I consider myself lucky. My journey with recovery started in January 2020, so I’d had a couple of months to get into a routine and understand how physical recovery meetings worked before lockdown came into force and meetings moved online. So What exactly has it been like for a newcomer to recovery where we’ve had to replace physical meetings with Zoom?

When the pandemic hit, I was impressed with how quickly groups managed to get themselves organised and move meetings online. Almost as soon as lockdown started we saw the first meeting details beginning to appear. Individual links were being shared across Whatsapp recovery groups with Zoom quickly becoming the preferred platform of choice for groups hosting meetings.

At the same time, a few public Google Docs had also been created by the recovery community and were quickly being shared between groups to give everyone a way to list and find newly created online meetings. The spreadsheets were great to begin with, but AA is a big fellowship and the sheer amount of info being listed, updated and crammed into an online version of excel meant it was hard at times to navigate, find and filter meeting details.

Not too long afterwards, a group of anonymous digital-fellows took things into their own hands. AA-London was created, taking meeting listings from these community spreadsheets and turning it into a simple and easy to use website. It’s made the entire process of finding your next meeting incredibly simple, whilst also giving meeting organisers a tool to constantly update meeting listing details whilst in lockdown. I can’t thank team behind this enough, it’s an incredible service to recovery and alcoholics everywhere.

So what has the online meeting meeting experience actually been like?

As a newcomer I was nervous about online meetings. I’d only just gotten comfortable with a routine. I’d found a few groups that were close to work and had a good vibe, places where I was seeing regular faces, finding the confidence to ask for phone numbers, and places where I’d just started feeling comfortable to share. I really was nervous about losing all of this, I was fairly new after all and I felt like my recovery might fall over almost as quickly as it had started.

It turns out those fears were unfounded, the online experience has been great all things considered. Zoom has been a great tool for meetings, and the community over time has collectively worked together to find the best ways to use it to host and manage different types of meetings. It’s ultimately given us a great alternative while we’re not able to attend physical meetings together. Here’s some thoughts from me on what the online meeting experiences has been like:

Some things you just can’t replace
For my early recovery part of what connected me to the programme were small things you just can’t replace. Things you wouldn’t normally consider like the actual physical journey to a meeting, it was all part of my wider recovery routine.

I’m very much a morning meeting person. I feel a morning meeting sets me up for the day and gets me into a good head space. My regular meetings were in central London either at 6 or 7.30am. Indirectly, a big part of my early recovery was actually having the motivation and mindset each day to wake up on time, get that early morning bus or train and making sure I physically made it to meetings on time. It was all part of the experience. The effort it took to leave the house at 5am gave weight to each meeting and made it a big part of my day and daily recovery.

Over and above this, there’s the community side to the programme that you just can’t replace online. Seeing fellows face-to-face and feeling that connection during a meeting when you share. Having a tea or coffee afterwards as a group or a quick chat with someone while you’re on the way out around a shared experience. Even doing simple things like service. Offering to help set up the room beforehand or helping with the washing up afterwards were all incredibly important for me in my early days while I was getting to understand the programme. This kind of connection certainly can’t be replicated on Zoom.

Zoom Bombings
One of this biggest issues for online meetings has been ‘Zoom bombings’ which were particularly prevalent at the start of Lockdown when meetings were still in their infancy. Trolls finding online meeting directories and then organising themselves to disrupt meetings had a big impact on the online recovery experience. I was personally insulted in one meeting and know of another fellow who was so affected by abuse from trolls that I’ve not seen them on a Zoom meeting for months.

There were some instances of trolling I was able to largely ignore. We’d wait for the troll be kicked from the meeting by the admin team and get on the with our meeting. However it’s not always easy to brush aside, there were times where the abuse and disruption stayed with me for days. Being in early recovery is an emotional minefield, and having that sort of disruption to your meetings can definitely have an impact on your state of mind.

Thankfully now the bombings are few and far between. Zoom have been updating their platform over lockdown so it’s harder for trolls to disrupt meetings. Fellows running meetings have also stepped up, sometimes requiring people to say hello by turning on their webcam at the start of meetings or using waiting rooms to verify people before they can enter the main meeting. Most meetings now also have people in security service positions (I’ve heard these being lovingly called “troll patrol” or “spiritual bouncers” amongst other things) to help keep meetings as safe as possible for everyone.

It’s easy to be distracted
This is a big one for me, I find that with digital meetings it’s easy to lose focus and not be present or connected to a meeting despite being ‘there’. It’s easy to be distracted by Whatsapp or emails, while I try to limit this as much as possible, it’s an easy trap to fall into. It’s also easy to hide-away in Zoom meetings and not share which isn’t great, especially for those in early recovery.

