I was born and raised on a farm in rural Virginia, and many times have heard my parents and older members of my family and community recount tales of their daily lives and practices that would be entirely foreign to almost all of us today. My grandmother’s first ride in an automobile came at age 13; the twenty mile trip to “town” to sell the tobacco they grew took three days and two nights by horse drawn carriage, and the layovers were timed to rest atop White Oak Mountain.
Telephones, televisions, and the like came in due time – but here I am, a mere generation or two later – typing this on a hand held device that can literally connect me to the entire globe with the tap of a touchscreen! The change didn’t occur overnight, but the speed with which technology has changed our ability to interact, communicate, send and receive news and information, etc. has been truly remarkable, and continues to outpace most of our abilities to keep up.
Much has been written about the pros and cons of our dependence on technology, what we’ve gained and what we’ve lost in its application, but I can say for certain that instant internet access, the ability to talk and text without searching for a pay phone or a mailbox, has been an invaluable tool to me in my recovery from alcoholism and addiction.
I live in a medium sized coastal city now, but the old farm in Virginia has plenty of access to technology with cell towers and satellites beaming signals to even the most rural and remote locales. I can only imagine my Grandmother’s dismissive hand wave if I had the chance today to attempt to explain: “You see Grandma, there are satellites orbiting the earth… and this tablet connects wirelessly to a wifi router… and boom your great granddaughter is talking to us via video in real time from South Africa…”
Twenty-five years ago I was 17 years old and already ravaged by my consumption of alcohol and other substances. I really don’t remember exactly how I was introduced to the 12 step fellowship but I do remember being told to get phone numbers of other members and “dial them don’t file them”. It would be a few more years before I was willing to take even this most basic of suggestions, and many more years still before I finally put together six years of continuous sobriety. Even then I had lots of trouble relating to the religiosity in the literature, to some of the steps, to the traditional meetings I attended and to my sponsor who couldn’t seem to fathom my atheist worldview as genuine – and once again I relapsed. I recently, though, thanks to utilizing technology, have found groups and fellowship online, and even a face to face “We Agnostics” meeting.
Today, for the first time in 25 years, I don’t feel isolated, alone or separate from the entire fellowship, and for this I am exceedingly grateful and optimistic. I choose to put more focus on the “principle” than the “spiritual” and knowing that I’m not alone in doing that makes it all much easier, and I feel much more “at home”.
But back to my story…
At age 23, having made a mess and mockery of school and work opportunities, I begrudgingly started a career as a long haul truck driver, and found that I loved it! A natural loner and explorer, I loved the nomadic lifestyle, not having a “boss” looking over my shoulder, waking up in a different place every day, the incredible diversity of landscapes and dialects and cultures of America, and perhaps the dubious feature of never having to get to know anybody TOO well, and vice versa. My first job was a more or less regular cross country route from the Carolinas to California and back.
I attempted to use a “tool of technology” back then to stay connected, which seems so antiquated now – the “phone card”. This was a pre-paid long distance access card that enabled me to call my home area in Virginia from any pay phone in the U.S. by entering a code and being very careful to manage my available minutes. Having had my butt kicked enough by alcoholism to open my mind to the suggestion of staying in contact with others in recovery, I’d purchase as many minutes as I could afford on these cards in Arkansas on my way out west and stop in Arizona to make my weekly calls!
In those days the best truck stops typically had a designated room with rows of pay phones in cubicles for privacy. Of course this required some coordination with loved ones and a sponsor and other members of the fellowship to know what time I’d be calling, or I could find myself heartbroken and frustrated and “out of minutes” by missed calls and connection fees.
Fast forward a decade (or two) and I, for one, love texting and email and use it frequently. Cell phone signal strength can be hit or miss, and “dropping” calls or being unable to hear clearly is a definite problem on the road. Not as difficult as finding and buying calling cards and searching for a phone booth, but still a problem.
