuberance may be silent because participants are muted by the moderator, the people cheering are spatially removed, and their expressions of empathy and compassion are filtered through a screen, yet that feeling of human intimacy has remained robust. Heavily mediated, perhaps, but nevertheless a welcomed presence in a world increasingly defined more by its compounding absences, or pandemic grief. 

Netflix’s recently released anthology Social Distance (2020) dramatizes the panoply of experiences with virtual AA described above. “Delete All Future Events,” the show’s first episode, opens with Ike (Michael Colter) sharing how the pandemic had uprooted his life. He first appears in a tiny square on a computer screen, one figure among dozens of other recovering alcoholics participating in a Zoom meeting. Many of the group’s participants listen intently to Ike describe how the recent economic shutdown has imperiled his livelihood, threatening to bankrupt a barbershop business he spent ten years building. But others appear distracted, checking their cell phones, folding clothes, looking at social media, even temporarily leaving to attend to some other task. The screenshot captures how fundamentally different the AA experience can be when conducted virtually, illustrating the importance of physical presence and how connection is largely reliant upon the embodied dynamics of individuals sharing the same space. 

  Screenshot of Ike’s (Michael Colter) virtual AA meeting, showing a new mode of recovery in response to the global pandemic

Unfazed by the disinterest expressed by several attendees, Ike pressed on, sharing how he is grateful for his sobriety despite his litany of troubles. “Because I know what the old me would have done. I would have crawled inside a bottle of Jim Beam and rode this shit out from in there.” “Now these meetings are my lifeboat,” he concluded just prior to logging out of the group session, a faint expression of sorrow quickly supplanting the smile he meekly performed for his virtual audience. The episode excels at showing what happens after the meetings end and the boredom and loneliness set in. Almost immediately Ike turns to scrolling through the contact list on his phone, desperately searching for someone, anyone, to pass the time with. Each conversation seems to end a little too quickly for Ike, leaving him emotionally unfulfilled and craving human interaction. “The first thing they teach you about recovery is not to isolate,” he tells one of his friends when explaining his sober journey. “Well,” the friend responded, “you picked a hell of a time to quit.” Although over one hundred days into sobriety, Ike knows the immediate danger he is in due to quarantine, how the unrelenting boredom, solitude, and, as we find out, lingering pangs from lost love could send him spiraling at any moment. The inherent difficulty of sitting alone with oneself when in recovery comes into sharp focus when he is advised to take extra care of himself and not think about the unfathomable problems afflicting others during the pandemic. “If I focus on myself anymore I’m going to get myself pregnant,” Ike wryly if not a bit forebodingly replied.  

So as not to (entirely) spoil the episode, I won’t get into what causes Ike to succumb to the thoughts that torment his every waking hour (it involves a bizarre relationship with a houseplant). But the larger, more salient point that I think the episode is trying to make is that, ultimately, technology fails to compensate for interpersonal relationships. Ike presumably attends AA meetings daily and, given the abundance of free time, most likely joins several each day. He FaceTime’s his sponsor Gene (Steven Weber) whenever stricken by the urge to drink. And he belongs to several social media sites that keep him preoccupied and ostensibly connected, although mostly to strangers with usernames ensuring their anonymity. Yet all of these means for transcending space and time to remain connected are, in the end, stale simulations of the kind of interactions an at-risk individual like Ike requires to remain sober. All the emoticons and message notifications serve only as emotional surrogates lacking the affective intensity of human contact. It is the conundrum we have all faced in varying degrees: how do we remain in touch in a contactless society or feel close despite the lack of bodily proximity? 

For addicts like Ike, these problems are especially acute. And although the virtual initially failed him, he did what many alcoholics reliant upon traditional AA meetings have done for decades: he went back. Only Ike had to attend by logging in with a passcode via a hidden link. In the final shot, as the camera pans out to show the mass of faces populating his computer screen, Ike is welcomed back warmly and without judgement. All that was missing were the hugs.      



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