Disclaimer: In the interest of full transparency, I have been an openly committed member of Alcoholics Anonymous for almost two decades, but also believe that for those seeking recovery, there are many avenues to pursue. Thus, for anyone who disagrees with 12-Step engagement, please know that I respect your opinions, do not wish to offend, and only desire all to be healthy and well.
The coronavirus pandemic of 2020 ambushed our planet, devastatingly affecting all who inhabit it. Tragically, in 2021, this pernicious parasite (and its ruthless progeny) continues to rage against us. Like addiction, it demonstrates seemingly no singular prejudice against greedily targeting any population demographic-although those with inadequate, inferior, subjugated, or substandard access to resources or assistance certainly appear to be its most vulnerable hosts. Fortunately, however, for the first time in history, technology has offered us the gift of virtual opportunities through which we can try and sustain our vital support systems. The question of whether “Zooming” together for support group meetings is/was/will continue to be really working, welcoming, or sustaining, however, is one many in recovery communities have been asking. Although there certainly hope growing that we are through the worst of it, the truth is no one knows how long we shall continue to be threatened by Covid-19 or any of its future mutations. What appears clear, however, is that like myriad other stay-at-home tech-driven behaviors, online-based support group meetings are most likely to stay. For those struggling with substance dependency in particular, the increased risks attached to the pandemic-generated variables are real (Abramson, 2020). Although investigations are currently in play, what has already been posited is that during confinement, alcohol use soared with heavy drinking by women, allegedly rising up 41% (Gorman, 2020; Oxner, 2020). Opioid use is also reported to have surged; Zeto (2020) called it the “epidemic within the pandemic,” Mann (2020) reported that drug (primarily opioid-driven) overdoses spiked during the pandemic, and the CDC estimates that if the trend continues, the U.S. will suffer even more drug-related deaths in 2021 than 2020-setting a bleak record for the 3rd year in a row.
During my nascent recovery years in the early 2000s, I began to notice sobriety support-based communities appearing online. In the ensuing years, digitally-based recovery opportunities increasingly emerged. My observations of this phenomenon caused me to direct my research towards a non-prejudicial investigation of their use and efficacy value, versus traditional face-to-face participation.
To date, it still stands as the only legitimate investigation comparing these two types of recovery communities; my study with Shackleford investigated key questions related to F2F and technologically-mediated sobriety support (Grant & Shackleford, 2017).
Of course, I could never have imagined that the questions I began to consider back in 2009 would, a decade later, became significantly more pertinent than when I first began investigating them.
During the past few years+, not only have I relied on “Zoomcovery” myself, but also canvassed dozens of peers regarding their experiences. Certainly, for those unsure or even resistant to attending F2F groups, online engagement can offer an ostensibly anonymous way to explore support of all kinds. Its 24/7/365 potential accessibility, ability to participate in meetings outside historical geo-limits, ease of engagement without traveling, and ostensibly removal of any health, disability, cultural, biologically-based, or other realistic barriers to F2F participation, are all positive and legit arguments of endorsement. On the opposing side of the recovery screens, however, are those expressing serious concerns regarding what they consider potentially negative components of online recovery support reliance. They cite anonymity breaches, inability to authentically welcome and scaffold the newcomer, lack of fellowship/service opportunities, meeting integrity issues, participant accountability, digital divide/lack of facility with technology, Zoom fatigue, and potential misinterpretation of group support, as just a few considerations. Even some of the harshest critics of online meetings, however, admit (albeit perhaps begrudgingly) that any ability to connect is certainly better than none.
With F2F communal opportunities still limited, virtual meetings are, for many seeking support, the only real place to currently gather. But as the option to return to non-virtual meetings slowly begins to avail, the future popularity of online meetings is a question many recovery-minded folks are asking. Will those who seek sustainable recovery return to “The Rooms?” Will those who relied upon (or perhaps even first discovered) video-delivered meetings during confinement forgo a return to IRL meetings, and continue to only engage through virtual platforms?” Will a “hybrid” practice become the recovery support group “new normal?” The truth is that online-hosted support group opportunities of all kinds are now here to stay. They also will evolve, and most of the concerns regarding their integrity hopefully discharged with time. Still, there are some aspects of gathering F2F with like-minded others which I do not believe (and my research evidenced) can ever truly be replicated or replaced solely by online connection.
As we move forward, it very well may be that viral spikes continue to restrict our safe ability to attend support group meetings in person. In that case, we can be grateful that modern technology has availed us of the gift of virtual communities. But when we do finally come through to the other side of this pandemic-and we will-I believe it is vital that we remember to return to those brick-and-mortar spaces and never discount their valence, value, and vitality. Covalent human connection is the mortal enemy of addiction, and thus our spirits, energies, and hope must reconvene together IRL to recalibrate and buttress those bonds. My deepest thanks for allowing me to share on this topic, please keep yourself and your loved ones safe, and try to be kind, flexible, and generous to others and yourself.
Abramson, A. (March 1, 2021). Substance use during the pandemic. https://www.apa.org/monitor/2021/03/substance-use-pandemic
Gorman, A. (September 30, 2020). Heavy drinking up by women during coronavirus \ pandemic: Study. https://6abc.com/alcohol-consumption-pandemic-covid-19/6676976/
Grant, D. S., & Dill-Shackleford, K. E. (2017). Using social media for sobriety recovery: Beliefs, behaviors, and surprises from users of face-to-face and social media sobriety support. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 6, 2–20. https://doi.org/10.1037/ppm0000126
Mann, B. (October 14, 2020). Sharp rise in drug overdose deaths seen during 1st few months of pandemic. www.npr.org/sections/coronavirus-live-updates/2020/10/14/923721544/sharp-rise-in-drug-overdose-deaths-seen-during-1st-few-months-of-pandemic
Oxner, R. (October, 5, 2020). Americans are drinking 14% more during pandemic, study finds. www.npr.org/2020/10/05/920437811/americans-are-drinking-14-more-often-during-pandemic-study-finds
Zeto, S. (August 11, 2020). The epidemic raging within the pandemic opioid addiction. www.washingtonexaminer.com/opinion/the-epidemic-raging-within-the-pandemic-opioid-addiction