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Home » 12-step meetings go online due to coronavirus – Street Sense Media

12-step meetings go online due to coronavirus – Street Sense Media

Street Sense Media uses a range of creative platforms to spotlight solutions to homelessness and empower people in need.
Street Sense Media uses a range of creative platforms to spotlight solutions to homelessness and empower people in need.
by Julia Pinney
This article was featured in the April 15 digital-only edition of Street Sense. The current digital-only edition will be available at until it is safe to resume person-to-person sales. Thank you for reading! Please continue to support our vendors through our mobile app (
Both NA and AA are guided by the Twelve Traditions, which state that each group is an autonomous body. As such, the General Service Office of Alcoholics Anonymous stated that decisions about whether to close meetings should be made through “group conscience,” respecting local and state authorities. NA World Services similarly said it was not their role to make statements about health issues and would “honor each NA group’s responsibility to discuss and determine what is best for their meeting.” 
One in 12 adults in the United States says they are in recovery, according to the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Elizabeth said the more than 300 NA meetings in the DMV area every week likely served around 6,000 people per week before in-person meetings were shut down. More than 1,500 AA meetings are listed on the Washington Area Intergroup of Alcoholics Anonymous website, with many now temporarily shut down. 
According to Wendell Williams, a Street Sense Media vendor, the 12-step meetings he usually attended began to be canceled or moved to being conducted over the phone or on Zoom starting the week of March 20. He wrote about it in the March 18 edition of Street Sense. One of the driving forces was the loss of meeting places as churches and clubs began closing their doors. 
On March 24, Mayor Muriel Bowser ordered all non-essential businesses closed in the District. Grocery stores, healthcare clinics, banks, organizations providing social services to vulnerable populations, and others deemed essential businesses are exempt. The mayor did not order churches to close and exempted travel to houses of worship in her stay-at-home order. But gatherings of 10 or more people are prohibited, in line with CDC recommendations, which led most to close anyway. 
The Dupont Circle Club, one of a handful of nonprofit organizations in the region dedicated to offering a place for 12-step meetings, addressed its closure in a March 29 message on their website. It said their doors would remain closed “until there is a substantial change in the public health threat” and linked to information about meetings conducted by phone or online. 
People seeking help with recovery can find a directory of AA meetings updated daily on the Washington Area Intergroup Association’s website. The Chesapeake & Potomac Region of NA similarly has a continually updated document listing meeting cancellations and shifts to Zoom or the phone. Each organization also operates a hotline that will connect the caller with another person in recovery to talk through their situation. (NA hotline: 1-800-543-4670, AA hotline: 202-966-9115) 
Elizabeth said the move to virtual meetings, especially those on Zoom, could be a barrier for members of the District’s low-income and homeless communities if they don’t own a tablet or a computer. However, as long as someone can find access to a phone with enough minutes available, they can attend a virtual meeting. “Any meeting is good,” she said. “Just listening is good.” 
Williams worries that the absence of in-person meetings may be an excuse for people new to recovery to stop. “They hadn’t completely bought in … They were always going reluctantly because people were telling them they had to,” said Williams, who has been in recovery for over 30 years. “That’s different than the person who goes because they want to. They love going, they love what it’s doing to them.” 
[Read More: The agony and the ecstacy of Wendell Williams] 
Elizabeth added that social distancing has the potential to be especially damaging for new members. “Drug users are very isolated people,” she said. ”It’s a vicious spiral, like water going down the drain: the worse you feel, the more you want to be alone, the more you want to just not feel or not care. So this compounds [that in] someone in early recovery let alone someone who’s thinking about coming into recovery.” 
The nature of 12-step programs is that someone new to recovery gains a support network and a sponsor. A sponsor is “someone who has been in recovery long enough to understand how you feel when you’re first detoxing and how uncomfortable it is and how crazy you think and how up and down your emotions are,” Elizabeth said. But it takes a while for a beginner to feel comfortable reaching out and this could be a barrier to continuing with recovery. 
Williams has several friends also in recovery with whom he has made personal commitments to call each other every day. But he said this might not be the case for someone new in recovery and online meetings can’t compete with sitting in a room with a group of people going through a similar process.  
“We know the power of sitting in a room with 30, 40 other recovering people,” Williams said. “There’s an energy. There’s a dynamic. There’s a cosmic force that you don’t get on the phone, that you don’t get in a chat,” he said. 
Elizabeth appreciates that she can see the faces of everyone attending her NA meeting on Zoom, but said even that doesn’t replace being together in person.  
When you’re with other people, other people become your higher consciousness, like I’m admitting in front of all these people that I’m powerless. It’s like confession and to admit in isolation, it’s not the same thing,” Elizabeth said. 
Though she had not experienced an instance herself, Elizabeth explained that another downside of 12-step meetings on Zoom are the instances of “Zoom bombing” in which someone enters a recovery meeting for the sole purpose of disrupting it. As a precautionary measure, the meetings she attends are now password protected. 
Twelve-step meetings are essential to many people fighting for their lives against addiction, according to Williams.
“Maybe, just maybe, we’ve lost the view of our primary purpose in the sense that we’re like first responders,” he said. “We should never shut down. We’re like the emergency room.”  
press release on the Alcoholics Anonymous General Service Office website in response to the move to digital plan ends with the note, “AA in the digital age has certainly taken on a new meaning in these challenging times, reminding its members and those searching for help that AA is not just a ‘place,’ but exists in the hearts, minds and help offered.” 
Williams is adapting to a new normal that is less grounded in “place.” He described a 6:45 a.m. meeting he recently attended where he was able to listen to a truck driver who was in his rig on his way from Louisiana to Arizona speaking of his experience with recovery. It was almost like the real thing. “You close your eyes. You think you’re in a real in-person meeting,” Williams said. “I could feel the energy just listening to people who were logging in under some trying circumstances instead of just taking a holiday.” 
Even so, he’s taken to driving to recovery clubs that had shut their doors and standing in the parking lot and calling a few people. “I’m just old-school. I just gotta go,” Williams said.  
He has also been compiling text threads and Facebook group messages to help communicate information about online meetings to a network of those in recovery. He said that it’s vital right now to stay plugged into the 12-step community. 
“We can close everything and take weeks off, but the disease of addiction is not taking weeks off,” Williams said. 
In addition to physical meetings that have been moved online, the AA Online Intergroup and Virtual NA directories list recovery meetings that have always been held remotely.
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