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'You’re not alone’: How the recovery community is sticking together during the coronavirus shut downs

More groups are going online after some halls and churches have closed to large gatherings.

A book rested on a chair at a meeting in Paris of Alcoholics Anonymous. Many similar recovery groups in Massachusetts have been forced to close down in-person recovery sessions in favor of virtual groups or social media networks.
A book rested on a chair at a meeting in Paris of Alcoholics Anonymous. Many similar recovery groups in Massachusetts have been forced to close down in-person recovery sessions in favor of virtual groups or social media networks.FRANCOIS GUILLOT/AFP via Getty Images

It started with hand sanitizer next to the coffee pots and group literature tables.

Nixing hand-holding was next, as prayers at the end of 12-step recovery meetings turned into linking elbows, and then not touching the people next to you at all.

Finally, as cases of the novel coronavirus continued to emerge statewide and around the globe, the churches, colleges, and institutions that typically play host to those who meet regularly to help with their recovery from drug and alcohol addiction started closing their doors indefinitely.

“Important Update regarding meetings,” reads a note posted to the website of the Eastern Massachusetts Central Service Committee of Alcoholics Anonymous. “Due to the Covid-19 health risk note that most meetings have been suspended by the host facility until further notice.”

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But in the midst of disruptions from the spread of the virus, which has dismantled and upended daily routines, groups of all kinds that rely on coming together to share a message of hope and change are finding creative solutions to make sure no one is falling through the cracks.

Dr. John F. Kelly, professor of psychiatry in addiction medicine at Harvard Medical School, and founder and director of the Recovery Research Institute at Mass. General Hospital, said maintaining a network “can be a life saver” for people in recovery, especially at a time when they’re being forced to isolate.

I think people really realize that and so they’re finding ways now to continue that somehow,” he said. "The good news is, we’re in an age where we can do that with available technologies.”

Substitutes for in-person meetings have included creating contact lists and reaching out by phone, using e-mail groups and social media, and hosting large virtual meetings — perhaps the most popular at the moment — to stay in touch, according to the General Service Office, which serves as a “resource center” for AA members.

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After a group that meets at a Brookline church was told last week that the building would be closed to all activities for the remainder of March, organizers within that fellowship turned to the video conferencing application Zoom as an alternative, so they could host at-home meetings that accommodate hundreds of people.

A group that caters to women and transgender people that already met once per week online announced it was bumping up its number of virtual meetings to five, to help cover any gaps in meeting schedules, according to a notice forwarded from a group member to the Globe.

“It’s pretty magical,” said one woman from that group, who like others asked that her name not be used, to keep with the tradition of anonymity. “I feel like I’m lucky enough to see a lot of the grass-roots movement" happening in the recovery community.

Many recovery groups practice a tradition where money is collected to support individual meetings and the larger umbrella of their fellowships. Since sitting next to each other and passing around a hat full of cash is no longer an option in most cases, they’ve been using the money-exchanging apps Venmo and PayPal to make sure they can continue to receive such donations.

Groups are using the cash to sign up for memberships to host meetings through Zoom. Almost 100 members of Alcoholics Anonymous logged into one such meeting held Sunday night.

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Meanwhile, pre-existing private Facebook groups that have long connected a vast network of people in sobriety are keeping tabs on what’s being canceled, how to stay in touch through online channels, and where to listen in as guest speakers share their stories virtually. And they’re growing quickly in size.

“I got added to a Facebook group two days ago that had three hundred people in it at 10 in the morning," said Joe, a member of a 12-step fellowship in the Boston area. “By four in the afternoon it had, like, almost 2,000 people sharing information about where to find meetings.”

A second private group spiked from 2,000 to more than 5,000 members in a single day last week.

Joe said over the last five years, access to online meetings and resources for people in recovery have become more readily available. But they’re not always widely used, he said, since many prefer in-person interactions.

But forcing more people to use these services could be beneficial.

“I think it could be a real cool experience to get this exposure to some other means of recovery for people who often feel alone and isolated,” he said.

Kelly, director of the Recovery Research Institute, agreed.

“It’s another pathway and another entity that people are using to find a foothold and get a foothold in recovery,” he said.

On Friday, Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who has made his own recovery from alcoholism publicly known to constituents, tweeted out a list of from the Mayor’s Office of Recovery Resources so people can stay connected with each other while they’re hunkered down in their homes.

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“I know how important support meetings are when you’re in recovery,” Walsh said. “For all those who need a place to turn to — you’re not alone.”

Options floated by the mayor’s office to help people find programs included the daily, online meeting website In the Rooms, a free web-based recovery tool; online meetings through Smart Recovery; Skype versions of Narcotics Anonymous; AA’s Online Intergroup, where Zoom meetings are posted; and Recovery Dharma Online, which uses meditation and Buddhist practices to “support each other on our paths to sobriety and peace.”

While some groups have gone digital, others have been carrying on per usual, finding new places to meet or moving things outdoors. However, that will likely change given President Trump’s recommendation Monday not to gather in groups of more than 10 people.

Walsh’s Office of Recovery Services said although some support meetings are closed physically due to the ongoing spread of Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, they are “working to secure meeting space for the future.”

In a recent e-mail thread for a group of people in Alcoholics Anonymous, one member said to stay close to each other, and lift each other up during a turbulent phase.

“Let’s continue to carry the message,” he wrote, “in any way we can.”

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Steve Annear can be reached at steve.annear@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.