‘That magic moment.’ People in recovery find ways to meet under stay-at-home order

by Rick Bonnell, Charlotte Observer, April 2, 2020

For those in recovery, 12-step meetings are a source of calm and serenity in times of stress.

But during the new coronavirus pandemic, access to face-to-face meetings has plummeted. For instance, 40 of the 78 Alcoholics Anonymous meetings listed for metro Charlotte have been temporarily discontinued.

Those that remain must conform to rules restricting gatherings to 10 or fewer people, sitting at least six feet apart.

There are alternatives: Phone meetings. Online meetings. Video-chat meetings, such as Zoom conferencing. Those have existed for years for people recovering from addiction worldwide, whether it be for alcohol, drugs, gambling or other problems.

It’s essential for those in recovery not to isolate emotionally, even in times of stay-at-home orders.

“With all these changes — ‘When will I go back to work?’ ‘When will the kids go to school?’ ‘When will the bills get paid?’ — it’s very important people (in recovery) have that buffer zone” of staying connected, said Mackie Johnson, director of clinical services for Anuvia Prevention and Recovery in Charlotte.

A key resource locally, Johnson said, is the Metrolina Intergroup website www.charlotteaa.org, which serves Charlotte and surrounding communities. The site includes links to a variety of meetings: In-person, and also via telephone and online.

There is also a free mobile app called Meeting Guide. It uses your location to provide a list of meetings nearby. According to AA’s web site, the app lists more than 100,000 meetings worldwide and is updated twice daily.

Johnson said Anuvia and similar services in Charlotte can stay open as essential business under the state’s stay-at-home order. Johnson said assessment and counseling still continue for those in need.

For those looking to maintain their sobriety and mental well-being, Johnson had this advice:

▪ Maintain a routine. Johnson said it’s easy with most people working from home to get out of patterns that support mental and physical health, which is particularly dangerous for those in recovery. “Go to bed at the same time. Get up at the same time. Try to maintain the same diet,” Johnson said. “It’s very important you’re as routine as you can be in an unroutined world.”

▪ Exercise: Both the state and Mecklenburg County orders allow people to leave their homes to exercise; do so both to use energy productively and to not feel disconnected. “You see so many families out there. Kids on bikes,” Johnson said. “That’s uplifting to see.”

▪ Note the positives that still exist: Becoming preoccupied with the negative can threaten recovery. “There are a lot of good things going on right now — neighbors helping neighbors, assistance to the elderly,” Johnson said. “If you can gain that perspective, it changes a lot about your thinking.”

▪ Don’t allow yourself to isolate: Regardless of social-distancing, Johnson said the most important thing is not to become isolated by losing contact with support groups. “Depression, despair, isolation — not interacting with others is really dangerous,” Johnson said.

ALTERNATIVE MEETINGS

Those in recovery don’t have to assemble physically to meet. People who have tried alternatives like video conferencing say they are largely the same in value.

Stuart Watson, a former Charlotte television journalist, offered to speak with the Observer about his own substance abuse recovery experiences.

“There is a tendency to believe (during the COVID-19 crisis) that we are isolated and alone because we are being asked to stay at home,” Watson said. “But when I was really screwed up from substances, I could be in the middle of a party, surrounded by people, and feel completely isolated.

“Conversely, I can feel connected to the whole world of recovery” via alternative meetings.

Two weeks ago, as in-person meetings around Charlotte started closing, Watson helped organize a group of eight men in recovery who do a daily conference call.

“One guy is a health professional, so he is having to be out there on the front line. Some are in finance and they’re watching their plans — years and years of work — just evaporate,” Watson said of the stressors discussed.

“Guys will be in tears because they see what they’ve worked for slipping away. Then, all of a sudden, someone will mention making a list of five things you’re incredibly thankful for. And (tone) will shift. There will be that magic moment when guys see what they have, and not what they don’t have.”

VIDEO CONFERENCING

Watson, who now owns a small media company producing podcasts, has participated in large-group recovery meetings as well, via video conferencing.

How well those go is contingent on leaders keeping order, since 100 or more people might participate remotely.

“Sometimes people will interrupt each other or talk over each other. It gets to be confusing. There needs to be a steady hand (in charge) because there will always be someone (with a microphone) not muted,” Watson said. “The technology can lead to distractions that would not happen if you are sitting in a room together.”

Even so, Watson said, there is a sense of burden-sharing in every form of recovery meeting that prevails.

“If you’ve never been to a 12-step meeting, there is an incredible sense of community — that is the secret sauce,” Watson said.

“My serenity, my peace of mind, my calm is connected to me saying, ‘Hey, what do you need? How can I be of help to you?’ ”