Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) was founded in 1935 by a US stockbroker and surgeon. It began as a self-help programme in US hospitals, but is now a worldwide phenomenon. The network estimates a membership of at least 2 million across 180 countries. AA members are recommended to attend regular meetings, which are generally centred around alcohol addiction and recovery, with members sharing their own experiences of living with alcoholism and hopes for the future. But today, reports Vice, one topic monopolises the conversation: COVID-19 and its effects, including isolation.
The coronavirus pandemic is forcing support groups for millions of addicts around the world to shut, leaving many to struggle alone at a time of isolation and anxiety, which is increasing their risk of relapse.
A significant consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic for AA is the outlawing of physical meet-ups. Face-to-face meetings are a fundamental part of AA. Attendees usually see their fellow members sitting in a circle of chairs. Now, they see tiny faces on a phone or computer screen after dialling into a Zoom AA session.
Disconnection from their supportive community poses a particular threat.
“The current isolation and decrease in human contact are extremely dangerous for addicts”, said Berlin-based psychologist and addiction specialist Ulrike Schneider-Schmid. “Contact with others, with a community, having a partner to relate to – these are basic human needs.” According Schneider-Schmid, this lack of contact can negatively affect sleep, brain performance, physical and mental well-being.
“If you don’t stay on top of your addiction, it gets stronger”, said Lara from Berlin. “It doesn’t take long for an addict to lose the battle with alcoholism.” During lockdown, the mind of an alcoholic can be a dark and lonely place.
How much support can you get through a screen?
In AA meetings, many alcoholics find connections they lost while in the throws of addiction. Members are encouraged to share their stories, show empathy for others and generally feel comfortable being open about their addictions.
The AA spirit is still present in Zoom meetings, but you undoubtedly feel it more in person. Members usually hug each other at the beginning of AA meetings, an important mode of establishing a connection. However, an unexpectedly positive consequence for AA is that some meetings have grown, and now involve attendees from all over the world.
A crisis like the coronavirus pandemic can increase non-AA individual’s alcohol intake. “Alcohol has an anxiety-relieving effect”, said Schneider-Schmid. “And many are currently using alcohol for self-medication against anxiety. In a few weeks, I think there will be a shift: coronavirus infections will decrease, and mental illnesses will increase.”