A week ago, the thought that March Madness could actually be cancelled given the billions of dollars involved had not yet crossed my mind. Now, just seven days later, my brain is whirling with the depth and breadth of the collateral damage from the doctrine of isolation that is more severe than anything we’ve experienced in our lifetimes. Is that too dramatic for you? Can you name a time when government ordered constitutionally protected private businesses to close, churches were shuttered and the travel industry was destroyed? I can’t. Dramatic? Yes. Really, inconceivably happening? Also yes.
(If you are struggling with the temptation to drink as we isolate and our everyday lives are so dramatically changed, please click here to read my Elephant Journal article published this week on the topic of the unrelenting shame of drinking alcohol through crisis.)
I’ve seen the spread curves, and I understand the reasoning behind social distancing. I’m not here to argue about if we have or have not gone too far. I know how deadly and contagious the virus is, and no, I don’t want to be Italy. While I could literally go on for thousands of words expressing my shock and heartbreak at the destruction these measures – the necessity of which I am not trying to dispute here – are bringing on our society, I won’t do that. I’ll focus on one specific area of fear and pain. I want to express my sincere terror at the closing of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
I’m not a twelve stepper, and I’ve never attended an AA meeting. When it was time for me to get sober, the stigma associated with the one and only organization I was remotely familiar with as a source of alcoholism recovery support was so negative and ingrained in our culture that I never even considered attending a meeting. I thought AA was nothing but a bunch of sad-sacks moping in a damp church basement on cold metal folding chairs chain-smoking cigarettes while drinking bad coffee and whining to each other about their lot in life and terrible decision making.
I was wrong.
I know a lot of people who have been resurrected in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous, and who would not be alive today without the fellowship. It is important. Like, saved millions of lives over the past century, important. I’m still not going, It’s still not for me, but it is a global institution, and its potency has just been castrated.
Based on CDC guidance, and in some cases, government mandates, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings are being canceled all over the United States for the indefinite future. This is not a technologically advanced organization, and the move to online meetings will likely be slow and painful. But that’s beside the point, really. The major value offered by AA to its attendees and supporters is the hugs and handshakes and Kleenex and the eyeball to eyeball connection that says, “You are one of us, and we’re here for you.” Some jobs don’t translate to working from home, and some groups can’t smoothly move online. And for my friends who need AA meetings, I am fearful of the mental health danger of removing that physical, in-person connection. COVID-19 is not the only epidemic health threat we face, and we just took away the biggest weapon we have to battle alcoholism for the 15 million people it actively terrorizes.
I run an online program called SHOUT Sobriety to help people navigate the challenges of early recovery. Many of our participants also attend AA meetings regularly, and we have had lots of discussions about the complementary nature of the two approaches to support. I have been often told by our SHOUTers, as I affectionately call them, that they are far more open and vulnerable when sharing their pain and fears in our SHOUT Sobriety program than they are in their AA meetings. Some of that is attributed to the loving culture we foster within the group because of the giving support offered by all the participants. We seem to truly love one another. But there is another reason people are so honest and revealing in our forum. We all live miles, and even continents apart, and we will never run into each other at the grocery store or the movie theater. Our local businesses are not in jeopardy of our secrets getting out around town, and we don’t have to worry about who will see us going into or out of a church basement. We are free to SHOUT to each other about our secrets because the miles between us offer protection.
Make no mistake about it – my goal in the SHOUT Sobriety program is to help each and every participant find the enlightening freedom of open recovery, and to enlist them to help me fight the stigma associated with alcoholism. As people in our group grow their sobriety muscles and find more and more courage to speak out about their affliction, two things happen. First, they feel better. A disease shared by over 15 million people is hardly a secret worth keeping, and the number of people that resonate when they share their stories is life changing – for the listeners and the people doing the sharing. Second, our sobriety becomes less and less reversible the more we share our stories. When we tell of relationships damaged, debilitating depression and anxiety, and all the rest of the collateral damage of our addiction, who is going to drink with us? Our truth makes returning to our alcoholic ways nearly impossible when we share the details with those around us. SHOUTing doesn’t just help other people, it keeps us sober.
But SHOUTing is as advisable in early sobriety as jumping off the high-dive into the deep end before we’ve learned to swim. Being open in recovery takes behavioral changes, neurological repair and good old fashioned time. If the idea of sharing your darkest, deepest alcoholic secrets is terrifying to you, that just means you are a culturally indoctrinated normal human. You should be scared, because honesty around this topic is really scary. But when we peel back the layers of our secrets slowly and cautiously, we begin to reap the benefits of our vulnerability. And feeling supported when we share our truth a little bit makes us want to share our truth a lot. Not just with others with whom we share an affliction, but we benefit from telling our stories to anyone and everyone. We all want to make a difference and have our time on earth matter. Recovering out loud – eventually – can literally save lives while freeing us from the bonds of shame.
SHOUT Sobriety is already an online program. It always has been. We haven’t moved online due to social distancing. Virtual connection, with its advantages and limitations, is who we have always been. And there are limitations, no doubt. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted to reach out and hug the participants in our group. I’ve wanted to hold a hand during a hard time, and I really needed more than a phone call or text message myself on many occasions. But despite the limitations, we are healing and gaining strength and SHOUTing together, and the caring, growing and loving in the group is palpable.
And you are welcome to join us. There is room for you in SHOUT Sobriety.
We are a donation-based program run through our nonprofit, called Stigma. We ask all participants for a $25 per month recurring donation to keep our mission alive. If at any time a participant does not feel the love and support, and is no longer benefiting from the program, they can cancel the recurring donation. There is no big upfront expense like most online programs. You can pay as you go, and change your mind at any time.
We are not discounting our program during the coronavirus pandemic. We are not trying to lure anyone in as an alternative to AA or any other live program. Alcoholics Anonymous is a free program, but most attendees throw a buck or two in the basket as it gets passed around. If you go to a dozen or more AA meetings a month, you’ve likely donated the same or more to that organization as we ask for at SHOUT Sobriety. But that’s not the point, really. If $25 per month seems like a lot, you are not taking your sobriety seriously. I won’t get into the math of comparing $25 to the amount active drinkers spend each month on booze. The bottom line is that SHOUT Sobriety is here for you if you are willing to make a modest and reasonable investment in your ongoing health and recovery. And for the $25 per month we request, we make no apologies.
Coronavirus is a pandemic, and lots of lives are at stake. I am glad to see our medical community and world leaders taking the threat so seriously even as I am terrified about the collateral damage of mandated isolation. I just wish we as a country, as a society, would take the epidemic of alcoholism as seriously. The World Health Organization is quoted frequently in the news lately. The WHO is also credited with calculating that over three million people die each year from alcohol related causes. We should do everything we can to prevent infectious spread and death from COVID-19. But we should also pay a little attention to the much deadlier scourge of alcoholism.
If your plan for recovery support has been interrupted, we hope you’ll join us at SHOUT Sobriety. If you’ve never before reached out for help, we want to support you, too. As the world moves even more toward online gatherings and virtual connection, please trust me when I say the limitations are real and unavoidable. But we’ve ironed out some of the kinks, and there is nothing new for us about operating this way. Connection is available. It is connection you can feel even from many miles apart. Drinking is no solution during this global crisis. Maybe SHOUT Sobriety is just what you need right now.