Recovering addicts turn to the web, each other amid outbreak

“We are taught … to not be alone.” As meeting sites closed in Everett, 12-step programs moved online.

SEATTLE — The Serenity Prayer was punctuated by static.

On Sunday night, roughly 50 recovering addicts recited the iconic invocation. But they weren’t holding hands or clasping arms, encircled in a church basement or nondescript hall.

Instead, the 12-step meeting was a tessellation of faces across a computer screen. A moderator led the assemblage from her Seattle home, and people from across the country joined via video chat on laptops and smartphones from couches, bedrooms and offices.

It was one of many such meetings that have happened virtually in recent weeks as the COVID-19 crisis has forced the recovery community to think creatively about how to come together to stay clean — even as governments have barred gatherings and typical meeting sites have closed their doors.

A Virginia man said he’d entered “survival mode.” Another attendee relayed his struggle at home while his job was furloughed.

Many were grateful to be drug-free, despite the chaos around them.

“I can honestly say that I would be having an absolutely hell time going through this. I wouldn’t be enjoying quarantine. It would be a major panic, a major depressive situation,” said a Seattle woman, proud to be 20 days clean. “The fact that we still have this community and can still do these meetings, even online — it’s amazing to me.”

For people who struggle with drug and alcohol addiction, the loneliness and solitude of self-isolation puts them at risk of relapse, said Jin-Ah , who staged the Sunday evening meeting via the video conferencing platform Zoom. She asked that her last name not be used in accordance with the non-profit fellowship’s traditions.

“There’s just something profoundly dark that happens to most people, not just addicts, when they’re alone,” Jin-Ah said in an interview.

She was “breaking down” in self-quarantine when she decided to start the online meetings, she said. Word spread fast on social media, and now each virtual discussion attracts dozens, sometimes hundreds, of people, Jin-Ah said.

“I have 100 addicts asking me how I am every day,” Jin-Ah said. “This is saving lives.”

A Facebook group she started in mid-March now has more than 38,000 members. People in other states and other countries have replicated the model.

“It just took off from there,” said Billie Jean, who lives in Everett. “We’ve had the Zoom platform, and we’ve had the capability for years. It wasn’t really necessary. But now, it’s necessary.”

Now, people who struggle with addiction in Snohomish County and beyond can find a meeting online “any time, day or night,” said Billie Jean, who wished to keep her last name private in accordance with a non-profit fellowship’s traditions.

“We’re a really strong and close-knit community anyway when we do get together. But this whole thing has made us so much stronger,” she said tearfully.

The restrictions ushered by pandemic are a blow to the recovery community, which tends to consider a handshake too formal of a greeting — especially in the fellowship setting, said state Rep. Lauren Davis, executive director of the Washington Recovery Alliance.

“None of that is happening today — the hugs, the offerings of hot coffee,” said Davis, a Democrat whose district includes Lynnwood and Edmonds. “The entire culture of the addiction recovery community is rooted in closeness.”

The pandemic has forced substance abuse treatment providers to adapt, too.

Evergreen Recovery Centers has adjusted schedules at its outpatient clinics in Lynnwood and Everett so that meetings can take place in larger rooms where people are seated at least six feet apart, said Linda Grant, the treatment provider’s CEO. Intensive outpatient clients, who typically attend a three-hour session three times a week, now have the option to speak with a counselor via phone or video chat, Grant said.

Attendance has fallen in some groups amid coronavirus fears, she said.

“We’ve certainly enjoyed better times,” Grant said. “It’s hard. We want to keep going on and doing business as usual, but we cannot do business completely as usual.”

Members of the Everett Recovery Cafe can typically go to the nonprofit for a cup of coffee or a “recovery circle,” but the cafe has temporarily closed. Meetings are instead being held online, said Wendy Grove, the organization’s founder and executive director.

“We are taught in recovery to not be alone, to be amongst people,” said Sarah Brooks, the cafe’s operations director. “It’s just a huge change — the complete opposite of what we’re taught to do.”

Many addicts, though, have overcome challenges far more taxing on a personal level than the outbreak, Davis said.

Some have lost children. Others have lived through homelessness or jail stints.

To survive the pandemic, “they’re using all of the skills of resilience and strength and overcoming that they’ve developed through years of trauma,” Davis said. “That resilience is paying dividends for them in this moment.”

Rachel Riley: 425-339-3465; Twitter: @rachel_m_riley.

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