Eight years sober himself, John said he owes his life to the meetings.
“I was a total wreck when I came in, and since my life has been so wonderful,” he said. “I have to pinch myself sometimes; I had to give up one thing to get everything.”
John, who would not give his last name because of AA anonymity rules, isn’t making coffee at the church anymore, and hasn’t for the past nine weeks, since the building was closed to gatherings.
Covid-19 has put a unique strain on those recovering from substance abuse, who depend on support groups with others in recovery, often held in churches. Even with houses of worship now allowed to open again, following Gov. Charlie Baker’s May 18 announcement, AA meeting organizers worry that they will see many fewer faces when meetings resume.
Liquor store clerks on the Outer Cape have anecdotally and not for attribution said that business has been booming during the pandemic this spring, almost with the same sales volume as a summer day, according to one store manager.
“One of the biggest things with recovery is not isolating, and we are in a system of isolating,” John said.
There were more than 200 12-step meetings taking place on Cape Cod every week before Covid-19 struck. Most of them have transitioned to virtual meetings, according to Jim Z., the Wellfleet Congregational Church group treasurer.
It is hard to replicate the warmth of a real meeting in an online format.
“Social camaraderie and so forth has historically been such a strong part of the AA meetings,” Jim said.
Especially for those starting out, he explained, having a place where people expect you to be is integral to recovery.
Newcomers are often given responsibilities like coffee making to motivate them to attend. If they decide not to show up, they are not only letting themselves down but they’re letting everyone else in the group down, too.
Newcomers meet sponsors at these meetings, who then become important mentors in their new lives, said Paul Dart, president of the board of Pause A While, a recovery meeting place at 26 Giddiah Hill in Orleans, which hosts 30 meetings a week.
New friends are crucial, since many alcoholics and drug addicts find themselves isolated or estranged from everyone besides their drinking or drugging buddies, Dart said.
“If you change playgrounds, you must change playmates,” he said. “So having coffee with that newcomer is really important. Then they develop a new circle of friends. It’s a really big part of recovery.”
Going virtual has not been a problem for some. In Provincetown — where 23 meetings take place each week, according to the Cape Cod Intergroup — 60 to 70 people could attend one of the 13 weekly meetings at the Provincetown Methodist Church. About that same number are showing up on the Zoom calls, according to meeting coordinator Sarah L. A Friday-night women’s meeting at the AIDS Support Group of Cape Cod facility in Provincetown has also held its attendance well since it went virtual, she added.
“Maybe it’s different for people who are brand new, but I really don’t think it’s changed at all,” she said.
Virtual meetings have some advantages. You can now attend any meeting anywhere, without getting into a car, Dart said.
But technology is not for everyone. This became clear in early March, when Pause A While stumbled upon a low-tech work-around to Zoom and in-person meetings: conference calls. All you need to do is dial a telephone number off the Pause A While website at the time of the meetings, Dart said.
Word of the call-in 12-step meetings spread throughout the country, including to Alaska and Hawaii, Dart said. Now there are often over 100 people on a single call — with about 850 people calling in daily. Many of the voices are older, including some calling from nursing homes, Dart said.
“We have one woman who has experienced tremendous death in her nursing home and she has been supported and lifted up,” Dart said. “Typically everyone yells out her name when she is on the phone.”
Dart did not want to provide identifying details about this woman, except to say she is in an off-Cape nursing facility.
With churches able to reopen, each meeting group is now faced with a decision about returning to in-person gatherings. On May 21, the Boston Globe reported that the desire to avoid freedom of religion lawsuits was a significant factor in Gov. Baker’s decision to reopen churches.
“We don’t want to get sick,” Jim Z. said. “The whole organization is trying to heal from our substances. We are trying to recover from one problem, and don’t want to be spreading diseases in other ways.”
To Find a Meeting, Virtual or Otherwise
- Cape Cod Intergroup: net/wordpress/meetings/
- Pause A While: (Includes dial-in meetings and virtual meetings. Pause A While is also open for 10-at-a-time in-person meetings): org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Pause-Virtual-Meeting-Schedule.pdf
Current Status of AA Meetings in Churches
- Provincetown United Methodist: No.
- Mary’s of the Harbor: Not until July 1.
- Unitarian Universalist Meeting House: No.
- North Truro Christian Union Church (No response).
- Our Lady of Lourdes: Opening doors May 30 for services and meetings with 40 percent capacity.
- First Congregational: No.
- Wellfleet United Methodist. No.
- Eastham United Methodist. No.
- Chapel in the Pines: No decision for two weeks.