Lives Changed is an OPB series looking at how people’s lives have changed across the Pacific Northwest during the COVID-19 pandemic.
For our purposes, Don is just Don.
He’s not using his last name because anonymity is one of the tenets of Alcoholics Anonymous: the program says not to make a show of your sobriety.
It’s been 36 years since Don, now retired in Tigard, has had a drink. He says those years of sobriety have come from AA meetings, which he’s attended almost daily for decades. It’s been his lifeline.
“Alcoholics and addicts are generally very distrustful of counselors and other people who are paid to be there,” Don says. “But they will listen to another addict, to another alcoholic.”
The whole point is to avoid feeling alone.
“Isolation is the natural state of an alcoholic or an addict,” Don says. “We tend to do these things in secret and don’t want anybody to know that we’re doing that. When we do finally find some other friends who are in the same state, they become our whole life.”
So when the pandemic began, those daily meetings went to zero, overnight. Coupled with the threat of an invisible pandemic that’s especially threatening to older adults, it was a rough, abrupt change.
“I remember feeling like ahhh, how are we going to do this??” he says. “I didn’t know just how we would get together if we couldn’t get together in person.”
Don was in that sudden state of isolation, the worst thing for an alcoholic, for over a month. He poured over his recovery literature. He’d call other people in recovery on the phone. He says he relied on the strength of his higher power. Regardless, none of it was the same as being there for his community, in person.
Finally, after several weeks, he was introduced to the technology that most of us have spent a LOT of time using during the last eighteen months: Zoom meetings. The first time he fired up his computer and saw all those faces on the screen, Don knew he’d found a lifeline he’d been lacking.
“It was amazing; it was like ‘Oh you are there! Hello!’” he says. “We got the word out to everybody that we could think of and when people would show up on the screen it was like long lost friends: ‘Oh it’s been so long since we’ve seen each other!’ There was a lot of catching up to do.”
Those online meetings held Don and his community together for several months. But of course, they weren’t perfect: you’re communicating with people, but you’re still alone.
Going to a Zoom meeting, it’s kind of like going downstairs and getting on your exercise bike and riding for an hour,” Don says. “Compare that to opening up the garage door and taking your bike out and right around the neighborhood for eight or 10 miles: the experience is completely different.”
He says the main difference was just the power of having someone’s physical presence near you. When you’re dealing with a powerful addiction, sometimes words aren’t enough. A simple human touch can be the thing a person needs to break through and feel connected.
“I remember the first problem that I was having trouble dealing with, when I was new to the program,” he says, “and a guy came up and put his arm around my shoulders and said ‘here’s what I did.’ It was his encouragement that helped me get through a difficult situation. It’s hard to make contact with someone else when all you see is a 2.5-inch by 3-inch square on screen.”
As vaccinations became widespread, his community held a lot of discussions about when it would be safe to ditch the screens and go back to in-person AA meetings. He says the first time being back in the room was pure joy.
What Don remembers most? It wasn’t the conversation.
“I can still remember the first hug I got from somebody at an in-person meeting,” he says. “It’d been a year and a half since I had gotten a hug from another person at the meeting! It was just like, ‘Oh, we’re back, we’re back.’”
Today, about half of Don’s meetings are in-person, the rest are still online. In some cases they’re going backward: everyone is wearing masks again, and they’re being cautious again to socially distance themselves. But he says that even as COVID-19 cases spike in Oregon, he doesn’t anticipate going fully back online anytime soon.
“There’s a point where you just have to say the disease is a problem,” he says, “but my recovery has to take precedence at this point.”
In many ways, Don spent his time during the pandemic trying not to change: keeping meetings going both in-person and online and keeping sober. But because of his history, Don has built up a personal resiliency that has given him tools to get through uncertainties in life: things like a pandemic that kept him away from some of the most important people in his life.
As we enter a new realm of uncertainty this summer and fall, with hospitals filling once again with COVID-19 patients, we could actually all learn a lot from what Don’s been through.
“Admitting that we need help is really difficult for a lot of people because there’s that sense of the ‘rugged individual,’” he says. “It’s difficult to admit that a situation is starting to be overwhelming. It’s because we have to admit that we are at a point that we are unable to handle something by ourselves and that we need help.”
Over the course of the pandemic, Don says his AA meetings have seen a lot of newcomers: other people who found that the growing stress, fear and isolation of the pandemic were more than they could handle on their own. But even today, he’s confident that there’s a community out there to support everyone: you just have to look for it.
“To me, it is a clear demonstration that when somebody wants it badly enough, they find a way,” he says.
Listen to Don’s full story using the audio player above