Alcoholics Anonymous Mumbai using virtual meetings to cope with lockdown stress

Updated: May 24, 2020, 12:40 IST | Anju Maskeri | Mumbai

Battling addiction during enforced isolation is far from easy, but Alcoholics Anonymous Mumbai is using virtual meetings and daily voice calls to keep the fight alive

Representation pic
Representation pic

In Mumbai, members of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), a social support network for those trying to achieve recovery, found themselves cut off from peer support when a national lockdown was announced in March to facilitate isolation and break the chain of the Coronavirus outbreak. Like for many others, technology has come to the rescue.

Sessions that were scheduled in schools, hospitals and churches, are now held using the Zoom app. Since the lockdown. AA has conducted 200 online meetings across India, including with members in Jammu and Shillong, across languages. Robert, who looks into the public information requests for the group, says the city has seen 25 meetings so far, free and mostly over voice calls with end-to-end encryption. Video formats are discouraged. That it also saves money and is accessible has led to increased participation.

While actual group meetings would attract not more than 30 members, virtual meetings are seeing close to 70 participants, some from as far away as America, New Zealand and Australia. According to Robert, the sudden abstinence has elicited varied reactions. While there has been a high incidence of self-harm, anxiety and depression, some have managed to remain sober.

"It's the best thing that could have happened," says Susan, a senior member, who completed her 29th year of sobriety last week. Over the past two months, she has been all over the world—virtually-hopping from sessions in South Mumbai to Sydney and Chicago. In the meetings and conference calls, members share stories, offer support, and hold each other accountable. "For a long time, I was one of the few women members in the community, because there's so much stigma attached to going public with your addiction," she says. "In the West, it's different. I also noticed that there were a lot more women sponsors [mentors who have been in recovery and help others navigate the process]." She is now part of a women's-only WhatsApp group that periodically holds video conferences.

But, alcoholism is a slippery slope. Nikhil, 44, a marketing professional from Mumbai, knows it all too well. While a slew of virtual meetings and work calls keep his mind off alcohol during the day, it's the nights that pose a problem. "My parents live a floor away from me. Moreover, the diminishing contact with the outside world is a downer," he admits. The pressure to drink in these circumstances is intense. "Because weekends are when I have time on hand and the urge to drink is strong, I log in to AA sessions then," he says. The new connections have helped him stave off the stash at home.

The stereotypical image of the sloshed man drinking out of a bottle under the bridge couldn't be further from the truth, says a member and mentor at AA Mumbai. You can be perfectly functioning and successful and yet have a problem. "I'd say members can be put into three broad categories. Those who have been in the programme for a while and are committed to recovery; those who are trying to understand what the principles are and if they are working for them and finally those who have hit rock bottom." Economic factors don't necessarily determine rock bottom in the AA ecosystem. Each member defines his or her own rock bottom. "It's basically about identifying what you're in the process of losing that you don't want to lose anymore. You could call it a turning point." One of the new members includes an 82-year-old woman from Goa.

For those who may not have a smartphone or are technologically-challenged, Anoop, a member, makes it a point to phone them daily. "We are looking out for each other, making sure that the others in the group are okay."

There have been some inspiring stories coming in, too. "I know at least four alcoholics in recovery, who are volunteering fulltime to provide essential goods and medicines during lockdown," he says.

Names have been withheld to protect identity.

70
No. of participants each virtual meeting is attracting as against 30 in physical meets

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