Battling addiction online: How COVID-19 has changed support groups for alcoholics and substance abusers

Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous -- two fellowships of men and women who have a shared problem of addiction and help each other to come out of it. How has the pandemic affected them?

A famous musician from Delhi, Govind (name changed)* had been addicted to marijuana in the past but quit it a year ago. However, some weeks into the lockdown, he lost his job and slipped back to the old habit of taking marijuana. 

Govind had been a member of a Delhi-based Narcotics Anonymous group and attended their meetings every day. That was a key factor behind his successful withdrawal but the sudden suspension of usual meetings due to the lockdown led to loss of all gains made. “It made me anxious and I ended up seeking respite in the old habit,” he admits. But then fortunately, something happened that facilitated a second withdrawal — the members of his group started meeting online on Zoom.

Even as lockdown rules have been relaxed in many states, given the continuing surge in cases in many, mostly urban, pockets of the country, most people prefer to stay home and are looking at multiple ways to stay connected with their network. This also holds true for the members of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) fellowships (groups), who have now switched to virtual communication and meetings.

NA and AA are fellowships of men and women who share their experiences, concerns, insight and hope with each other to combat the common problem of addiction. Being a member of the fellowships helps them come out of addiction. The shared stories of tough addicts who recovered from drugs and alcohol are a motivating factor for the recovering members.

The first AA was started in Mumbai in 1957 and the first NA meeting also happened in the same city in 1983.  

Before COVID-19 changed the way we have always lived our lives, it was a routine affair for the AA and NA members to meet daily to speak about their addiction-related problems. The primary goal of these individuals is to quit unhealthy habits and lead a happy life. These fellowship meetings provided a platform for members to discuss the psychological issues connected to addiction, such as anxiety and depression. 

However, the usual mode of the functioning of the fellowships has been halted by the lockdown, resulting in a relapse of addiction problems among some members.  Observing the incidence of relapse, members decided to form virtual groups to seek help and continue their interaction as they had done in the pre-COVID times.  

The virtual route

At least 200 NA meetings are conducted every week in India, predominantly in the Tier-1 and Tier-2 cities. The AA fellowship, on the other hand is a larger fellowship with more than 1000 virtual meetings happening every week, according to the information provided by the senior members of both the groups.  

These meetings act as a robust support system for recovering addicts. In addition to the discussions on addiction issues, the group occasionally/ periodically hosts other activities, such as music parties and open discussions with family members of the addicts — mostly on Zoom. 

In one of the NA meetings that I participated in, myriad issues across different age groups were discussed by the members. For instance, an IT professional admitted having relapsed into substance abuse after 14 years due to the stress and worries caused by the lockdown while a middle-aged man celebrated seven years of sobriety. A youngster confided that he had slipped into depression during the lockdown and another working woman spoke of how domestic violence had pushed her to smoking.

“Fearing judgment, we do not speak about our problems even with family members. Every addict would have lived a life of lies at some point in time. We lose control over our thoughts and seek quick ways to deal with problems. Under such circumstances, opening up with fellow members is a big relief, because they would have been in similar situations,” said a member of an AA group. 

Pros and cons of going online

The stigma around addiction and addicts not only creates fear, guilt and shame among AA and NA members, but also creates obstacles in the path of finding suitable and inclusive spaces for conducting the fellowship sessions.Most of the sessions take place in educational and religious institutions. The limited availability of venues thus becomes a major problem.

“It’s a disease so powerful that I cannot give it up without support or hand-holding. A fellowship is the need of the hour”

Member of an Alcoholics Anonymous Fellowship, speaking during the COVID-19 lockdown

Another major challenge of meeting in person manifests itself when members lose control over their actions during the meetings. “On occasions, we have had new, or even old, members going back to using drugs or alcohol, in what we term a relapse. In such cases, members sometimes turn aggressive even when the meeting is on, and we have lost a few meeting venues due to such incidents, ” says Abhinandan*, a member, who has been sober for about 24 years now. There are no such concerns when the meetings are virtual, he points out but at the same time says, “Though Zoom calls keep the fellowship active, nothing can replace the bond that is created when we meet in person.”

The need for support and awareness

The extraordinary circumstances created by the coronavirus disease has created a lot of stress and had a deep impact on the mental health of citizens. Job losses, anxiety about self or family and social isolation are rampant. Under such conditions, there is a huge possibility of people either relapsing or even getting into the habit of alcohol consumption and drug addiction. 

“Initially, the closure of liquor shops in containment zones and non-availability of drugs due to transportation issues could have deterred citizens but the emotional imbalance created by circumstances are likely to push people towards mood-altering substances, especially now when availability is not an issue any longer,” says Kumaran* a member of an AA group. This problem calls for immediate action.

Many addicts in the country have recovered just by regularly attending these fellowships. However, unlike other countries, awareness about these groups is rare in Indian cities. Considering the current crisis, it is the need of the hour to take a few measures to help the community. 

For example, the police and courts can direct the offenders of ‘drink-and-drive’ cases to attend AA meetings to learn how intoxicants and narcotics affect an individual’s life and how to free oneself from such habits. “While such directions by courts are frequently seen in western countries, it seldom happens in India,” said Kumaran. 

The fellowships are independent in nature.  They do not collaborate with, nor are they funded by, government bodies or corporates.  However, any support from the government in creating awareness will contribute to the successful functioning of the fellowship. For instance, after the symbolic participation of Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal in a NA fellowship meeting, many more people became aware of the existence of such a platform.  

Members also feel that

  • Helpline numbers should be made available in all police stations and other public institutions. 
  • A National-level helpline for NA Fellowship should be created.

AA national level helpline - +91 90227 71011/022-65055134

NA area helplines
Bangalore: +91 98805 90059
Kolkata: +91 98362 23071
Bengal: ‎+91 87680 71057
Mumbai: +917045379492
Chandigarh: +91 92177 06222
Odisha: +919776644440
Chennai: +91 9710919924
Pune: +91 96736 06686
Darjeeling: +91 9547730033
Punjab: +91 81462 25262
Delhi: +91 98180 72887 / +91 9990916671
Sikkim: +91 9474019570
Hyderabad: +91 8297544324 / +91 6304387653
South Mumbai: +91 8433872341
Jammu: +91 90865 97717

*Names in the article have been changed as Fellowship rules forbid disclosure of individual identities of members in media or public domain.

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