I was contacted a couple of weeks ago by a journalist writing an article on online recovery. She sent me a bunch of questions via email and I answered them early one Saturday morning. Her name is Allie Holbrook and she’s a sober blogger & freelance writer living in Australia. Her blog ‘And Everything Afterwards’ is awesome.
Her article on online recovery has just been published on Substance.com – a very good addictions website. It’s called “How the Internet Has Revolutionized Sobriety” and opens with this: “An endless ‘sobersphere’ of bloggers and communities—whether used as a substitute for, or a complement to, in-person support—adds a whole new dimension to recovery from addiction.”
It’s very good.
The article explores in depth what all of us in the ‘sobersphere’ already know.. that you can find very powerful, tangible support for addictions on the internet. Online recovery is a growing phenomenon worldwide, and here in New Zealand we are incredibly lucky that government agencies are recognizing and responding to this growing trend.
Without the support of the Health Promotion Agency, The Drug Foundation and Matua Raki, Living Sober wouldn’t exist. You need to know that. These are the people behind this site. They are 100% supportive of what goes on here, they want to see kiwis struggling with addition get free, as do I! The fact that we’ve already cracked over 500 members is making us all so happy.
Substance.com have kindly allowed me to share Allie’s article here in full but I encourage you to check out their site. It’s full of great brain food.
By Allie Holbrook:
In the last months of my drinking, I Googled “Am I an alcoholic?” more times than I can say. Even typing the words bathed me in hot shame, so I only did it late at night. After a bottle of wine.
My mind, back then, was colonized by thoughts about drinking: Do I drink too much? What if I can’t stop? Everything’s fine. I hate myself! I wonder if there’s any wine left at home… Should I stop at the liquor store?
It was lonely and terrifying, and I couldn’t see a way out. There was AA—but not in my tiny village. And in any case, the prospect of walking into a church and admitting my moral failings out loud, to strangers, was more than I could cope with. Given the choice between a basement and drinking, I chose booze every time.
But finally, one of my late-night Internet searches uncovered something new to me: A blog called Unpickled, written by a woman just like me. A woman who drank privately, had decided to get sober privately, and had turned to blogging to help her through it. I read the whole thing in one night.
It gave me hope—the first hope I’d felt in a long time. So the next time I decided to try to stop drinking, I started a blog of my own. And for the first time ever, I wrote down the things that I’d previously only ever admitted to myself at 2 am: how much I really drank; the damage alcohol was doing to my life; how powerless I felt.
I blogged through my early cravings, my grief and my tantrums. And slowly, I started to heal.
I’m five months sober now, and 36 years old. Blogging has given me insight into my own emotions, an avenue to work through uncomfortable feelings, and a crutch to support me when I wobble. But more than that, it has introduced me to a whole world of bloggers and online communities that I had no idea existed.
I’m one of legions of people who have turned to online communities for recovery support. Countless sites are on offer, some boasting tens of thousands of members or more. They range from the virtual incarnation of Alcoholics Anonymous that is In The Rooms, to alternative structured recovery methods such as SMART Recovery or My Way Out, and harm reduction-focused communities like HAMS. Communities which exclusively or primarily cater for women include Women for Sobriety and Soberistas. Some forums are broadly, or strictly, 12-step focused, others follow very different philosophies, and others still don’t advocate any particular model but simply facilitate virtual support groups. But all of these are just the tip of the iceberg. The sobersphere is like New York: Incredibly crowded and busy, with every demographic you can think of represented.
What little academic work has been done in this area suggests that online support is a useful tool in recovery. For example, a 2006 study found that the quantity of online support sought and received by participants was positively related to successfully quitting an addiction. Makes sense. And how many of us now don’t have some kind of online network, such as at least a Facebook account?
So, other than the sheer convenience of not leaving home, what are people’s motivations for seeking support online, rather than in person?
“There are a lot of people with alcohol dependence issues who don’t classify themselves as being alcoholics,” says Rocca, who is 37 and lives in England. “This means that there are many who don’t feel comfortable with traditional resources, like AA, because they can’t identify with the terminology.”
