Published June 23rd, 2020 at 6:00 AM
When John S attended his first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in 1988, he was 25 years old.
“My drinking was out of control by the time I was 18,” recalled John, who asked that Flatland not reveal his last name out of respect for the anonymity of AA. “By the time I was 25, I felt I had no choice… I had to seek help.”
He began the traditional AA 12-step program. Although it helped him achieve sobriety, he struggled with the spiritual aspects of the program.
Twenty-five years later, he realized he was an atheist.
“I could no longer communicate my recovery the same way I had been,” he said.
So John started We Agnostics Kansas City, the only secular AA group in Kansas City, Missouri, for people like him who don’t identify with one particular faith and still need help to get sober.
“That social component was really important. I think that’s the key to AA – the connection you have with other people who are doing the same thing,” he said. “It’s a support network more than anything else.”
That support network has been even more important for alcoholics and recovering alcoholics living through a global pandemic.
The added pressure of social isolation, sweeping lockdowns and economic uncertainty can take an extra toll on personal mental health. People with depression are already at increased risk of developing substance abuse disorders, and for those struggling with alcohol dependency, the realities of COVID-19 can make recovery more difficult.
Socially isolated Americans are turning to alcohol in record numbers. Retail sales of wine, beer and liquor surged 18 percent during March, as the pandemic spread in the United States.
“The stress that social isolation is putting on people is definitely increasing the rates of people relapsing, maybe turning to something simple like alcohol,” said Suzanne Opperman, a drug and alcohol counselor in Columbia, Missouri. “It’s how people try to cope in the short-term… It’s only a short-term solution that will end badly.”
Support groups have had to adapt on the fly to continue helping their members. New technologies, communication struggles and increased isolation all complicate the traditional ways of getting therapy.
Now, though, people are also finding unexpected benefits to seeking addiction help during the pandemic.
Opperman said the pandemic has shifted the way she conducts therapy.
Before COVID-19, she would have in-person group meetings with patients, using Self Recovery and Management Training, or SMART. Now, Opperman has shifted to online-only groups.
She said many therapists have struggled with the transition because it’s been years since they’ve attended school and had to use this kind of technology.
However, for some support group leaders the transition was seamless. John hosts AA Beyond Belief, a podcast that centers on secular recovery and showcases conversations with the community. They touch on a different topic every Friday night, and people can call in and comment.
“It’s almost like a party-slash-AA meeting,” John said. “It gives us something to do on a Friday night when we can’t go out and see people face to face.”
Again, it offers a sense of community support.
When citywide shutdowns were enacted, We Agnostics shifted to online group meetings. John noticed an immediate dip in attendance.
Meetings that once boasted nearly 20 people in person dwindled to about half that size online. Many of the folks who stopped attending the online meetings were young adults, he said, because some of the younger attendees didn’t feel as comfortable sharing their experiences or stories through Zoom.
Opperman had a similar experience. She said the transition to online therapy has been difficult for patients accustomed to meeting face-to-face.
“I had 15 people that were coming to my group, and only a handful continued with the online meetings,” Opperman said. “It’s just not meeting their need for face-to-face conversation.”
But not all of the changes forced by the realities of COVID-19 are bad. In some ways, Opperman said, the shift to online therapy makes getting help with addiction more accessible.
Online sessions take away many complicating factors that prevent people from seeking help. Now, for example, they can join right from the comfort of their home, instead of making time to drive to an in-person appointment.
That was the case for We Agnostics, too. In May, John said his inbox filled with people who were asking for help – they found the group online. Some folks were from rural towns on the Kansas City area’s periphery.
“Meeting online has broken down distance barriers,” he said. “So people three hours away who couldn’t come to our meetings are now able to come.”
For folks who live in smaller towns, he said, it’d be difficult to find a group of like-minded people – especially a secular group.
New people have flooded into Opperman’s groups. She’s seen more than 100 faces at some of her meetings, and other SMART-hosted meetings attract up to 300.
“We got inundated at the beginning of this, with people coming from other face-to-face support organizations,” she said. “Now we have 60 meetings a week online. The demand shifted largely to online because the need was there.”
Opperman was surprised to see that during COVID-19, one group reached out to her more than anyone else — family and friends of those struggling with addiction.
“This is a more difficult situation for people with dependencies, yes. But not only for them, for their loved ones,” Opperman said.
She said it’s important for significant others and friends to remember that they have to take care of themselves before they can provide help to others. She suggested looking for opportunities to provide positive support and start a conversation, instead of growing angry if a relapse happens.
And when slip-ups happen, it isn’t the end of the world.
“That’s an opportunity to learn,” Opperman said. “You don’t drive from the East Coast to the West Coast and have a flat tire in the middle of the country, and drive all the way back to the East Coast to get it fixed. You stop where you are, fix the tire, and keep going.”
Emily Wolf is a Dow Jones summer intern at Kansas City PBS.