How a 12-Step Program Can Help All of Us Through the Pandemic

When it became increasingly clear by mid-March that the global pandemic was going to turn life as we knew it upside down, the unthinkable happened for millions of Americans like me who are in recovery from addiction: One by one, the 12-step meetings that were our lifelines to connection and support began being canceled as the churches and clubs where we gathered shuttered their doors.

My first reaction was borderline panic. How was I going to stay sober – and sane – stuck at home in isolation without the wisdom, laughter and camaraderie I had come to so rely on as a source of strength? Within a few days, however, I got a text that one of my regular Alcoholics Anonymous meetings was going virtual. Soon, I was flooded with Zoom links for every day of the week. I guess I wasn’t alone in needing meetings.

I remember my first Zoom meeting clearly: the awkwardness of seeing friends and acquaintances in their homes, the learning curve with the technology (and getting everyone to mute themselves!) – but, mostly, the collective sense of shock, uncertainty, trepidation, and anxiety as, one after another, people shared how they were dealing with their “new normal.” Finally, a woman with years of sobriety said something that made me take notice: “As an alcoholic who has a program and a set of tools I can use when I’m faced with challenges, I feel like I’ve been preparing for this my whole life.”

Although it may not be immediately obvious to most people, recovering from an addiction actually has a lot in common with navigating a pandemic. What’s important to understand is that abstinence from alcohol (or drugs, or overeating, or fill-in-the-blank) is only the first step in recovery; working a 12-step program is ultimately about achieving “emotional sobriety” and learning to live life on life’s terms, no matter what ups and downs are thrown at you – like, say, financial insecurity, illness (or fear of illness), or strained relationships. Starting to see the connection?

Here are five lessons I’ve learned in AA that can help all of us come out on the other side of these tumultuous times not only intact, but maybe even a little more emotionally sober.

1. Acceptance is the answer.

One of the main tenets of AA, based on the first of the 12 steps, is admitting our powerlessness over alcohol – and, if you extrapolate, basically everything else in life. When you think about it, we have little or no control over the people, places, things and situations around us. All we can control is how we react to them. An oft-cited passage on page 417 of the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous is what’s referred to as the “Acceptance paragraph.” It states: “And acceptance is the answer to all my problems today … Until I could accept my alcoholism, I could not stay sober; unless I accept life completely on life’s terms, I cannot be happy. I need to concentrate not so much on what needs to be changed in the world as on what needs to be changed in me and in my attitudes.”

During the pandemic, when so much is uncertain and out of our control, it helps me to pause throughout the day when my head starts spinning and repeat the adage that is said aloud during most AA meetings: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

2. One day at a time.

When they first come into the program, most alcoholics face a lot of consequences as a result of their addiction: damaged or broken relationships, lost jobs, financial worries, possible legal trouble, and more. The thought of rebuilding is so overwhelming that it keeps many people drinking. That’s why the concept of living one day at a time is so helpful to newcomers who are faced with having to deal with their regret and shame over the past and their anxiety and fear about the future – all without being able to numb themselves anymore.

Staying in the present is good advice for all of us right now. Instead of worrying whether my mom with underlying health issues will get the virus, what school is going to look like for my kids this fall, how I’m going to help a 7-year-old with likely some form of e-learning while entertaining a 4-year-old and trying to take online classes myself, and whether we should stop seeing grandparents whom we rely on for childcare once the kids are back in the classroom – none of which I have control over, by the way (see Lesson 1) – I’m doing my best to rein in my fears and focus on what I can do today.

When I was early in sobriety, my sponsor told me that if I just put my head on my pillow at night sober, I had accomplished all I needed to for that day. My goals during quarantine aren’t too much more ambitious. If I can take just one step toward preparing for the fall, get my kids to read a book in between playing on the iPad and fighting over LEGOs, and maybe throw in a few loads of laundry, I consider that a victory. I’ll figure out the rest when I have to.

3. Practice gratitude.

By the time recovering alcoholics have reached the 12th step of the program, most have experienced a spiritual awakening (or “psychological transformation”) that has freed them from their obsession and helped them attain a new freedom and a new happiness. But it’s not happiness that brings gratitude – it’s gratitude that brings happiness. In keeping with the concept of acceptance, alcoholics are taught early on in recovery to practice gratitude; instead of focusing on all the things that aren’t going right in our lives, we learn to accept our current circumstances and reflect on all the things we do have to be thankful for.

Some people write in a gratitude journal each morning to help them start their day with a positive outlook. I’m trying a different approach: A few months into the pandemic, an AA friend added me to a gratitude text group she was a part of where, throughout the day as they think of it, each person texts the others on the chain three things they’re grateful for that day. When it seems like the pandemic will never end and I’m feeling sorry for myself, I get continuous reminders to change my frame of mind into one of humility and appreciation. Sometimes I have to dig deeper than others, but I can always summon up gratitude – for fewer commitments and running around, more quality time with loved ones (lots and lots of quality time…), and being able to be sober and present for my kids at a time when they need me even more than usual. I bet you can, too.

4. Stay connected.

Another common saying in the rooms of AA is that the opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety – it’s connection. Love and belonging are part of Maslow’s hierarchy of basic human needs, right there after breathing, water, food, and the feeling of safety and security. On the flip side, isolation can be detrimental to our mental and emotional wellbeing – something alcoholics and addicts know all too well. While attending Zoom meetings isn’t the same as getting a hug or holding hands in person, it goes a long way in helping us maintain a sense of connection with our support system while staying at home. Everyone has to decide for him or herself what level of interaction they’re comfortable with, but whether it’s texting or talking on the phone, connecting via Zoom or social media, meeting for a social distancing walk or picnic, or walking into The Living Room to talk to a trained peer recovery support specialist, spending time with positive, supportive people has to be a priority.

5. Be of service.

The road to long-term sobriety wasn’t easy for the founders of AA, but they learned that when all else failed, work with another alcoholic helped them maintain their own sobriety. That motive soon became secondary, transcended by the happiness they found in giving of themselves for others. The principle of service later became Step 12 in the AA program, which implores members “to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.”

Sponsors often tell newcomers to the program to call three alcoholics a day – not so they can lament their own circumstances, but so they can ask others how they’re doing and get outside of their own heads. We’re also taught that it’s never too soon to help others; even if we have only a week of sobriety, we can reach out to the person with two days of sobriety and give them hope.

Research has overwhelmingly shown that giving is good for us. So, even if we’re struggling ourselves right now, we can still check on neighbors, connect and volunteer virtually, give blood, donate to a food pantry – or text or call three people a day who might also be struggling. Chances are, we’ll be reminded of our own value and what we have to offer others. And that’s good for everyone.

Written by:  Erin Gibbons

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