This article was originally published on VICE Germany
"Hi, I'm Lara, I'm an alcoholic." About 60 people from around the world have dialled into a Zoom session of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Lara has introduced herself this way three times a week for the past nine years, but usually her audience is sitting in circle of chairs in Berlin. Now, she's looking at 60 tiny faces on her phone screen.
AA meetings are generally centred around alcohol addiction and recovery, with members sharing their own experiences of living with alcoholism and hopes for the future. But today, one topic monopolises the conversation: COVID-19 and its effects, including isolation.
Of course, one of the more significant consequences of the pandemic for this group is the outlawing of physical meet-ups. Face-to-face meetings are a fundamental part of AA, something organisers quickly recognised in Germany. In Berlin and other German cities, numerous meetings are held online every day in a variety of different languages.
Alcoholics Anonymous was founded in 1935 by an American stockbroker and surgeon, and began as a self-help program in US hospitals. Now a worldwide phenomenon, the network estimates a membership of at least two million across 180 countries. According to the organisation, you become a member of AA “when you say you are”, and while they recommend members attend regular meetings, attendance is not recorded – in keeping with the promise of anonymity.
Alcoholics Anonymous is ubiquitous and well-accepted in the US, where Uber drivers show off “sobriety chips” on windscreens and celebrities such as Demi Lovato talk openly about their addiction. In comparison, Germans are more likely to associate alcoholism with shame and weakness.
So for German AA members, disconnection from their supportive community poses a particular threat. "If you don’t stay on top of your addiction, it gets stronger," said Lara*, 39, from Berlin. "It doesn’t take long for an addict to lose the battle with alcoholism.” During lockdown, the mind of an alcoholic can be a dark and lonely place.
"The current isolation and decrease in human contact are extremely dangerous for addicts," said Berlin-based psychologist and addiction specialist Ulrike Schneider-Schmid. "Contact with others, with a community, having a partner to relate to – these are basic human needs." According Schneider-Schmid, this lack of contact can negatively affect sleep, brain performance, physical and mental well-being.
For alcoholics, the AA community can be the difference between life and death. "Without meetings and the 12 Step Program [the fundamental principles of AA], we can’t stay dry,” said Petra*, who helped organise the shift of Berlin’s AA meetings from in-person to online. “Alcoholism is the disease of isolation, so we had to be quick," she said. Several meetings take place each day, so members can follow a regular routine as much as possible.
In AA meetings, many alcoholics find connections they lost while in the throws of addiction. Lara said when she was at her lowest, she tried everything to avoid her feelings. "I made a lot of mistakes while drunk; lost control, lied, denied and felt ashamed," she said. Members are encouraged to share their stories, show empathy for others and generally feel comfortable being open about their addictions.
Now, the very isolation AA tries to prevent is being actively enforced by governments around the world. Psychologist Schneider-Schmid said it's undoubtedly led to an increase in relapses. "Of course," she said. "Not just because of social isolation – fear also plays a role: the media hits us with death rates every minute, people have lost their jobs, many have financial worries."
Lara is a freelancer. Her earnings have slumped and jobs have been cancelled. But she says she’s confident everything will be fine – she knows she is not alone and that her friends in the programme support her.
But how much support can you get through a screen? Members usually hug each other at the beginning of AA meetings, an important mode of establishing a connection. While the AA spirit is still present in Zoom meetings, Petra said you feel it more in person.
A crisis like the coronavirus pandemic can also push "normies" (as AAs call people without addiction) to rely on alcohol. "Alcohol has an anxiety-relieving effect," said Schneider-Schmid. "And many are currently using alcohol for self-medication against anxiety. In a few weeks, I think there will be a shift: coronavirus infections will decrease, and mental illnesses will increase."
Isolation and the loneliness can also trigger other addictions. "At the moment, we have less access to things that make us happy," said the psychologist. In response, addictive behaviour can activate the reward system: a shopping or gambling addiction (both very possible to indulge online) leads to dopamine spurts.
The pandemic has had an unexpectedly positive consequence for AA: Lara said her meetings have grown, and now involve attendees from all over the world. "We are all moving closer together," she said.
In-person contact may be severely limited, but alcoholics and "normies" alike can still use AA principles to feel better: help others, take things one day at a time and share how you're feeling. However long the crisis lasts, it helps Lara to remember who she is: "Hi, I am Lara, I am an alcoholic."