Their meetings used to take place discreetly in the basements of churches, a spare room at the Y.M.C.A., the back of a cafe. But when the pandemic hit last spring, members of Alcoholics Anonymous and other groups of recovering substance abusers found those doors quickly shut.
What happened next is one of those creative cascades the virus has indirectly set off. Rehabilitation moved online, almost overnight, with zeal. Not only are thousands of A.A. meetings taking place on Zoom and other digital hangouts, but other major players in the rehabilitation industry have leapt in, transforming a daily ritual that many credit with saving their lives.
“A.A. members I speak to are well beyond the initial fascination with the idea that they are looking at a screen of Hollywood squares,” said Dr. Lynn Hankes, 84, who has been in recovery for 43 years and is a retired physician in Florida with three decades of experience treating addiction. “They thank Zoom for their very survival.”
People in the field say that online rehab is likely to become a permanent part of the way substance abuse is treated. Being able to find a meeting to log into 24/7 has welcome advantages for people who lack transportation, or are ill or juggling parenting or work challenges that make an in-person meeting tough on a given day. Online meetings can also be a good steppingstone for people just starting rehab.
Some participants say the online experience can have a surprisingly intimate feel to it.
“You get more a feel for total strangers, like when a cat jumps on their lap or a kid might run around in the background,” said a 58-year-old A.A. member in early recovery in Portland, Ore., who declined to give his name, citing the organization’s recommendations not to seek personal publicity.
At the same time, he and others say they crave the raw intensity of physical presence.
“I really miss hugging people,” he said. “The first time I can go back to the church on the corner for a meeting, I will, but I’ll still do meetings online.”