Ben's Friends finds a new home in cyberspace

Andy Downing
Andy Smith photographed inside of the Sycamore in German Village

These are tumultuous times everywhere, but especially within the restaurant industry, which has been decimated by nationwide dine-in bans and “stay at home” orders that have caused steep business declines, mass layoffs and numerous (hopefully temporary) closures. For those within the industry who struggle with addiction issues, these can be particularly perilous days, with many folks forced to navigate these tectonic, coronavirus-driven shifts absent usual support systems such as in-person addiction meetings, which have also fallen prey to social distancing restrictions.

Fortunately, many meetings have adapted quickly to these rapidly changing grounds, including Ben’s Friends,a restaurant-specific support group for those who struggle with addiction issues, the Columbus chapter of which has moved from Cameron’s American Bistro to the online platform Zoom in recent days. (Local meetings are currently being heldThursdays at noon andSundays at 11 a.m., and a national meeting takes placeevery day at 1 p.m. Watch for updates at the group's official site and on Facebook.

Not that it’s been an entirely welcome transition.

“To be honest, I really struggled with it, and I took my frustration out on the fact that I couldn’t wrap my head around the technology, which turns out to be pretty easy,” said Andy Smith, one of the founders of the Columbus chapter of Ben's Friends, who is currently helping run multiple online meetings while furloughed from his job in restaurant management. “We as a people — recovering people — aren’t good with change. I mean, Ben’s Friends is basically an offshoot of AA, and AA has been around 80 years now, meeting in church basements with people you’ve come to know and shitty coffee, and now that’s completely different. … So it was a very hard process. But another big thing for us is that change is constant, and it’s an opportunity for growth, and I think once everybody wraps their heads around this, it’s going to be a good tool for us to reach more people.”

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In the weeks leading to Gov. Mike DeWine’s "stay at home" order, the local chapter of Ben’s Friends attempted to maintain regular in-person meetings, leaving empty chairs between attendees to encourage social distancing. But it quickly became apparent that an alternate approach would need to be developed in order for the program to continue.

“It got to the point for me … where if we were still meeting, which is specifically what we’re not supposed to do, then it might look like we don’t give a shit [about COVID-19], which we do,” said Smith, who also had to overcome the mental hurdle of adopting something he viewed as business technology (Zoom) for a setting that generally exists at a comfortable remove from the suit and tie world. “I was terrified of it because it was made for business, and when I think of business I think of ‘The Muppets Take Manhattan,’ with all the frogs in suits carrying briefcases. In my head, that’s the version of business that everyone does.”

Smith now says his concerns were unfounded, describing the software as intuitive and noting that there have been relatively few bumps in the handful of meetings that he has moderated to this point, all of which have affirmed the need to adhere to the basic steps he and others have taken toward sobriety, as well the importance of being part of a larger community.

“A lot of people are digging back into 12-step literature, or reaching out, which is one of the easier things to do right now,” Smith said. “Somebody said this in the Columbus meeting the other day, and I’ve found this to be true, too, but they said that they’ve been reaching out to people they hadn’t in a long time, just to talk.

"Honestly, when this is over, and there’s not a quarantine going on, the first thing I’m going to do is reach out to people and say, ‘Hey, do you want to have a coffee?’ It’s making me realize how much that matters and how much I need that. This is something that’s making me realize what’s important.”