12-step recovery online

The online success of 12-step recovery programs

“It feels a little weird sharing from my kitchen table, but it’s good to see so many friendly faces.”

How 12-step recovery programs are excelling online during the COVID-19 pandemic, in Montreal and beyond.

Many addicts and alcoholics who have sought and found a new way of life in 12-step recovery programs speak of “the gift of desperation.” 

Hope alone won’t help a person get clean and sober, it’s often said among members of the varying anonymous 12-step programs and groups out there. 

The decision to stop drinking and using is most useful to a person’s recovery when they see it as a choice they make to give themselves a daily reprieve, and not as the all-or-nothing, insurmountable obstacle the diseases of alcoholism and addiction can often feel like.

The shutting down of physical meetings — non-profit driven groups where members meet regularly to help each other stay abstinent of drugs and alcohol — therefore gave people a new gift of desperation. 

Meetings are the lifeline of recovery, and so globally, within mere moments of announced shutdowns, 12-step recovery found new hope online, with existing meetings and new ones alike springing up on web platforms immediately.

“A lot of people are gonna have to get sober whether they like it or not and it won’t be pretty,” says “John,” a Montreal member of a 12-step fellowship with over a year sober who started one such meeting with his mind on helping the newcomer — who is valued in every meeting, everywhere as the most important person in the room as a principle tenet of recovery.

“Right before everything got shut down, I was at this meeting I go to every week and there was a guy with about two or three months of sobriety. He was doing his 90 in 90 and determined to do it. He asked if I’d be down to meet up. The definition of a meeting in (12-step literature) is that two people constitute a meeting. I was super touched and inspired,” says John.

“I’m resourceful and I know how to get around the web, so I organized a meeting the night of one of my homegroups. I thought it might take awhile to get it organized so I set up an unsanctioned 12-step meeting online, but I was totally wrong. 

“Other groups stepped up and some were even online before the one I started. By the time that started, many of the (real-life) meetings were being hosted online. Now mine is officially recognized by (my fellowship) and there was no red tape, and these groups were online in a heartbeat.”

Of course, online meetings are not a new phenomenon and have existed for as long as the web itself, reaching people in remote places where physical meetings simply don’t happen. 

But members, concerned for their own recovery, that of their fellow members, and the addict and alcoholic seeking recovery for the first time, felt the immediate groundswell to bring the 12-step message that “any (addict or alcoholic) can stop using, lose the desire to use and find a new way of life,” to widespread availability online.

“I was thinking about starting (an online meeting) for a few days,” says “Jane,” a member of another 12-step recovery group. “I realized on a personal level there would be a need (for these) and I wanted to do some service, by helping to make another meeting available.”

“I was feeling a bit on the fence and complacent about it to be honest. I was thinking how there are so many online meetings that we can join internationally,” she admits. “However, I attended a local online meeting in another language and to be honest that is what finally gave me the push. It wasn’t about myself anymore — I really connected how people needed this. Also, it fought the voice in my head that said that there were so many other meetings. Just in terms of English meetings in one fellowship in Montreal, we have multiple meetings every single day. All of the meetings had closed and a couple of them were going online but nowhere near all of them. 

Jane had already experienced web-based recovery groups, but has generally had the benefit of real-life meetings, where the friendship, empathy, joy and pain of recovery are all present in equal measure. 

While these are indispensable aspects of the new hope 12-step groups avail to members, they are not at all lost in the digital rooms of recovery,  as these new platforms are proving around the clock and around the globe.

“I know of (experienced) members who got clean, and stayed clean going to meetings online because there were no physical meetings anywhere near the area in which they lived,” she says of her pre-pandemic experience with web-based recovery.

Jane describes the underlying concern that people who need recovery won’t find them during this time, or that they might not stick around when they would have in normal circumstances, 

“We want everyone, especially newcomers, to get to connect with people. We want them to feel welcome and to maintain an atmosphere of recovery.”

“Dave,” a newcomer who had only made it to three or four meeting before the pandemic struck, has over two months of total abstinence from mind- and mood-altering substances through a program of 12-step recovery programs experienced so far almost entirely online.

He says he was, like almost every member, anxious and uncertain about his first real-life meeting in early March of this year.

“When I finally found the nerve to walk up, there was a member smoking a cigarette outside and as I hesitated to turn towards the door he calmly said, ‘You’re in the right place, door’s open!’ It was as if he was actually waiting for me there. As I walked in, I was met with smiles and warm greetings. ‘You look like a newcomer! Come here and have a seat! Nothing to worry about, you’ll figure out how this all works,’” Dave relates.

“I guess it’s easier to spot the newcomer in a physical room so you can spend a lot more time under the radar in a video conference with 15+ members,” he continues. “As soon as you identify yourself as a newcomer through stating your clean time or from hints in your shares, you see the faces light up and the high-five emojis in the video gallery and that always warms the heart and pushes away any doubts about your place in the fellowship.”

Despite the physical distance, Dave, as a newcomer, feels the same love and trust that fuels recovery for the millions of addicts and alcoholics who’ve found hope in these totally non-religious, spiritual support groups.

“There’s no doubt that the daily online meeting I attend is my home group so I absolutely feel a kinship and I have definitely built a bond with its regular members,” he says. “I can’t wait to see many of them in physical meetings.”

Even the old-timers with double-and-triple decades of recovery are onboard and “on the Zoom,” as many of them put it with boomer-ish zeal.

“It feels a little weird sharing from my kitchen table,” one member said. “But it’s good to see so many friendly faces.”

Addicts and alcoholics are resourceful by nature, so it’s no irony that the gift of desperation has served us yet again. Types and formats of meetings, time zones and countries where meetings are taking place 24 hours a day, every day, offer more variety to people seeking help and recovery now than ever before.

Jane sums it up in simple terms for complicated people.

“We know that having a choice is something powerful.” ■

For info on local 12-step recovery programs and online meeting lists, you may wish to consult Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and Cocaine Anonymous.

Families and friends affected by loved ones suffering from addiction may wish to consult Al-Anon.

Other addiction-related 12-step groups and programs exist and can readily be found online.

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