Editor’s note: Civil Beat is using only first name and last initial of some Alcoholics Anonymous members in this story in keeping with AA’s guidelines for members.

Chris B. is what the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous would describe as a “real alcoholic” – one of those drinkers who cannot control his consumption once he takes his first sip.

The Big Book – the 164-page instruction manual millions of alcoholics or heavy drinkers have used to become sober – also describes Chris’ condition as “hopeless.”

Chris, 35, lean with a tattoo on one of his forearms, used to drink himself into hospital confinement.

Back then, he’d start drinking with his buddies or after one of his shifts as a server. At some point, he’d black out. When he came to, he’d be in a hospital bed.

It happened a few times.

So did interventions by loved ones, who tried to talk — or scare — sense into Chris about the direction his life was heading. That didn’t work.

“That was me,” the Kailua-Kona man said. “I was hopeless.”

Chris got sober just over two years ago through Alcoholics Anonymous on the Big Island.

But when the pandemic hit, the important in-person support group meetings so necessary to AA stopped. Zoom sessions became the norm.

Then some members, like Chris, fearing they could slip, started attending a network of renegade meetings. They didn’t believe Zoom meetings provided the same fellowship, energy and miraculous messaging of in-person gatherings.

A circle of empty chairs in a plain room with a wooden floor
When the pandemic hit, the in-person meetings that have long been a foundation of Alcoholics Anonymous moved to online Zoom sessions. Now AA is considering whether keeping some Zoom options is the smart way to go. Getty Images/iStockphoto

“I liked being down at the beach with the people that I know, where I got sober,” Chris said. “I personally feel comfortable there.”

Now, as the pandemic eases and restrictions are being lifted, in-person meetings are returning as the norm. But AA is one of the organizations, along with government and businesses, that found there were major advantages in holding meetings via Zoom, including more turnout.

While AA is finding it may not be easy or even smart to give up the online sessions, some AA members think the platform is too easy a shortcut in what they consider a life-and-death struggle with alcohol.

Success Via Zoom

Staff at substance abuse centers on the Big Island said Zoom was a life-saving component to continuing their recovery programs during the pandemic. It is also an avenue they hope they can continue offering clients in the future, regardless of whether things return to normal soon.

Andi Pawasarat-Losalio, executive director at the Bridge House in Honalo, said the switch to Zoom meetings and therapy sessions helped the clean and sober living center continue to provide recovery support during a time when the world seemed to stop.

The Bridge House teaches recovery on-site for six-month intervals, and a big part of its wrap-around programing is having clients attend AA and Narcotics Anonymous meetings.

At the onset of the pandemic, when live meetings stopped and other state-run and outside service support centers closed, Pawasarat-Losalio saw the center’s success rate plummet.

Within the first three pandemic months, around three-quarters of the center’s graduates relapsed when they were back in their communities. That was in direct contrast to their normal 75% success rate.

“So, we revamped what we were doing,” Pawasarat-Losalio said.

The center began connecting its staff to clients individually out in the community after the clients moved off the campus, paying for cellphones if clients didn’t have them so they were accessible. Zoom and online platforms played a big part in making some of those connections.

More than just stopping the falling numbers, the change in approach helped the recovery center regain its success rate.

“I think we got really creative, really fast,” Pawasarat-Losalio said. “I’m absolutely amazed at everything we were able to do and change and accomplish in the past year. I mean, it really gives me so much hope on all the crazy things we can come up with in the next five or 10 years that could be possible.”

Bridge House Executive Director Andi Pawasarat-Losalio, left, stands outside her clean and sober recovery center with vocational skills coordinator Terrylynne Guerop and Drew Camacho, assistant house manager, in Honalo, Hawaii. Tom Hasslinger/Civil Beat/2021

Yet, for all that, Pawasarat-Losalio said the center has had in-house discussions recently about how it will operate moving forward as things open up. Some staff members want to keep the recent changes as opposed to having clients return to in-person meetings. Other members are adamant things return to the way they were before the pandemic.

