Declaring AA meetings an essential service would save lives
If and when the second wave of COVID-19 hits Montreal, these meetings must be protected, says this writer
CBC has agreed to withhold Matt's last name because Alcoholics Anonymous members are encouraged to remain anonymous in the media.
Before a global pandemic shut down Canadian society, I regularly attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. I also attended Gamblers Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings for my recovery. Meetings are one of the most important things in my life — maybe the most important.
Five years ago, I crawled into a Montreal rehab as a broken-down, suicidal alcoholic and compulsive gambler. I was introduced to AA meetings there, and I have gone to meetings several times a week ever since. The spiritual message and connection to other members that I found has kept me clean, transformed my life, and given me meaning and peace of mind that I would not have thought possible.
When I heard that meetings were shutting down for two weeks in March, my first thought was that this is not a good thing for our most vulnerable members, but it's only two weeks. Well, it's now been months since any in-person meetings have been held in Montreal in English; very few have been scheduled in French.
While there have been online meetings, which are certainly useful, they do not replace in-person meetings. We are an anonymous group with no central authority. We're not a priority on any government's to-do list, and when churches and community centres closed all our meetings got cancelled.
I'm a university graduate with no major clinical mental health problems. I have an apartment, an internet connection, and am very familiar with meetings. However, it is a challenge for me to do online meetings for a number of reasons.
For example, I have a roommate and don't want to do meetings when she is home, and I have concerns when it comes to online privacy. I often do not show my face on camera and I definitely censor myself if I speak, or do not speak at all.
Online meetings don't offer the same authentic connection that you get in an in-person meeting, and I find that disappointing.
In-person meetings are a sanctuary. They're a safe place to escape daily problems and work on a path forward in life with the goal of staying clean.
Our most vulnerable members are in situations that are much, much worse than mine. Our fellowship includes people who live in halfway houses, homeless shelters, mental institutions, and on the streets, as well as people in prison, people who have just been released from prison, and people who've stopped using drugs or alcohol in the last 24 hours.
When I first came to meetings, I had not paid my hydro bill for over a year, and things were falling apart all around me. Had my parents not helped me with rent for a couple months, I would have relapsed and ended up homeless. I cannot imagine how people in such dire circumstances can be expected to get an internet connection, a computer, and participate in a Zoom meeting.
People with mental health issues in rooming houses or people living in abusive situations do not have the luxury of attending online meetings. In-person meetings are a sanctuary. They're a safe place to escape daily problems and work on a path forward in life with the goal of staying clean.
I have spoken to several people who are not attending online meetings and regularly attended in-person meetings. These people vary in age, from 25 to over 60, and amount of time sober, from under six months sober to over 30 years sober. They, too, have their concerns and are missing private, in-person meeting rooms.
Medical doctors recommend AA to alcoholics. Judges suggest people with legal issues because of alcohol go to AA. Authoritative people understand that AA helps alcoholics in ways that are unique and not available anywhere else. The same is true for Gamblers Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and other 12-step fellowships.
I do not know how the government, churches, and community centres will approach reopening so our meetings can take place. I do know that as of next week, public gatherings of up to 250 people will be allowed in the province.
AA and other fellowships have clear mechanisms to handle rules such as seating and social distancing. I have no doubt that my fellow AA members can work within any health directives required.
Having no in-person AA meetings will almost certainly cost human lives, if it hasn't already. The number of overdose deaths in the news is grim. In my opinion, the surge in alcoholism, drug use, and overdoses is a public-health emergency, and the lack of meetings is exacerbating that emergency. People are dying and the situation is only getting worse.
The Legault government needs to add 12-step recovery meetings to the list of essential services, and all in-person meetings need to be reopened immediately. If and when the second wave of COVID-19 hits Montreal, the people who rely on these meetings must be protected.