Text and email allows me to consider my words before “saying” them, yet offers nearly instantaneous communication, and a record of conversations I can refer back to, as needed. This has proven invaluable in my relationship with my current sponsor and others. Today my sponsor and I mostly communicate via text, email, and cell phone calls from wherever he or I may be geographically. We live a few hundred miles apart but still see each other in person occasionally, and those face to face times are important and precious, but are no longer the only way to stay connected. In my travels, finding a meeting anywhere is usually accomplished in a matter of minutes, using area websites and GPS. Podcasts and recovery speakers keep me in good company on long days alone.
While these are just some examples from my own life and story, I’m not unique in feeling alone and estranged from the fellowship. It’s not only those of us who travel for work who can and do benefit from our modern modes of connectivity, but also those who live in areas without ready access to meetings, those who for myriad reasons are confined or without transportation, those with strong social anxiety issues, and even those who do have access to meetings but have found a particular mindset prevalent at groups in their area that prevents them from feeling “a part of” there, but can and do find a network and fellowship online.
My first memory of this idea came from a conversation I had with a female member who I ran across in a local grocery store. Having not seen her at our morning meeting in a while, she explained that the morning meeting was the only one that her work schedule allowed her attend, but she often felt uncomfortable being the only woman in attendance, not to mention the innuendo and unsolicited, unwanted advances made toward her by some members.
She had found an online women’s group where her experience was common and understood, she felt no intimidation from “the old boys club”, and could share openly and freely. She excitedly told me it had radically changed her experience of recovery, for the better!
Since then, I’ve seen this type of scenario played out many times with members who experience some form of disengagement through distance or inability to attend traditional meetings, or members whose traditional groups haven’t been effective in integrating all alcoholics into their fold; for example, LGBTQ alcoholics or atheist and agnostic alcoholics like myself. I can say from personal experience, after many years of struggle to feel “at home” as an atheist in recovery, that it has been a great relief to find groups and meetings online. Essentially, to find fellowship online. I can’t emphasize this enough – I no longer feel alone… and that has been essential to my hope for continued recovery.
A potential challenge presents itself here regarding technology. As alcoholics and addicts some believe we are inherently resistant to change. I personally have heard it said that online meetings aren’t “real meetings”, that texting is “silly” or something that only kids do, that use of these technologies is splintering the unity so important to the fellowship, and that isolation is dangerous to recovery; that one can “hide” behind a computer screen or phone and never learn to engage face to face with humanity. I believe there is some merit to these concerns, but these are the same dilemmas our world and society as a whole faces with technology, and we as individuals and groups in 12 step programs are not immune to these challenges.
One things for sure though, these technologies are here to stay and not just stay, but continue to advance and morph at an incredibly rapid pace. How we deal with them and integrate them into our lives is up to us.
In my estimation the benefits far outweigh the potential negatives, and in best case scenarios those who can’t get out to traditional meetings can attend online meetings, and those who feel marginalized can find that they are not alone and go on to start new meetings. The lady who introduced me to the idea went on to start a morning women’s meeting in her hometown that flourishes today. I recently, for the first time after spending quite a bit of time just reading online atheist/agnostic recovery websites, listening to podcasts, etc, found an atheist/agnostic traditional face to face meeting on a Saturday morning in a town 600 miles from home, within minutes made friends there, and took part in celebrating a fellow member’s 22nd anniversary celebration of sobriety!
So I conclude technology is like so many things in our lives, it will be what we make of it.
I realize many if not most reading this already use these “techno” tools in their recovery and most of us use them in many aspects of our daily lives. I am mainly expressing gratitude for them here, and hope to encourage those among us who haven’t tried them yet to give it a shot. There’s little to fear, much to be gained, and if we as a fellowship hope to engage with up and coming generations of alcoholics, we’ll need to meet them where they are – online.
Ask for help if you’re unfamiliar with these tools. Use a search engine and expose yourself to new insights into recovery around the world. Enjoy a recovery speaker on an audio or video application, download a daily reflection or recovery literature app on your phone, text your sponsor, email him or her some of your step work, try an online meeting or chat room. If you meet someone who’s isolated by distance or disability or travel, be familiar enough with the area and world websites and online meetings and chat rooms to offer them a chance to find and connect with other members, something that so many of us take for granted.
Let’s be responsible, so that when anyone, anywhere, reaches out for help the hand of the fellowship is there, face to face or via modern technology.