Those are “conversations we’re going to have to keep having as things open up more,” Pawasarat-Losalio said. “How are we going to structure and what are things going to look like in the future?”

“A mix of it would be the perfect deal, right?” she asked.

The Hawaii Island Recovery Center in Holualoa is about 7 miles north of Bridge House.

HIR, as it’s known, is more of a volunteer in-house recovery destination; Bridge House clients are court-ordered in many instances. HIR also offers wraparound counseling and recovery services, including AA and NA meetings, for monthly or extended periods.

Jimmy Kayihura, HIR managing director, said his team’s experience was similar to Bridge House’s. They figured out on the fly how to get connected with clients under the new, isolated conditions and used the online platforms to offer support, which worked out well.

“I was skeptical at first, but we aced it, did it, saw it worked and Zoom has become this gift because now our reach is so much farther,” Kayihura said. “If we continue care, either via Zoom, or whatever fashion, we’re winning, and our outcomes speak to that. You can’t argue with numbers.”

A silver lining of the pandemic, he said, was that the shutdown broadened HIR’s reach within the islands, both among its clientele and working with other providers. Before the shutdown, 60% to 70% of clients were traveling from across the ocean. Now, most of the clients hail from around the islands.

Zoom has been especially valuable for those Hawaii residents from rural areas, who can stay connected to their peers and counselors after they discharge. It’s a positive outcome of the pandemic Bridge House said they also saw with their clients, a strengthened cohesiveness that exists beyond graduation.

“I pray that Zoom continues,” Kayihura said. “No question that Zoom has been a life-saver for AA.”

Lifeline For Everyday People

AA members who live and operate outside of treatment facilities, like Sherry H., a retired educator and artist more than four years sober, say that Zoom has been a literal lifesaver for members who work meetings into their regular 9 to 5 routines.

Sherry established her AA home group’s Zoom account. Similar to Chris’s experience, the business meeting she attended during which the group decided to meet virtually instead of online was spirited. And, just as with Chris’s group, which meets about 4 miles away from Sherry’s, some members broke off and started a renegade meeting that still meets today.

“It was so freaking stressful,” she said of those early days.

But, Sherry said, the online version of her meeting has had remarkable turnout. Attendance is consistently high, newcomers have joined and remained sober online, and visitors drop in from across the world and share in the experience. The platform has provided fellowship in spades and exceeded all her expectations.

“I was skeptical at first, but we aced it, did it, saw it worked and Zoom has become this gift because now our reach is so much farther.” — Jimmy Kayihura, HIR managing director

It’s becoming so ingrained with AA in fact, the lexicon has developed to match it. People who became newly sober through the pandemic have a name, “Zoom Babies.”

“I’m pretty sure Zoom will continue on some level,” Sherry said. “I believe Zoom is here to stay for any 12-step recovery. You reach so many people.”

Even Zoom detractors inside AA recognize its importance during the immediate shutdown of the pandemic. It was important because isolation is a very dangerous condition for alcoholics and drug abusers.

It’s one of the conditions AA and recovery programs teach people to fight. They must acquire a new fellowship and make friends with people who don’t abuse substances.

That can be difficult to do for people used to abusing substances. And substance abuse in general rose during the pandemic, national studies show.

Nielsen reported a 54% increase in national sales of alcohol right at the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, compared with one year before; and online booze sales jumped 262% from 2019. Around that same time, the World Health Organization warned that alcohol use during the pandemic may potentially exacerbate health concerns and risk-taking behaviors.

One national study on the topic from the U.S. National Institutes of Health’s National Library of Medicine documented that 60% of its field reported increased drinking, and 35% reported increased binge drinking during the pandemic.

The study, “Alcohol Consumption during the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Cross-Sectional Survey of US Adults,” says that the primary reasons for this increase were increased stress, increased alcohol availability, and boredom.

