Recovery at Home During COVID-19: Online AA and NA

The coronavirus pandemic creates challenges in almost every aspect of life.

Teenagers in recovery from an alcohol or substance use disorder face obstacles that many other teens do not. They’re trying to stay sober when their previous support options, such as in-person therapy, group counseling, or regular meetings like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA), are no longer available.

Teens currently enrolled in addiction treatment programs can participate via telehealth. Most outpatient, intensive outpatient (IOP), and partial hospitalization (PHP) programs now offer virtual treatment in order to comply with shelter-in-place orders and social distancing guidelines. Those options are critical for teens at the beginning of their recovery journey who need to learn the fundamentals of living life without alcohol or drugs.

However, there’s a group of teenagers out there with recovery experience already. They may have attended a residential treatment program (RTC) or an IOP/PHP in the past. They’re well on the road to sustainable, long-term recovery. A big part of their recovery program is the social support found in programs like AA or NA. They’ve worked hard to get where they are. Now their recovery and sobriety is at-risk because they no longer have direct, in-person access to an essential component of their program.

What those teens – and their parents – need to know is that they can attend AA and NA meetings online.

Virtual AA and NA: How it Works

There’s an important thing for teens and parents to understand about online/virtual/remote AA and NA: it’s not new. It predates the internet. Early on, AA found a way to reach people in rural areas, developing countries, and those for whom in-person attendance was impossible. What began by telephone and letter shifted to online bulletin boards in 1986 and shifted to email lists in the early 90s. The first official online AA group, called the Lamplighters, formed in 1990. Since then, AA and NA meetings have populated every online communication platform as they became available. AA/NA members use chat rooms, group texts, listservs, social media groups, instant messaging, direct messaging, and video conferencing. Name the platform, and AA and NA groups use it.

There are now hundreds of online AA groups, organized under the umbrella of Online Intergroup: Alcoholics Anonymous. Online NA groups are organized by Narcotics Anonymous World Services, with their virtual meetings and support options listed here.

The way each meeting works is determined by the meeting organizer and the community it serves. Every AA or NA meeting operates by the following principles:

  1. The meeting is anonymous.
  2. The primary purpose of the meeting is to help people living with addiction by spreading AA/NA concepts and practices.
  3. The meeting must be self-sustaining, not affiliated with any outside group, and operates with as little organization as possible, outside of standard AA/NA meeting protocols.

Parents and teens interested in participating in online AA/NA meetings should reach out to meeting organizers to make sure the meetings are open to and accept teenage participants. If they don’t, they’ll connect you with meetings that do: one thing you’ll learn – if you’ve never communicated with the AA/NA community – is that they’re very supportive to newcomers and do their best to accommodate anyone seeking help with addiction.

Why Try AA or NA?

There’s a robust debate among addiction professionals about whether 12-step programs like AA and NA work. Some are convinced they do: thousands of people around the world attest they owe 12-step programs their lives and go to meetings daily. Others are lukewarm: they attend AA or NA meetings occasionally, in order to share fellowship with people with whom they have common ground and shared experience. They recognize the value of the 12-steps but may not live by them, as some people do. Still, others disapprove of the 12-step process as a whole and take elements of the AA/NA philosophy and customize them to meet their needs.

Who is right, and who is wrong?

The answer to that is simple: if it helps someone stay sober, right or wrong is irrelevant. People recover in the way that’s best for them. The goal is recovery, and the path to recovery is different for everyone. With that said – and despite whether or not the 12-step process works – there’s almost universal agreement about the positive role of social support in recovery.

A study on social support for people with alcohol use disorder published in The Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology concluded:

“Those who added at least one non-drinking member to their social network showed 27 percent increase at 12 months post-treatment in the likelihood of treatment success, and sustaining abstinence.”

This insight is critical: it proves that social contacts – as few as one – can make a big difference in the lives of people in recovery. Another study – Outcome Research on 12-Step and Other Self-Help Programs – published by the American Psychiatric Press in 2008, identified four components that explain the importance of social support in recovery. Social support groups are effective because they offer:

1. Structure and goals

 Social support groups offer a time-tested system that helps teens achieve their primary objective: recovery from alcohol and drugs. For teens who’ve received treatment, social support groups enable teens to build on the work they began while in a formal program. AA and NA allow them to solidify and build on the progress they’ve already made. For teens who’ve never received formal treatment for an alcohol or substance use disorder, social support groups can introduce them to the recovery experience. They can learn the language of recovery and meet sober and abstinent peers. They can get a start learning coping skills and strategies to live a life free from alcohol and drug use. 

2. Alcohol and drug-free social options

People diagnosed with an alcohol or substance use disorder who choose recovery learn almost immediately they have to learn an entirely new approach to free time. Those who drink spend time with other people who drink. Those who use marijuana spend time with other people who use marijuana. Teens trying to quit doing one or the other – or both – often need help figuring out exactly what to do with themselves. Social support groups help them with that. They host alcohol and drug-free activities and encourage recovery peers to get out in the world. They teach them to mingle and have a good time without getting drunk or high.

3. Recovery mentors and peers

Making big lifestyle changes – like entering recovery – is not easy. It helps to have positive examples of how it’s done. Teens in recovery need to talk to and listen to people experienced in recovery. If those people have some success and are willing to share their experiences, then they’re ideal to connect with. Support groups create daily opportunities to learn from people who’ve done it before. In some cases, experienced recovery peers take on the role of sponsor– the equivalent of a recovery mentor – and take on a formal role in the recovery process. Peer and mentor relationships lay the groundwork for a long-term support network. And it’s that support that can make the difference between sustained sobriety and relapse.

4. A safe environment to practice recovery skills and build self-esteem.

The interplay that occurs during AA and NA meetings helps teens both new to and experienced in recovery on multiple levels. First, meetings are open forums where people with common experiences can offer insight on effective emotional coping skills. Participants share techniques for managing stress and discuss tips for recognizing and working through triggers. Second, meetings create a safe space for teens to talk. As simple as that sounds, it’s important to have a place where it’s acceptable to talk openly. Teens want to share successes, frustrations, and funny recovery experiences. Third, the cumulative experience – open honest communication, peer mentorship, safe space to vent – gives teens a sense of belonging and purpose. This supports the journey away from self-doubt to self-confidence and self-esteem – two essential elements of a successful recovery.

How to Find A Meeting

The first resource to enlist when looking for social support for a teen living with an alcohol or substance use disorder is any mental health professional they’ve worked with before. If your teen has a therapist or a counselor, ask them first. If they’ve been in treatment at an IOP, PHP, or RTC, contact the staff. They should be willing and able to put you in contact with online resources.

Finally, you can go straight the source, and use the Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous websites:

  • To find an online AA meeting in your area, click here.
  • To find an online NA meeting in your area, click here.

One last reminder for parents: AA and NA meetings are anonymous. We do recommend you help your teenager find a meeting. We also recommend you contact the meeting organizers to ensure it’s appropriate for an adolescent. Once you properly vet and approve the meeting, though, it’s crucial for you to respect the anonymity of the meetings. No lurking or eavesdropping, no matter how much you’re tempted. Put your mind at ease by applying the adage trust but verify.

Empower your teen with your trust, but verify the authenticity of the meeting ahead of time.

That way, everyone wins.