As a member of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), I was among themany concerned that I would lose my connection to the community — or “fellowship,” as AA members call it — when COVID-19 shutdowns began last March. As we say in AA, “only meeting makers make it,” as the bonds of our stories in and out of recovery help insulate us from relapse. Thankfully, it quickly became clear that the more than 2 million members of AA were more than ready to adopt virtual meetings. By late March, scores of spreadsheets with Zoom links to existing and sanctioned meetings started making the rounds on email and in private Facebook groups. The AA service offices even posted guidelines for conducting virtual meetings.
One of the things that has particularly struck me in the shutdown era is the amount of what I call “AA tourism” that has taken flight. Almost immediately in the meetings I attend, English-speaking Europeans, Aussies, Kiwis and Canadians were joining in. There were also an increasing number of members from other states showing up. So, I started asking people about it. Some members I spoke with said that finding links to virtual meetings in the city where they first got sober has allowed them to see old friends. Others were simply curious about what meetings in other states or countries are like. Still others were merely taking advantage of the opportunity to add to their traditional number of meetings during the weekor to broaden their connection to the AA program by diversifying their experience. But one thing became evident to me after numerous conversations – people were popping into AA Zoom meetings just about everywhere.
I spoke or corresponded with nine AA members and asked why they have been Zooming in to meetings outside their own cities. To further protect their anonymity, all but one of them has had their real first name and last initial changed. They are aliases. My full name is real.
For Victoria B., a Ph.D. candidate with two years of sobriety, her Irish heritage and a need for a more understanding audience than she’s found in Los Angeles led to her AA tourism.
“I certainly found it in Galway,” she said. “Their manner of speaking is very poetic. They don’t shy away from how they feel, and they often quote writers that are long deceased. It’s very moving, and it’s a way that I wish I was comfortable sharing here in the States.”
In the case of Irene C., virtual meetings have removed barriers to access. Originally from Los Angeles, she’s been sober for 22 years and has lived 100 miles north of Seattle on the Canadian border for the last six years.
“There are not very many sober people in a rural area,” she told me. “Twenty to 30 people is considered a huge meeting up here.”
Further, she added that in the same three hours it might take her to drive to, park, save a seat, enjoy an AA meeting and return home or to work, she can now attend three back-to-back meetings over Zoom.
“We don’t have the hugs and the physical connection, but I think in terms of reaching people in rural areas, or who have odd work schedules, Zoom opens up much more opportunity,” she said.
Mack T., a college professor who’s 33 years sober, agreed that Zoom meetings have been a boon to accessing the AA fellowship.
“I attend a meeting in Portland, Maine, at 5:30 LA time every morning,” he said. “All I have to do is roll out of bed and turn on my computer.”
One AA member has even started a movement to attend a meeting in every U.S. state. Until last fall, the idea hadn’t yet come to Cathy R., a behavioral research scientist with 43 years of sobriety. But since then, she and a large group of women have been making up for lost time.
“It’s turning out to be a tremendous amount of work,” she said. “I now have 47 women on this email list, and we’re going in alphabetical order from Alabama to Wyoming. We’re currently at Louisiana.”
The move to Zoom has also meant more invitations of American guests to attend and speak in far away and unexpected places. Jerry G., a retired visual effects supervisor also with long-term sobriety, was invited to be the featured speaker at a meeting in Tehran, Iran. There was one interesting catch for Jerry in the meeting, however – the platform they used was not Zoom and was unfamiliar to him. There was a question and answer session included in their format, and while he could hear plenty of people speaking Farsi ask him questions, he couldn’t see anyone other than his Farsi interpreter.
“I found the whole thing fascinating, and it got me thinking what it must be like to get sober in a country where alcohol is taboo,” he said. “Was attending a meeting maybe a violation of the law there? Is that why I’m not seeing anybody’s faces? Or is Zoom simply not an available platform in Iran?”
Jerry certainly agreed AA’s move to Zoom has increased access for some groups of people and helped guarantee their viability. He has a grown daughter who is deaf, and as a father, has used American Sign Language (ASL) to communicate with some AA participants for years.
“Working to incorporate ASL interpreters at meetings is an expensive proposition, and there may not be an ASL interpreter nearby in person,” Jerry said. “But on Zoom, we’re able to work with deaf interpreters from anywhere.”
Mack T. was another guest speaker at the meeting in Tehran. He has also attended meetings in Panama and Germany and French-speaking meetings in Geneva and Montreal. Remarking on a meeting in Berlin, he joked, “They smoke a little bit too much for me. Hey, even if it’s on Zoom, they are still blowing smoke in your face.”
Perhaps most intriguing is that eight out of my nine interview subjects now attend more meetings via Zoom than they ever did in person. I personally attend eight per week over Zoom where I once attended five in person.
The question now is whether Zoom meetings will continue post-pandemic or at least after an “all clear” from government and health officials. There is consensus among my interview subjects that there is too much demand for them not to continue. Some meetings will return to in-person, while others are already experimenting with a hybrid format involving a combination of a handful of socially distanced members in person with a camera setup for those who would rather join via Zoom. Harry D., a delegate to the Los Angeles AA Central Office Service Committee, said service offices were already discussing guidelines for an appropriate hybrid meeting format and even how those meetings should be listed in the official AA meeting directory.
However, one thing is certainly clear: The members I spoke with shared a significant belief that Zoom helped with the increase in meeting attendance as well as the diversity of meetings and formats in other cities or countriesthey discovered. Most also agreed that it has benefitted their personal growth in sobriety.
“I definitely think I am more connected to the fellowship because of Zoom,” said Irene C. “I got a new sponsor through Zoom and that has certainly helped my sobriety.”