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A sign about a canceled Alcoholics Anonymous meeting is posted at the Centre Meeting House at 203 N. Washington St. in Winchester on Tuesday.

Many people in addiction recovery are going online for Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings or relying on phone calls for help now that the coronavirus pandemic is limiting public gatherings.

"In light of the recommendations for public health and safety, the Small Mall Group of A.A has decided to close the daily 12 p.m. and Saturday 2 p.m. meeting until further notice," said a sign on the Centre Meeting House at 203 N. Washington St. in Winchester on Tuesday that also provided phone numbers of sponsors. "In order to keep our sobriety healthy and strong, we want to encourage our A.A. friends in need to reach out by phone and talk."

At the Edgehill Recovery Center, which has 21 patients, the last in-person meetings ended Friday due to virus concerns, according to executive director Deborah Millette. 

"We tried to stay open as long as we could," she said. "It's a struggle for some people being on a meeting on a computer without that human contact and that recovery embrace that helps so many of us."

Relapses frequently occur during recovery, but the lack of regular face-to-face dialogue, recent job losses and fear of infection are new obstacles to maintaining sobriety caused by the virus, which had killed over 17,500 worldwide, including six in Virginia, through Tuesday afternoon. Because many drug users have criminal records, finding employment is difficult. But the economic crash caused by the virus has compounded that.

Tiffany Cadoree, Northwest Regional Adult Drug Treatment coordinator, said many of the court's 35 clients have lost jobs. The drug court team and recovery providers are trying to help find them new jobs, apply for unemployment or find housing if they've become homeless due to losing their jobs.

'We're trying to bridge the gap," Cadoree said. "They are placed in very precarious positions, but one thing I try to do as coordinator of the program is keep them level-headed and make sure that they understand that we're here for them and we're all going to get through this together."

The court usually meets weekly with judges and the drug court team delivering praise or sanctions to defendants depending on how they're doing. But with courts limiting attendance to reduce risk of COVID-19 infection, the hearings have been canceled. Nonetheless, Cadoree said the drug court team is still closely monitoring clients despite the impediments caused by the virus.

"The message to clients is that it's still business as usual," she said. "Show us that you can remain sober even if there aren't the traditional structures put in place."

Court defendants and many local people in recovery rely on Northwestern Community Services, an area nonprofit provider of drug treatment and mental health services. Northwestern staffs the Winchester Peer Resource Center Warm Line, a 24/7 crisis hotline. Calls have doubled from 10 to 20 per week since the virus was declared a pandemic on March 11, according to Jennifer Borden, Warm Line coordinator.

Northwestern staff are also communicating with clients through phone calls and with the Zoom video conferencing app. Zoom has also been used by clients at the Rivendell Recovery Center in White Post in Clarke County. The center presently has seven clients, according to center founder Hughie McGee who runs the center out of his home along with eight staff members who also live there.

Clients are typically driven to two meetings per day in the region. They also take periodic road trips for activities like whitewater rafting or to attend the annual national A.A. meeting.

"We believe that the addict suffers a disease of isolation," said McGee who's been sober since 1970 and whose center relies on the A.A.'s 12-Step, abstinence-only philosophy. "We think it's very important that they make relationships outside of Rivendell."

But with social distancing — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends a 6-foot space between people to avoid infection — Rivendell's mission of sharing joy and sorrow has been complicated. Besides daily meetings, a few annual alcohol and drug-free events have been canceled. Meetings are mostly held through Zoom, although McGee said gatherings at parks involving less than 10 people who maintain social distancing may be held when it gets warmer.

While he would prefer in-person interaction, McGee said Zoom has been helpful. He said some online meetings involve up to 70 people. The meeting moderator mutes each participant at the beginning of the meeting. Then participants, who can be seen on small screens, raise their hands and are unmuted and allowed to speak.

"It's actually pretty ingenious and everybody is very glad that the technology is available," McGee said. "Because people in 12-Step fellowships would be in serious trouble without the ability to share."

— Contact Evan Goodenow at egoodenow@winchesterstar.com

(1) comment

David L Nelson

Daytime Al-anon meetings in Winchester have gone to a Zoom format.

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