What does COVID-19 mean for alcoholics?

To be clear, I’m not asking what COVID-19 means for practicing alcoholics.

I’m assuming that, for people who still drink, the virus won’t interfere too much with their ability to get to the liquor store. (Nothing ever did.) Isolated drinkers where I live, in Washington, will breathe a sigh of relief that their basement never held more than 250 people to begin with.

For social alcoholics, I suppose the bars may be a bit more sparse. People who like drinking but don’t need to drink may make the decision to stay home. But maybe that's no real loss. When I drank, I was always suspicious of those who could “take or leave it.”

Practicing alcoholics, I think, are less at risk of lifestyle interference than we who are sober. Already, I’ve noticed that meetings are more scant. When we say the serenity prayer, we touch elbows, not hands. Earnest attempts at homemade hand sanitizer litter the tables. At one meeting, a phone list was passed around in the event we needed to hold phone meetings instead.

What will happen if alcoholics in recovery can’t gather?

At a different meeting last week, the question was asked: What will happen if alcoholics in recovery can’t gather? What if the threat of COVID-19, real or perceived, means people can’t or won’t show up? For many of us, our recovery is based on our ability to gather with likeminded others, others who have what we want and are willing to tell us how they got it. For some, even, dependence on AA is inseparable from a dependence on God. For some, God stands for Group of Drunks.

All along, we’ve been saying that meeting makers make it. People who relapse say the slippery slope started with fewer meetings. For those who recover through AA, attending meetings is indispensable to staying sober.

The real risk, I think, is tricky to ascertain. For one, after doing next to no research, I have absolutely no idea how much risk we really are at, should we continue to show up at regular rates. I know how many cases have been reported, and how many have reportedly died, but I don’t know whether either of these numbers is correct.

I also don’t know where that number came from: No more than 250 people in a room? I’m not likely to attend any event with that many people, simply on principal.

But my own university insists on no gatherings of larger than 50. I suppose, now that I think about it, I’d hate to attend an AA meeting of that size too.

If I look to the media right now, I have no idea how much to worry. I don't even know what, exactly, to worry about. But when I look to AA’s fourth tradition, it seems like maybe nothing much at all. “Any two or three alcoholics gathered together for sobriety may call themselves an AA group provided that as a group they have no other affiliation.”

“Any two or three alcoholics gathered together for sobriety may call themselves an AA group provided that as a group they have no other affiliation.”

Two or three. That means that if you know even one other alcoholic in recovery, and the two of you can find a real or virtual space to share, you can have a meeting. (Provided you aren’t also in the same book club, I guess.)

If we have a will to keep our meetings, we aren't at risk of losing them.

And while we're at it, a word on will. I don’t want to undermine the power of meetings, nor do I want to get into philosophical debates (ok, maybe I do), but it seems like the intention or willingness to attend a meeting - regardless of whether you make it - must count for something. I would imagine that the slippery slope of relapse doesn’t begin with not attending meetings, but with not being willing to attend meetings. Someone who shows up to a meeting only to find it canceled or nonexistent has still taken a life-saving step. Someone who can’t leave the house due to sickness or injury might choose to read the literature instead attending a meeting. The will of these people must count for something.

Although I often hear it said that meetings are integral to recovery, I hear the same thing said of the steps. We are cautioned that even the most adamant “meeting makers” may relapse if they don’t work the steps. It is, of course, impossible to work the steps in isolation, but can we still work the steps with a virus in the air? Indeed, can we work the steps on the very virus we fear?

I would argue yes. For me, global pandemic or not, changing my relationship to fear has been a central and ongoing process in my sobriety.

Something tells me that COVID-19 need not weaken our sobriety. Indeed, it provides an opportunity to strengthen it.

The following passage from Step 3 may be too dramatic a comparison to our present situation. Regardless, I think the sentiment is fitting.

"Dependence upon an AA group or on a Higher Power hasn't produced any baleful results. 
    When World War II broke out, this spiritual principle had its first major test. A.A. dependence on a Higher Power had its first major test. A.A.’s entered the services and were scattered all over the world. Would they be able to take discipline, stand up under fire, and endure the monotony and misery of war? Would the kind of dependence they had learned in A.A. carry them through? Well, it did. They had even fewer alcoholic lapses or emotional binges than A.A.’s safe at home did. They were just as capable of endurance and valor as any other soldiers. Whether in Alaska or on the Salerno beachhead, their dependence upon a Higher Power worked. Far from being a weakness, this dependence was their chief source of strength."
12 & 12, pp. 38-39

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