There’s also the ability to bail during an online meeting if you’re not feeling it, something which isn’t something you’d normally do in a physical meeting. If you’re there physically you tend to stick around (and generally have a good experience in the end), but with Zoom it’s all too easy to quit meetings for superficial reasons.

I’ve left meetings for a number of reasons that I’m not proud of during lockdown. Anything from not engaging with the speaker, not feeling the pre-meeting conversation or even not liking the look of the fellows in the room. I tend to do this less now, but it’s still an issue for me. Online meetings are instant, always-on and you haven’t invested any time to physically get there, so it’s sometimes all too easy to just quit which can hurt both your own recovery and the ultimately the recovery of the wider group as on person leaving means there’s less people to do the service of listening to fellows who are in need of connection.

Whilst I have had some incredible online meetings which have ultimately had a significant impact on my recovery, I find I’m generally much more attentive, engaged and ultimately invested in the physical meeting experience.

Meeting formats havn’t had to change
One of the great things of online meetings is that we’ve not had to sacrifice or downgrade the actual meeting formats themselves. I was worried we’d end up having second rate meeting experiences due to the limits of technology, but this hasn’t been the case.

We’re able to host meetings with over a hundred people in one place and with everyone being able to have a good experience. Muting everyone except current speakers ensures the meeting isn’t full of noisy distractions like coughing, keyboard tapping or kids screaming in the background.

We’re able to use the raise-hand function to enable orderly sharing and speaking in meetings and prevent people from accidentally speaking over each other. We’re able to share central readings on screen, read passages as a group, suggest meeting topics and people can still chat with each other using chat, DM’s or breakout rooms.

Overall, I don’t think we’ve lost anything in terms of how meetings actually operate which has been a pleasant surprise.

It’s made recovery more accessible
This to me is is the most incredible thing about us being forced to move meetings online. I feel like we’ve entered a new era for twelve-step recovery. While I’m lucky to live and work in London where we have access to thousands of meetings a week, there are others who simply don’t have regular access to meetings when they need them.

The pandemic has changed all that, now everyone around the world has access to meetings around the clock. Even if you’re on holiday (ok maybe not on holiday given the current situation) you can still get access to a meeting whenever or wherever you are.

It’s genuinely incredible, and one of the reasons that I’m sure online meetings will become a permanent part of recovery well after Covid is over. For a newcomer in recovery, having access to a meeting whenever you need one is nothing short of amazing. Certainly I’ve had bad days and very much needed two or even three meetings to help get my head straight – having them there at the click of a button has been a god-send.

We have access to broader recovery experiences
I’m just over six-months into my recovery and was lucky that in my first weeks I found some incredible home groups and regular meetings. That being said, I’m also guilty at this point of not having a broad recovery experience and branching out my meetings, something I’m now actively looking to do. I feel I’ve at times become over reliant on the same groups as it’s been the safe thing to do. However as my sponsor has told me gaining broader experiences, perspective and understanding of the programme is very much an important and rewarding part of the journey.

Online meetings make this all possible, being able to experience new groups, rooms and perspectives from around the world without leaving your living room is incredible. As members of AA we can meet more fellows from more walks of life than you’d ever get to normally, and helps us gain more perspective and understanding of the programme in the process.

Just last week I overslept one of my regular meetings and had to attend a new group instead. I realised before the meeting that I was nervous. I wasn’t going to see any regular faces, I’d feel alone in a strange new Zoom, the anxiety meant I almost left the meeting before it started. I stayed with it though and ended up having an incredible meeting, it was great to feel supported by a group of total strangers from all over the world and was a reminder of just how powerful the rooms and our fellowship can be.

Ultimately I’ve had a great experience from several months of online recovery. Despite missing the physical aspect of meetings and seeing fellows face-to-face, online meetings have given us a new and easily accessible way for us to connect and share with each to help our recovery journey. Online meetings allow us to connect with rooms all over the world whenever we need them and are a great way to meet new fellows and get a wider perspective of the AA programme.

I’ll always enjoy having physical home-groups and meetings and will be very glad once they’re back, but I feel the pandemic has given us a gift. Despite some ups and downs, the impact online meetings have had will mean I am sure they will become a permanent part of recovery long after physical meetings return. It’s something I’m not just grateful for now whilst we’re in lockdown, but something I’m grateful to have as an ongoing part of my future recovery.

I’ll leave it there..

/ Jay