[Editor’s note: Some of the subjects interviewed for this story preferred to use only their first names to maintain anonymity.]
Canceled. That was the word Christian Parker was forced to use repeatedly on Gay & Sober last month while updating its listings for Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous meet-up groups across the country. The nonprofit, where Parker serves as executive director, and its accompanying website cater to the LGBTQ recovery community—just differently now.
With coronavirus sweeping through the nation and redefining social boundaries, recovery programs in big cities and rural areas alike have been banned from organizing group gatherings. LGBTQ people are already two to three times more likely to battle substance abuse than their straight peers, but now they face a new challenge: staying sober without the physical social support so many of them rely on.
"It sucks," says Parker, "because people in recovery are told this is a disease of isolation and that the best way to recover is with others."
But community members have taken action. On March 19, within a week of President Trump declaring COVID-19 a national emergency, Parker witnessed more than 2,000 12-step programs transition from offering in-person meetings to hosting virtual ones through Zoom's mostly free app, the dominant video-conferencing tool for virtual AA, NA, and other recovery meetings. In just 48 hours, those groups were up and running online. Parker says more than 5,000 virtual 12-step programs exist on Zoom now.
Days before the Zoom surge, Parker and his team were already adding cam links to countless recovery meetings worldwide that could no longer be held in physical spaces; they also added a new chat feature to Gay & Sober’s website that allows visitors to connect with another person in recovery anytime, day or night.
"Alcoholics and addicts in recovery are great in a crisis," Parker says. "I saw it after 9/11, and I'm seeing it now."
Parker, 42, remembers being in New York the day of the 2001 attacks. He was just nine months sober at the time and expected his normal routine to be upended when he discovered some meetings had been canceled. But when he walked by the location of one he’d been frequenting for a few months, he was surprised to see he wasn't the only person hoping it might still be a go.
"Everyone was there," he recalls. "It was so comforting and just wonderful, and that was the story all over the city. AA meetings were still happening because that was people's church. That's where they would go to feel safe."
Nearly 20 years later, this sort of mobilization is happening again, but this time entirely online. Though he lives in Manhattan, Parker can dip into a meeting wherever, whenever. One day during his COVID-19 quarantining he sat in on a popular Los Angeles–based AA meeting with 260 other attendees from all over the globe. He might hit up a meeting in Hawaii next. Maybe even London.
The Rainbow Group is an AA support group in the Durham region of Ontario that recently moved its 30 or so members to Zoom. Says its treasurer, Andrew: "The single biggest challenge was letting people know that we are still available to help them out." To encourage members to make the virtual transition, the organization sent out group emails. On April 4, they held their second online meeting.
“The first meeting was a bit of an adjustment,” Andrew says of the group’s virtual launch on March 28. “The positive thing for me is that I am no longer alone. I am physically isolated but not socially, spiritually, emotionally. The only downside I can think of is there’s zero touch.”
Physical contact aside, Zoom has been a boon to a variety of support groups—AA, NA, Sex Addicts Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, and Crystal Meth Recovery—at Affirmations LGBTQ community center in Detroit. Those who attended meetings there continue to stay connected through their computer screens. "Things have been going very well," says David Garcia, Affirmations' executive director. With its newly established virtual format, its AA group grew from 20 people to around 70, with some attendees hailing from as far as Sweden and Scotland.
"I've heard people say that when they think it's too late in their time zone, they can search in another time zone and get what they need," says Elizabeth, a 32-year-old from Brooklyn, N.Y., who warmly recalls a cam meeting she attended in Shanghai a few years ago. "The advantage," she adds, “is that now I make a meeting every day, whereas that wasn't always easy if I had a packed schedule.”
Still, her current scenario isn’t perfect. “Seeing people I've grown to know and love for years is healing and helpful in this time,” she says, "but being at meetings, in the spaces, and being able to speak afterward in person are things I miss terribly.”
While online AA meetings aren’t new to attendees like Elizabeth, they’re uncharted territory for many, especially those who were just entering 12-step programs before they headed to Zoom. But virtual recovery meetings actually predate the internet, says Kelly, 68, who has been in AA for 35 years. In the early 1990s, her peers in recovery would connect through FidoNet, a worldwide computer network that allowed for private communication between message board systems.
Kelly lives in Palm Springs, where she says crystal meth use is popular among LGBTQ people. Certain recovering addicts there are confronted with a unique challenge that queer columnist Chandelier Kahlo wrote about in a 2017 op-ed for the El Paso Herald-Post: In the past, these men have used Zoom to record themselves smoking and slamming meth while performing sexual acts on camera.
"When a lot of that community found out everyone was doing Zoom [for meetings], they were very triggered and very resistant," Parker says. As a result, some are using Google Meet to avoid a potential relapse. Those who are using Zoom, he adds, “have crossed that bridge because of necessity.”
Virtual connections can be a godsend to elderly LGBTQ people who are housebound with health challenges or mobility issues. Andrew notes that attendees must climb a full set of stairs to access the Rainbow Group’s physical AA room at the Alano Club. Now, they’re able to reap the benefits of recovery from the comfort of their own homes.
But this sudden shift to online services isn’t working for everyone. For those who don't have access to a computer or own a cell phone, or who aren't computer-savvy, connecting virtually isn't always possible. For others, it simply isn't enough. Parker has already seen the quarantine take its toll. "I'll be honest: We've seen a lot of people relapse because either they have lost that face-to-face connection or they're so afraid of what's going on in the news, they just want to check out."
On March 20, three days after a shelter-in-place order was issued in California, Palm Springs’ AA in the Desert updated its website with new information to reflect cam and telephone recovery options. It also added Venmo and PayPal links to the site’s main page so that members can continue to make monetary contributions to support the organization (members usually leave donations in a basket at in-person meetings). However, its office manager, David, says small groups of members continue to meet in homes or in designated outdoor venues.
Given AA’s nearly 85-year legacy, David is optimistic that LGBTQ folks in recovery can overcome these new hurdles, online or otherwise. The key, he says, is mutual support and understanding—characteristics fundamental to the 12-step program. “Thankfully, that is available even with the digital options we are using today."