On Hawaii island, the Hawaii Police Department reported a 41% increase in the number of DUI arrests this year over last – 543 arrests compared to 384.

During the week of June 7, officers nabbed 13 motorists for driving under the influence of an intoxicant, four of whom were involved in an accident.

Bridge House assistant house manager Drew Camacho shares a laugh with the clean and sober facility’s executive director, Andi Pawasarat-Losalio. Tom Hasslinger/Civil Beat/2021

Zoom Not For Everyone

The skepticism for some in AA about Zoom pertains to the details in what it takes for alcoholics to get sober, according to several people who spoke with Civil Beat.

AA boasts 2.1 million members around the world. Studies debate its effectiveness, but the Surgeon General of the United States in its 2016 Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health said it showed “well-supported scientific evidence” to support its effectiveness.

To get sober, AA teaches people an alcoholic must abandon his or her own ego and self-will and adopt a new mode of living which encourages them to connect with a spiritual higher power and think and act in a way that helps others.

AA classifies alcoholism as a disease that involves mental obsession over alcohol as well as a physical allergy that triggers a “phenomenon of craving” that kicks in viciously once one sip is ingested.

If one can begin to adopt a new way of life through working the steps, AA teaches, the obsession to drink alcohol will be removed. When that happens, continuing to live in such a spiritual fashion will not seem like a burden, rather a pleasure. Thus, a new way of living is born.

So, there exists a spiritual energy inside live AA meetings where people feed off one another as they share their experiences, strength and hope with another alcoholic. Helping a sufferer learn how to adopt a new way of living is part of the spiritual program. Many call the experience of the transformation a miracle.

Even Zoom meeting supporters like Bridge House’s assistant house manager, Drew Camacho, said that there is no replacing the real thing when it comes to meetings.

There’s just something spiritual happening inside those rooms, which can be difficult to explain – or seem silly to outsiders.

“There’s something you can feel when you’re in a live meeting. You can feel the emotion,” said Camacho, who liked Zoom meetings, but looks forward to the day he can attend live ones regularly again. “The real magic happens (fellowshipping) before and after the meeting, and you don’t really get that with Zoom.”

One longtime AA member said the ease Zoom provides cuts too many corners in the program designed for disciplined living.

Bill A., who’s been sober 39 years, is known as a gruff old-timer inside the AA circles.

Sobriety requires a dedication like no other field, he pointed out, and the ease of attending Zoom meetings and slipping into a routine of comfort can be a dangerous step for alcoholics, who are undisciplined people in general, as the Big Book states.

To disrupt your day by getting dressed, commuting to the meeting place, and otherwise interrupting your day is the ultimate act for an alcoholic to get out of his or her own mind and comfort zone and prove his or her commitment to sobriety every day.

It’s too easy to turn off the camera on Zoom and not pay attention while sitting on your couch, he said. And to be lazy with an AA program is a death sentence for a real alcoholic.

“I feel the people who go to Zoom meetings are less dedicated about AA than the people who go to live meetings,” Bill said. “It’s easier. And because they do that, they lessen the whole experience about AA. It’s about the effort that it takes, the commitment. The effort. You gotta get up, drive to a meeting, dress, so on and so forth. All those are commitments, that you’re involved.”

Bill, who has helped scores of men get sober, also relied on Zoom at the onset and switched to renegade meetings as they became available. He praised the platform for doing its job in a pinch but recommends against an alcoholic relying on it.

He wants to see AA on the Big Island go back to making live meetings readily available. Groups are starting to make the transition, but the pace is too slow for some. The debate still kicks up in meetings occasionally.

AA isn’t like a workforce considering switching to remote work because an employee’s life doesn’t depend on office performance the way an alcoholic’s life literally depends on sobriety, Bill said. The stakes are much higher.

“One of the things that happens in AA, the more you’re involved in AA, the greater your love for AA becomes. If it’s easy — the easier it is — the less you really attach to AA,” Bill said. “If you don’t attach, it can be fatal.”

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