Alcoholism, Anxiety, and Other Personal Battles: In New York City and Beyond, People Trade In-Person Support for Remote Alternatives


Matt, a longtime New Yorker who is part of Alcoholics Anonymous, keeps an eye on personal birthdays. One is expected to arrive on May 19.

If the COVID-19 lockdown is still in place, then in the city as planned, it will mark another milestone – 62 consecutive days of digital AA.

Since March 19, the 36-year-old Bronx firefighter has held an evening reunion at 9 p.m. to replace – and then some – his favorite weekly meeting held at a neighborhood church shut down by the coronavirus.

“It occurred to me that I could host meetings on Zoom,” said Matt, who was familiar with video conferencing from previous work in marketing. He preferred to use only his first name for this story. “Downtime is the devil’s playground. Many people have found comfort in the fact that we now meet every night. His plan: to maintain this schedule until the crisis passes.

Around the five boroughs and beyond, people have traded in-person support – 12-step programs for alcohol, drug, sex addiction, and more. group therapy sessions; individual counseling for anxiety, and so on – for alternatives at a distance. Support is virtual, whether through Zoom, ZM,
Google Hangouts, GoToMeeting, or some other platform, but the benefits are real.

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Ask Dr. Andrew Merling, clinical psychologist in private practice and assistant professor of psychiatry at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital. Since mid-March, his office sessions on West 58th Street in Manhattan have all been spent online or over the phone.

This includes a weekly long-term group session for nine men struggling with drug addiction.

“I had never used platforms like Zoom before,” Merling said. “I discouraged him. There may be distractions. I like working with people in the same room, where you can get more clues and a closer connection.

Going remotely, he added, “was an adjustment.” And an urgent and necessary question given the toll of COVID-19 and the quarantine. Since the pandemic, a patient who had been sober for about four months relapsed, one lost his job, while another suffered a pay cut, he said.

“All of these additional stressors, along with the need to stay home and isolation, lead to more instability. Not just for the addiction, but I’ve noticed, as you can imagine, more anxiety and depression, ”he said. “I hear things like, ‘I’m really tempted to use at this point. “”

Group dynamics reflect what is happening all over the United States, according to studies, including a recent KFF Health Tracking Survey covering work and welfare. It showed that more than half of American adults – 56% – say worries about the coronavirus have caused them to feel at least one negative effect on their mental health and well-being, including issues such as increased alcohol consumption or worsening chronic diseases. .

“Imagine if this crisis happened before the internet,” said Merling, who is now three weeks away from digital therapy sessions with Mount Sinai staff members on Friday nights to help them decompress.

For long-term patients, Merling said the Zoom sessions have brought unexpected benefits.

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“I see people in an environment that I have heard about for a long time,” he said. “It gives a different frame which is quite interesting. There have been situations where I’ve said, ‘Oh, I hear your wife in the background. Would you agree to introduce it to me? ‘ Now I can put a face to a name. Having been forced to use these platforms has been helpful. It made me grow as a clinician.

Such an evolution is the new normal around New York. “The pandemic has completely redefined the treatment landscape,” said licensed clinical social worker John McGeehan, who founded The dormitory, an outpatient treatment center that serves 60 young adults between the ages of 18 and 35 on the Upper West Side of Manhattan for issues related to mental health, addiction, health and wellness, and SCOLAR orientation. It also has a location for 20 clients in Washington, DC

As of March 17, the programs have moved “from face-to-face to fully digital,” McGeehan said. “We migrated 900 sessions per week, between our New York and DC offices, online, overnight. It’s a huge transition. “

The NY dormitory.

Courtesy of the dorm

In the midst of massive changes, there is consistency. At the Upper West Side of the dormitory location, the physical space was designed to provide what the manager called a “clubhouse vibe.” (Cue the pool table.)

To keep that vibe in an online environment, they created a virtual clubhouse that is open all day and watched over by staff.

“Activities include everything from talent shows and pet cameos to you,” McGeehan said. “People crave social connection. It helps keep the community spirit alive.

Community manifests itself in various ways. In May, for each virtual dormitory mental health treatment session, the organization donates $ 1 to the National Alliance on Mental Illness of NYC (NAMI-NYC), which has strengthened its own education programs, support and advocacy to meet needs. of New Yorkers impacted by the coronavirus.

Online video support groups and programs have grown as calls from the NAMI-NYC helpline regarding depression, grief, anxiety, panic attacks and other conditions increased by 60 % since mid-March.

NAMI-NYC engagement coordinator Tanya Lalwani said she felt “a sense of urgency in appeals that didn’t exist before the pandemic. A caller recently asked “Is the world ending? It’s such a big threat that people don’t know what to think about it.

Ambiguity resonated at the Center for Anxiety, located near Columbus Circle in Manhattan and Flatbush, Brooklyn. Calls are increasing “significantly,” according to founder and director Dr. David H. Rosmarin, assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard.

“More and more people are looking for help and need advice. They are gripped by anxiety. They can’t sleep. They are having panic attacks for the first time. They need to connect and talk about it. Social distancing does not mean social isolation, ”Rosmarin added. “We are social beings. It’s just the way we are. We need to connect with other people.

It turns out that the connection can come anywhere and anyhow. It transcends location.

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the New York Intergroup AA Association, a clearinghouse and facilitator for AA groups in the greater New York City area, currently facilitates more than 2,500 remote meetings per week that chapters can use for free. Since AA sites were forced to close, the group noted on May 1 that it “has allowed members from 132 countries to pass through virtual doors of AA meetings 419,710 times.”

In the Bronx, Matt can attest to that. He sees his sobriety as “a bit like crossing the rainbow to find the pot of gold.” Your very next mission is to return to the other side and find someone else who can find the pot of gold as well.

Those people, who started with six on March 19 after Matt announced the reunion via friends and social media, have already grown tenfold. They have included New Yorkers and residents of Ohio, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, Colorado, California and Arizona, as well as Trinidad and Tobago and Canada. “It got international,” Matt said.

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