How 12-Step Groups Are Coping Amid Coronavirus-Enforced Shutdowns: "We Need Each Other"

Virtual meetups on Zoom have skyrocketed in recent days as the coronavirus pandemic has led to the closure of meetings where alcoholics, drug addicts, gamblers and sex and love addicts have gathered to focus on recovery.
(YURI KADOBNOV/AFP via Getty Images)
A 12-step meeting.

“To all my fellow recovering addicts and mental health strugglers, I see you and I love you,” reads a recent tweet from social media savvy Andy Lassner, an executive producer of Ellen who has frequently posted about his recovery. It’s a message that hits home, literally, for anyone in recovery now as the coronavirus pandemic has forced isolation amid widespread shutdowns in church basements, city buildings, anywhere where 12-step groups meet to focus on recovery.

For many, it’s a daily practice that's been derailed as the crisis has grown, delivering an unprecedented challenge to those in Hollywood and beyond who have gone from a generous selection of more than 300 in-person meetings a day in the L.A. area to zero in a matter of days. The solution? Zoom and other online platforms that have filled the void introduced by self-isolation. Multiple 12-step sources The Hollywood Reporter spoke with in recent days say that there’s been a flurry of text messages and emails between members with links to Google docs and virtual meeting listings with the same message: “Pass it on!” One such list, created in mid-March, now has close to 300 meetings. "The bottom line is that recovering people will find a way to have a meeting," explains Beth S., a 12-step group member.

Some groups were still meeting when the March 16 week started, despite recommendations by health officials to limit group activities that exceeded 10 or more while maintaining social distancing practices of staying six-feet apart. A few members reported practices that included not holding hands or hugging while others say it was business as usual — until it wasn't. Even the meetings that were still available prior to March 19 were forced to go dark when L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti announced the “Safer at Home” order for the next month, a mandated quarantine designed to “flatten the curve” of coronavirus transmissions. Activities that are allowed include medical appointments, grocery store runs, pharmacy or medical supply runs, bank and post office visits, gas station and auto repair shops, public transit, walking, biking and driving. But no meetings.

“We depend on structure and we depend on each other,” says one member who, out of respect for their 12-step group’s tradition of anonymity, declined to be identified. “It’s an unusual world, but many of the 12-step fellowships already had online or phone available and now there's just a huge increase in traffic." A rep for online recovery platform InTheRooms says its been more than huge — that site reports a 400% increase in traffic and more than 10 times the normal new member signup.

It's not just Alcoholics Anonymous that has been affected. Narcotics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, etc. have all faced widespread meeting closures and all of the groups have taken the rare move of issuing statements posted to the organization's respective websites to address the crisis though, per traditions, none dictate what groups should decide. Per the nature of 12-step traditions, groups are autonomous, meaning that individual meetings are dictated by group conscience whether to continue meeting or not.

For example, OA's World Service Office released a statement that reads: "Providing guidance on health issues is outside the scope of the OA sharing that the WSO offers. However, we might suggest contacting your national, state/provincial and local health authorities for appropriate information." SLAA's statement simply outlined the actions of individuals and some groups including temporarily suspending the practice of holding hands, passing the basket to collect monetary donations, providing hand sanitizer and allowing additional space between chairs. 

Experts note that structure, routine, connection and meetings are cornerstones of a successful recovery program and without any piece of that puzzle, some may struggle to stay on a successful path. Best-selling author Anne Lamott encouraged her 217,000 followers to seek out online and Zoom meetings, tweeting, “These couldn’t be more weird, stressful times, when without a loving community, one’s mind might get a little…funny, let’s say. As the saying goes, your mind is a bad neighborhood — don’t go in it alone.”

Nanea R. founded Online Recovery Group when coronavirus crushed meetings in the U.S. The website now lists meeting directories for L.A., New York, Northern California and other areas as well as its own lineup of meetings. “It went viral very quickly,” she explains. “Our first meeting [on a recent Sunday] had three people, the next one had 80 and now we are well over 200 per meeting and growing. We’ve had people dialing in from all over the world, including Tel Aviv where they are on a full shutdown. ... Many of us have been saying in online meetings that if we were still drinking and using drugs this would be the perfect environment to self-destruct — fear of the unknown, lack of support, isolation, financial insecurity. The online meetings help us stay grateful for what we have and that includes each other, our sobriety and the fellowship."

Robert, a working actor, tells THR that he’s in charge of fielding calls for a 12-step hotline and it’s been a challenging time, particularly for people trying to get sober as they have no physical rooms to go to where they are typically embraced and encouraged by other members of the program, a vital ritual in the the path to staying clean no matter the vice. “Everything is closed,” he said, “and that’s tough if you’re trying to kick anything right now. You’re going to have to work extra hard to stay. The entire time I’ve been sober, I’ve never seen meetings blacked out — ever. We have a policy that says, ‘We’ll always leave the light on for you,’ and it’s so weird to see every single meeting go dark.”

It has also led many to turn to social media, like Lassner, to encourage those struggling to seek out online and phone meetings, or to express gratitude that the virtual meetups exist. Actress Ashley Tisdale thanked 12-step groups in front of her 12.9 million Twitter followers because her husband, film composer and music producer Christopher French, could “stream his favorite meeting.” She added, "Anyone else who doesn’t feel great about leaving the house, check out the Zoom app.”

Online meetings have been helpful for older populations, notes Nanea R., because they make up a significant portion of membership but are also most vulnerable to COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus. “It is really awesome to see one of our seniors show up in the virtual rooms with a cool Aurora Borealis animated background. I am on Zoom and Slack and other online tools all day at work so it is easy for me but to see the reaction of someone of another generation who has never done a video group meeting and see them feel the immediate connection to community that results is incredibly moving," she said. "Meetings are the lifeline for our program. We need to have a way to share our experience, strength and hope to new people struggling with addiction and alcoholism as well with those of us who have been here for a while."

Another member says it more simply, “We need each other.”