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Addicts, for whom groups are a lifeline, struggle amid the virus shutdown

News Photo by Julie Riddle A small group of people who rely on each other as they battle addiction meets for a few moments of Bible study Thursday at Shoreline Wesleyan Church in Alpena.

ALPENA — What do you do when a virus keeps you apart but being together is what saves your life?

As businesses close, events are canceled, and people stay far from one another to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, those who battle addictions are facing the loss of the support meetings on which they depend.

There are no confirmed cases of coronavirus in Alpena, Alcona, Montmorency or Presque Isle counties. However, District Health Department No. 4 reported a confirmed case in Cheboygan County. The individual is an adult female who is not known to have traveled and is currently in isolation. The total number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state was 5,486 as of Sunday.

Denise Bryan, administrative health officer of District Health Departments Nos. 2 and 4, would not say where the woman was isolating.

Alcoholics Anonymous, the worldwide organization of more than 2 million members, famous for its 12-step program for helping people into sobriety, usually holds meetings every day of the week in Northeast Michigan.

Groups of all sizes and structures, meeting in church basements and halls and wherever they can find a welcoming corner, gather regularly, offering structure and acceptance to people for whom togetherness is key to their finding strength to make the next right choice.

Now, with the coronavirus creating forced separation, those meetings are cancelled. AA members can’t meet, can’t see each other’s faces, can’t hear stories of others who walk the same walk.

Who have been there.

Who get it.

To the rescue comes technology, reported Melissa T., of Rogers City. As with all active AA members, Melissa doesn’t share her name, adhering to the organization’s strict commitment to anonymity.

A recovered addict sober 20 years, Melissa remains active in the organization, even hosting meetings in her home, still drawing strength from the togetherness that is one of the best tools an alcoholic has for fighting against the power of their addiction, she said.

Suddenly, many AA meetings are being held not in basements but on screens, with members checking in via teleconferencing platform Zoom or chatting by conference call.

It’s not a complete replacement for an in-person meeting, but it’s something, Melissa said.

They’re not in the same room, but they can still share stories.

Storytelling is the heart of AA, Melissa explained. At meetings, people can talk, uninterrupted, sharing their struggles and their triumphs. Others listen, hearing their own truths reflected in someone else’s words, and knowing, as they listen, that they’re not alone.

The program provides materials members can take home with them or find online, including a magazine filled with stories that, Melissa said, feels almost like going to a meeting.

People who join AA are connected with a sponsor, who checks on them outside of meetings, forging a deep connection that can hold a struggling alcoholic accountable and give them the connection they need, even when meetings have to step aside in deference to a virus.

She worries most about people who just started AA, those who haven’t yet plugged into the community or connected with a sponsor.

They’re not alone, even in a time of deep aloneness, Melissa said. Someone who will listen, someone with stories just like theirs, is just a phone call away.

***

When Brendan Maroney started getting sober some years ago, he went to two AA meetings a day every day.

Now a pastor at Shoreline Wesleyan Church in downtown Alpena, Maroney leads a restoration church service each Saturday night, a service now livestreamed in front of empty chairs. It’s a place for those who struggle with hurts, habits, and hangups, said Maroney, who started the service as a refuge for others like him, who need to be with people who have fought the same fight.

People who get it.

On Thursday evening, a tiny group sat, Bibles in front of them and distance between them, around a table in the church’s back room. They came with stories, all of them battling addiction of one kind or another. They came to be together for a few minutes, because being alone is so hard that it’s dangerous.

“Scary times,” Maroney said, concerned he will see numbers of suicides and overdoses rise in coming weeks as addicts are deprived of the human contact that helps keep them safe. “Very scary times.”

Four months ago, the church added a Wednesday night discussion group for recovering addicts, a place to come together even more intimately, to talk, to share, to be together. They call it Breaking Chains.

Since the governor’s stay-at-home order, the group’s regulars have met by teleconference, using Zoom, Youtube Live, and Facebook Live to keep in touch.

Thursday’s small gathering was a rarity, a brief respite from the struggle of being apart.

“When I isolate, I get myself in trouble,” said Sam Robb, 28, who has relied on the strength of shared experience since he got out of jail recently. “When I’m alone, it’s too easy to do things that I know I’m not supposed to do.”

A text came in on Maroney’s phone. It’s hard, being alone, the sender said.

“You can just feel the depression,” Maroney fretted as he read the message. “I can only imagine what’s going through his head.”

He’s checking on the 100 or so people in the church’s directory, calling to make sure they’re OK and that they get to hear a human voice.

A church leader who has been through it all – addiction, depression, prison, homelessness, suicide attempts – Maroney aches for the people who can no longer come to the church for togetherness, for the safety of being with people who understandand and accept them.

He hurts for the people who can’t be together anymore.

“Human contact is so needed right now,” Maroney said. “We have to find ways to connect.”

Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693, jriddle@thealpenanews.com or on Twitter @jriddleX.

Get connected

∫ Shoreline Wesleyan Church: Call Pastor Brendan at 989-255-0137

∫ Alcoholics Anonymous local hotline: 989-354-2728 or visit aa.org.

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