How lockdown changed the rules of alcohol recovery

‘It was a massive, massive problem,’ Sandra Losty says frankly.

‘Once I started, I couldn’t stop. I was drinking in the morning, throughout the day, and it very quickly moved from what I liked to drink, to what I could get to drink.

‘There was no ability to have one or two, to be social, keep commitments, promises… Any of the stuff that you need to do to get by.’

As Sandra, 54, details her struggle with alcohol, she can still pinpoint the moment she realised she needed help. 

‘I’d taken my 14 year old nephew to the pub,’ she recalls. ‘After some drinks, I sent him home on two buses back to where he lived. In my mind, he was in the way. He needed to go.

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‘The next morning, it hit me, I’d sent my nephew home. Alone. Of all the things I’d done, in drink and for drink, I couldn’t believe I had done that.

‘I just remember screaming up at the ceiling: “I can’t f***ing do this anymore!”’

That was in 1995 and Sandra hasn’t had a drink since. Within a few hours of that fateful night, she had signed up to a face-to-face recovery programme, something she credits for saving her life. 

‘It was probably the first time I met people who got me,’ she says. ‘They understood that feeling of not wanting to drink, but having to drink. I met people I could identify with.’

Despite not having a drink for over 25 years, Sandra still regularly attends meetings – however, over the last seven months the coronavirus pandemic has had a huge impact on her and the millions of people across the globe seeking support for their alcohol addiction. 

Once the UK and Ireland were plunged into lockdown back in March, physical recovery meetings were suddenly rendered impossible and like so many other areas of life, forced to move online. 

Since then Alcoholics Anonymous have reported a 300% increase in requests for meeting information, with meetings taking place on Zoom or Skype. Meanwhile, demand for the email response service and the ‘Chat Now’ call service have both risen by over 30%.  

‘Normally, there are probably in excess of 3,000 meetings that take place just across Great Britain every week,’ says Tom Fox, a non-alcoholic trustee at AA. ‘Then suddenly there were none, so a very large number of these local groups, using their own resources, set up online meetings.’

Similarly, Help Me Stop, a non-residential centre for drugs and alcohol recovery, formulated an online version of its Dayhab programme, which provides intensive addiction treatment.

‘We always had an intention to develop an online solution,’ says admissions manager Chris Love. ‘However, the pandemic accelerated this, and when we went into lockdown we transitioned all of our face to face clients to our online programme.’ 

It certainly saw high levels of engagement, says Chris. ‘Over 85% of clients completed the programme; and of these, more than 80% have remained abstinent and engaged with our online aftercare programme as part of their ongoing recovery.’

Even for someone who had been attending physical meetings for 25 years, the shift to online was fairly smooth for Sandra. ‘I wasn’t worried,’ she says. ‘My preference is face to face; but when my preference of drink wasn’t available, guess what I did? I drank something else. So: if face to face meetings aren’t available, you do something else.’ 

However, not everyone feels this way. Aquarius, a charity which supports those affected by alcohol, drugs and gambling,  put together an online offer for their services in March.

Although there was initially significant interest, the charity says it didn’t last.

‘With the end of lockdown nearing, people started to crave face to face contact and decided they would wait for “real” groups to start,’ admits area manager Ruth Spencer.

‘When referrals dropped there was an uneasy period of quiet across many addiction services. We wanted to know why, so have been asking new referrals why they’re getting in touch now. The most common response is: “We were waiting for normal services.”’ 

Meg*, 39, looked into AA during lockdown – but decided not to pursue it when she saw that meetings were only taking place via platforms such as Zoom.

‘It feels too big to do via a computer,’ she explains. ‘I was very dubious about the online meetings, I’ll be honest. I didn’t like the idea that someone could do a screen grab of my face. During the lockdown, they were absolutely essential, so I’m not knocking them – but I’m just paranoid about it.’

At the time of interview Meg has been sober for 46 days, having turned to AA just as England’s lockdown restrictions started lifting.

‘I’ve been drinking since I was 12 and always thought that I sort of had it under control,’ she says. ‘But then it became quite clear to me that it was something that I couldn’t control.’ 

‘In the past I’d have a drink to get drunk, and merry, or whatever… But I was now drinking so that I was numb. And that was a completely different thing.’ 

This change was a significant moment and prompted her to call AA.

‘I didn’t recognise myself. The fun had most definitely stopped,’ admits Meg.

‘I was very fortunate because they’d just started doing physical meetings again, after only being able to do Zoom over lockdown, it’s been brilliant for me.’

She still has a memento from her first ever meeting: ‘I’ve got a tissue in my jewellery box, covered in mascara, that somebody handed me when I started talking and burst into tears. I’ve kept it as I don’t ever want to forget how bad I felt.’ 

While equivalent physical reminders are less likely to be possible when meeting online, addiction counsellor Christine Mackenzie points out that despite they come with their own unique benefits.

