Dubai: Zoom bombers in the UAE are threatening the whole ethos of local Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) sessions - anonymity - at a time when new members might need the fellowship most.
Over the past six weeks, all sessions - around 40 in Dubai alone - have switched to the online video conferencing app, where members can convene for group counselling, instead of meeting in person, during times of coronavirus social distancing.
However, while this may have improved convenience for its 170 UAE members, it initially came at a cost.
“We have had Zoom bombers (virtual gatecrashers) coming in, and I’m not talking teenagers either, it wasn’t teenagers mucking about but grown men putting racist stuff on the screen,” said Anne, an AA group leader, who has had her name changed on request.
“What we’ve done now is put a two-to-three level security approach in place,” she added.
“People were not so bothered until it started happening. Now we have passwords that can only be accessed if you message a member.
“We have a waiting room too. You don’t get into meet until you say where you are from and state, how long you’ve been sober, and where your home group is, if the host doesn’t recognise you.
“Personally I keep my video off. This helps me feel safer,” she said.
However, Marcus, another group leader, who has also changed his name on request, said no cameras, and even Zoom on the whole, might make it difficult for newcomers to connect.
“It’s difficult for us and the ones who are struggling because we can’t meet them personally,” he said. “We have had some newcomers on Zoom but it’s not the same.”
Anne agreed, “Even as a member I don’t always feel the level of connection I need and have felt lacking. It’s easy to disengage, you have to be strict, turn your phone off ignore the chores in the background and focus. A real face-to-face connection is quite magical and very different.”
The irony is that this period could be the time new members need that face-to-face contact the most.
“We have had a little influx over the past two to three weeks of new people wanting to contact us for the first time,” said Anne, who said post New Year and summer, were usually their busiest time for newcomers.
“Alcoholics tend to drink a lot whether there is a lockdown or not. Would it cause people to drink more? We are not good with boredom or time on our hands, and if you are looking for an AA meeting it may push you in the right direction, especially if you are stuck at home with family and kids, you might start drinking at 3pm instead of 7pm.
“It could be the perfect storm but I think if someone is looking for AA they’ve certainly been drinking a long time perhaps prior to this and this might exacerbate an already existing problem.
“A big bulk of our fellowship is under a year sober and if you had got me in my first year of sobriety and stuck me alone facing financial insecurity, the threat of job loss, pay cuts and fear and worry, I would have been going to a lot of meetings even if they were on Zoom.”
For that reason, Chris, another group leader, whose name has also been changed, said Zoom was a viable alternative.
“It still works to maintain sobriety and carry the message of sobriety. It might be harder to have that face-to-face connection and see someone eyes, but if someone is really desperate, Zoom is amazing.”
Anne even said in some ways it might be better.
“It takes a lot of guts to come to a physical AA meeting,” she said. “A huge amount of courage is needed to walk in and meet a ton of new people they’ve never met. It can be very overwhelming and scary. What Zoom has done is remove part of that.
“We were definately concerned about how new people coming in would find it, but we are doing our best and people are saying it’s great and for now this will do because it could be months before our next face-to-face meeting.”
For more information on Alcoholics Anonymous in the UAE visit www.aauae.net
All names have been changed upon request.