On March 16th, I attended my last in-person AA meeting. In the month leading up to that, meetings had grown progressively empty. We sat several chairs apart, we didn't hold hands during the serenity prayer, and the meetings didn't conclude with the typical hugs.
This didn't exactly deter me from attending meetings. Fewer people and less physical contact are exactly my speed.
And yet, I did not exactly feel relaxed, either. And neither, it seemed, did others. Yes, this was in part due to general uncertainty about the pandemic, but there was also a more immediate feeling of uncertainty: Should we really be here? If others aren't showing up, maybe they're onto something?
In that last meeting, a few attendees spoke adamantly about their will to continue meeting in-person. One member piped up that he'd host meetings himself no matter the governor's orders, and no matter if the church closed. Many others were grateful for this. Being at home alone is not good for me, they said. I need this.
I was among those who were grateful. Although I love being at home (regardless of whether it's "good for me"), I also thought the fears of the pandemic were overblown. (Wince.) I thought my fellow alcoholics were simply making excuses to stay inside, to grow lazy in their sobriety, maybe even to drink again.
A week later, I'd caught the bug. No, I wasn't sick, but I was sufficiently fearful of becoming sick. Plus, part of me was a little entranced by the idea of AA on Zoom. I could go without wearing pants, after all. I've never liked pants.
My expectations for Zoom AA were low. Not coincidentally, then, my gratitude was high. If it felt remotely like a meeting, if people talked online the way they did in-person, that felt like a win. Plus, I liked the efficiency of meetings on Zoom: log in, relate, log off. No small talk, no meaningful glances, no one asking how you really are. It was perfect for a socially anxious individual with little intention to change.
In the online meetings, I expected to find only the most committed old-timers. I expected to see people who adamantly refused to disrupt their meeting schedule. Although a few of them showed up, I also noticed an influx of new faces. Some people, it seems, attended their first AA meeting ever over Zoom. Many others came back from a relapse. I was impressed: Really? This is the time you decide to get sober?
Why were so many newcomers showing up? I think it's in part because it's now easier than ever to attend AA. I don't just mean putting on pants; I mean answering the question, "Where were you for the last hour?" I mean finding a babysitter. I mean summoning the courage to drive to the meeting, find the correct room, and identify out-loud as maybe alcoholic. By going online, we removed several foreboding barriers to entry.
Part of me says that easier isn't always better. Perhaps every difficult step is also an important one. Putting on clothes, finding the meeting, and saying things out-loud are all important acts of surrender.
Another part of me knows a different truth: when I first came to AA, I hadn't yet surrendered. I didn't stay because I was desperate; I stayed because I was inspired. I stayed because I identified with the people I heard, because I wanted what some of them had. With AA on Zoom, it's that much easier to click in and to hear a reason to stay. That feels like a good thing.
If AA is "better" on Zoom, this raises a question: should we ever meet in-person again?
My gut response is yes. For one, I have a feeling that my experience is not typical. (I always have that feeling.) I know that some people miss hand-holding and hugs.
For another, despite the fact that I like the Zoom meetings, in the last few weeks my enthusiasm has waned. Although I still appreciate being able to join meetings pantsless and without fear of physical contact, I've noticed that the meetings themselves have begun to feel less significant.
While the content is the same, the way in which I engage has changed. Sometimes, I am simultaneously playing with my cat. Others, I am supplementing my participation with an at-home workout. Just yesterday I organized a dataset in Excel while listening to a meeting. Would you be shocked to hear that I wasn't spiritually moved?
Online or not, newcomers arrive with few expectations. If they're anything like me in the beginning, all they want is to feel less alone, to hear something that makes sense, and to dodge questions until they've had time to think. Four years in, I sometimes want more than that. Listening is not enough. My expectations are high and my gratitude low.
In yesterday's meeting, I felt similarly restless. I wasn’t working out or crunching data, but I was laying in the bath, mic muted and video off. As I struggled to keep my headphones above the water, I heard a visitor from New Mexico matter-of-factly declare that he is a “major fucking dick." The next woman who shared, sober only since Saturday, seemed refreshed by his declaration. "Me too!" A few minutes later, a young girl closed her share by matter-of-factly saying, “I don’t have any answers, I’m just saying that I get what you mean.”
For the split second in between unplugging the drain and toweling off, I was moved. I hadn't heard anything new, and I certainly hadn't contributed anything either. And yet, seemingly despite myself, I had received a gift.
Regardless of whether meetings are in-person or online, AA can simply be a gift. With meetings comes the opportunity to hear from people who sound like me. They are moody, they are distracted, and they are trying really hard - even when it doesn't look like it. Sometimes, they've achieved a level of serenity, humility, or surrender that I can only dream of. Nearly always, they are honest. "I'm a dick." "I don't have the answers." "I'm trying."
Maybe it isn't more complicated than that. Maybe we will find that no matter where or how we meet. Maybe it's a gift, and we need only be grateful.