Belle, who runs the popular blog Tired of Thinking About Drinking, agrees. “While AA is anonymous sober help, you still have to put your face in a room, so it’s not 100% anonymous,” she says. “With my site, you can be 100% anonymous. This is appealing to many brand new people who don’t identify as ‘alcoholics’ but know they want to quit drinking.”
Even those of us who do, eventually, come around to accepting the label of “alcoholic” are often grateful for the opportunity to do so in an online setting, where we’re not confronted with the shocked—or, perhaps worse, unshocked—faces of our loved ones.
“Before I said ‘I’m not drinking right now’ out loud, I had written it many, many times,” says Rachel*, a 35-year-old Maryland resident who gave up drinking five years ago with the help of online support and a therapist. “I only said ‘I am an alcoholic’ for the first time a few months ago, but I’d said it—in a variety of ways—in an online setting many times before. It’s like rehearsing a speech. It made it so much easier.”
Lucy Rocca also credits the community spirit that can be found online as contributing to the success of Internet-based approaches—for women, in particular. “Women enjoy discussing life and relationships,” she says, “and they also enjoy nurturing and supporting each other. You only need to be on [Soberistas] for five minutes to get a feel for how much they get out of helping one another and helping themselves.”
She’s not alone in highlighting the symbiotic relationship that develops between the newly sober and those with serious time under their belts. Like with AA’s 12th Step, through which members with a year or more of sobriety may “sponsor” a newly sober person, and all members may “do service” by making coffee or reaching out to newcomers, many people who are active in the online sober world also want to give back.
Paul, who is three years and three months into his own recovery at the age of 43, is an AA member who attends in-person meetings in Toronto, where he lives. He also, however, spends a serious amount of time commenting supportively on sober blogs, participating in online communities and reaching out on Twitter to connect with “other folks in recovery—people who used to drink like me, thought like me, acted like I acted. It’s like having a recovery family in your back pocket!”
Paul writes his own blog, Message in a Bottle. But he also says, “when I sit down and pore over other blogs, and really feel where they are at, it helps me,” because he can “see that people struggle as I did, and still do.”
Like me, Belle, who is 47 and lives in Italy, began blogging to support her own attempt to get sober. Now, just over two years since her last drink, she has almost 1,500 email correspondents across the world who have joined her 100 Day Challenge. “They tell me about their Day Ones,” she says. “They tell me about their relapses. So I haven’t had to experience either for myself. My penpals remind me every single day that it’s not worth it.”
Another blogger-turned-mentor is Lotta Dann, whose bestselling memoir, Mrs D Is Going Without, is based on her blog of the same name. Although her initial intention was only to record her private thoughts, her blog has attracted so many visitors over the three years since she put down the bottle that she realised there was a real need for an online community. To that end, in partnership with government agencies in New Zealand, where she lives, she has launched Living Sober, which went live earlier this month.
“They knew that there was a big group of problem drinkers in this country who are out of reach because they never front up to treatment services or hospitals,” explains 42-year-old Dann. “People just like me: high-functioning on the outside but secretly boozing far too much.”
“At the core of any recovery program is the basic fact that the addict has to do it for themselves,” Dann continues. “We can get wonderful outside help, but at the end of the day the addict has to want to change. Blogging cuts to the heart of that, because it is self-driven—just you talking to yourself.”
“Writing,” agrees Rocca, “can be very therapeutic as a method of organising thought processes and understanding ourselves.”
And I’m not the only one who has started to write one thing, only to discover that their emotional unrest is about something completely different. Paul can relate: “Blogging allows me to dig deep into my own truth. Most often I end up hashing out something that has been on my mind for a bit. There is something magical which happens when I put fingers to keyboard and get the unconscious unlocked for a short spell.”
Whether online communities are poised to increasingly replace in-person support or simply to complement it, one thing is for sure; they’re reaching out to a whole new group of people struggling with addiction. And that can only be good news.
*Name has been changed.