‘One is the ability to access meetings anywhere in the world 24 hours a day,’ she explains. ‘For those individuals who live or work in areas with relatively few face to face meetings this offers a unique opportunity to access meetings at a time that is convenient to them.’ 

Speaking from her experience of working alongside statutory agencies and non profits to deliver support programmes focusing on long term abstinence from drugs and/or alcohol, Christine explains, ‘There can be a nervousness and anxiety about sharing one’s own story to a group of strangers and new members who join online meetings may feel more open to talking about their experiences in the relative safety of their homes.’

It’s not just online meetings that are now available 24 hours a day either; Luke*, 24, is now part of four WhatsApp groups that didn’t exist for him before alcohol addiction recovery groups moved online. 

Now sober for over 18 months, Luke’s battle with alcohol occurred throughout his undergraduate studies – ‘university was a mess’ – and beyond.

‘I graduated in 2018 and would always be at work hungover,’ he remembers. ‘I had more money, so I could move onto the vodka rather than the cider.’

Due to a family history of alcoholism, Luke’s mother had recognised the signs and tried, unsuccessfully, to encourage him to attend an AA meeting. Then, one day, a catalyst helped him realise he wanted to seek help.

‘I woke up one morning, and my dad came into my room for some reason,’ he remembers. ‘He saw the vodka bottle on the floor, and I was bracing myself for him to go mental – and he just sighed and said, “Whatever.” He just picked it up and walked out. I can’t explain it –  something just changed.’ 

Luke doesn’t think he’d be sober without those 18 months of AA meetings; but the online shift has created further connections with his fellow members that didn’t exist before. 

‘They’re no longer just people that I see once or twice a week in a room, they’re now people that I have on the end of a phone line,’ he explains.

This means that Luke feels much more able to reach out to acquaintances from AA outside of meetings. ‘Before, I would never feel comfortable texting someone outside of a meeting and saying, “Hey, what you up to, did you see that new thing on Netflix”, but now I can. I’ve got all these people that I can talk to.’ 

Recently, Luke attended a ‘hybrid’ AA meeting – a physical meeting where one member also moderates a Zoom chat, so others can join remotely. He described it as ‘strange yet reassuring.’

‘Despite it feeling like an exam hall in its set up, there was a sense that everyone had accepted the new way of doing things,’ he explains. ‘Even though the disembodied voices sharing via computer to start with was weird, that feeling didn’t last long.’

Hybrid meetings such as this seem to provide an option both for people craving in-person contact, and those who would prefer to join from the safety of their own homes. 

And despite her trepidations, Meg recently took part in a Zoom AA meeting. After roughly six weeks of in-person meetings, she was talked round to trying an online meeting by a fellow member, who suggested it could be a way for Meg to fit more meetings into her week.

She found it to be a hugely positive experience. ‘The shares were amazing and I’m so glad I did it,’ she admits. 

Sandra also remains positive about the future of online engagement for addiction recovery in general. 

Earlier this year, she created a Twitter hour called Recovery Hour for those undergoing all kinds of addiction recovery (not affiliated with AA or any other support group).

‘I was connected to a community on Twitter that was openly talking about being in recovery,’ she explains. ‘My picture was there, I’m vocal and visible about it because I think we need to be talking about this, otherwise we stay secret.’ 

Just before lockdown started in her home of Ireland, Sandra realised she wanted to take Recovery Hour one step further and decided to hold a meeting via Zoom and put it out on Twitter.

‘Six months later, there we are: every night, seven nights a week, still there,’ she says.

‘Even if things open up fully, there will be some semblance of Recovery Hour still online, because of the relationships people have built with each other, and the connections they’ve made,’ adds Sandra.

Of course, online reformulation is not without its problems – some of them extremely serious, such as instances of trolling, and of relapses during lockdown.

There were a couple of instances at the start of lockdown – the dark side of ‘anyone can join’ – where internet trolls would crash the meetings, and they’d be drinking on the screen,’ explains Adam. 

Another issue that arose from the lack of physical meetings was that of relapses and increased drinking during lockdown.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists found that over 8.4million people were drinking at higher risk during lockdown – an increase of 4.8million in February of this year.

‘Our own research found that a quarter of adults reported drinking more in lockdown – and, worryingly, of those drinking more, 15% felt that they were experiencing consequences connected to this,’ confirms Sally Benton, director of strategy and communications at addictions charity Action on Addiction.

‘Visits to our website were up nine fold during the national lockdown. In response to this we have created advice pages to support people with questions or concerns they might have.’ 

For better or worse, online meetings are set to change the face of alcoholism recovery forever – and with a second lockdown, their necessity may continue for a significant while. 

‘There are huge benefits to those in recovery as people can now access a meeting at any time of day and from anywhere in the world,’ says Chris Love from Help Me Stop.. 

‘We are building communities and forming connections with fellow recovering alcoholics and addicts, which ultimately enables us to overcome the isolating nature of the illness.’

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