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Physically Distant, But Socially Close: Staying Sober While Staying Home

FILE - In this March 27, 2020 photo, a patient arriving to pick up medication for opioid addiction is given hand sanitizer at a clinic in Olympia, Wash., that is currently meeting patients outdoors.

“Meetings are huge for me,” says Mike S., a 52-year-old web content specialist who has been sober since 2012.

When his community began practicing social distancing, some of his usual meetings began offering the option of attending online. Mike went in person as long as he could, but things already felt different.

With some regulars attending online through a video conferencing service called Zoom, the number of people physically attending “dropped on average by about half,” he said, “which was disconcerting and felt ominous.”

Connection with one another is a key part of the way many people in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction stay clean and sober, which makes the stay-at-home orders affecting many urban centers particularly challenging.

Larry C., a real estate agent, relapsed last year after more than a dozen years sober. He is participating in an outpatient treatment program that, due to social distancing restrictions, occurs entirely online through Zoom.

“I initially did worry about 12-step meetings and [treatment] meetings via Zoom, but the video platform has turned out to be great,” he says. Like many of his peers in recovery, he supplements his online meetings with phone calls to other people in recovery, study of recovery literature, and by trying to maintain healthy eating, sleeping and exercise habits.

Pedestrians pass Brooklyn Hospital Center on April 4, 2020, in the Brooklyn borough of New York.
Pedestrians pass Brooklyn Hospital Center on April 4, 2020, in the Brooklyn borough of New York.

Zoom, a cloud-based video conferencing service whose popularity has shot up 67 percent since the beginning of the year, has kept many meetings in the Washington, D.C., area afloat as churches and other venues are forced to close their doors. For some skeptics, it has been an easier-than-expected transition.

“Zoom meetings were a pleasant discovery,” says Cheryl, who has been sober nearly 15 years and works in the federal immigration system. “I took part in one [recently] and realized that I knew a third of the women in it. Nice surprise.”

Others say the online meetings have meant that friends who now live elsewhere can easily revisit meetings they used to frequent. And familiar faces mean familiar interactions.

“We still tell the same bad jokes,” says Alan S., a real estate agent sober more than seven years. “Just online.”

Meanwhile, new resources are emerging. Paul Brethren, a certified addiction treatment specialist with more than 20 years’ experience, has established a free service called Sober Buddy that currently sends a daily email to more than 10,000 subscribers and is set to launch a mobile app in mid-May. The messages from Sober Buddy are meant to educate, challenge and strengthen skills at maintaining a sober life. It’s an approach based on cognitive behavioral therapy, which replaces unhealthy thought and behavior patterns with better ones.

With the onset of the pandemic, Brethren says, the service has begun to tailor its message to the specific challenges of the day – such as preventing relapse at a time of fear and uncertainty.

“One of the major skills for people in recovery is adapting,” Brethren says. “Life is difficult. If you fail to adapt, then you get stuck. When people get stuck, they’re at greater risk of going back to what’s familiar.”

For a person in recovery, that can mean reverting to addictive behavior. “So the better you are at adapting in a healthy way, the more successful you’ll be,” he says.

Sober Buddy also incorporates links to other recovery programs, such as Smart Recovery and 12-step programs for alcohol and drug users, including maps showing the locations of local in-person meetings.

An empty Hollywood Boulevard is seen under the neon lights of El Capitan Theatre, top left, on April 2, 2020, in Los Angeles.
An empty Hollywood Boulevard is seen under the neon lights of El Capitan Theatre, top left, on April 2, 2020, in Los Angeles.

Other forms of online communication, such as websites, Facebook groups and old-fashioned email lists are also helping people in recovery find one another and their online meetings while physically separated. But for those with long-term sobriety, there is still one big worry.

“What a lot of us are worried about is the newcomer,” says a 52-year-old sober woman who prefers not to give her name. “How does someone newly sober find an online meeting?”

Mike S. notes that helping newcomers is a big part of the why and the how of staying sober. “I do worry about newcomers … or people who are curious about recovery, or people who are desperate, not being able to make a connection that could save their lives.”

To that end, a few face-to-face meetings can still be found, advertised through local addiction hotlines, social media and word-of-mouth.

Mike S. notes that he attended an outdoor meeting about a week ago, “with everyone bringing their own chairs and sitting 6 feet apart. ... It was quite refreshing and calming.”

Jason A., who facilitates recovery meetings and attends as a participant, says he has built a routine of online meetings, one-on-one phone calls, prayer and meditation, and self-care, all of which help him stay sober.

“I really like the idea of staying physically distant but socially close,” he says. “It speaks to maintaining my overall wellness.”


U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration helpline:

Alcoholics Anonymous:

Narcotics Anonymous:

Smart Recovery:

Sober Buddy: