The promise and pitfalls of online sobriety programs

“Hi, I’m Kelly, and I’m an alcoholic.”

It doesn’t quite have the same impact when it’s typed into a computer screen.

Even if you’ve never struggled with addiction, nearly everyone is familiar with that line. Twelve-step programs like those employed by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) are such a familiar part of our culture that books, films, and television are full of images of recovery meetings—people in a circle, introducing themselves and sharing their stories to support each other in recovery. That community aspect is what AA and other recovery programs are built on, and it’s what many addicts credit with saving their lives.

But increasingly, recovery communities are moving online, sparking some debate in the addiction and recovery communities.

“The digital has just become an indispensable source of ongoing support and fellowship,” said Jeremiah Gardner, manager of the Hazelden Betty Ford Institute for Recovery Advocacy.

“It was like the Web and the Internet were what kept me sober.”

Hazelden Betty Ford, one of the most prominent treatment centers in the country, was an early adopter of online communities to support recovery. The organization’s online community, the Daily Pledge, began in 2000 (under a different name) and grew to include 40,000 people. The site integrates integrates formal recovery meetings, forums, and other resources.

“The evidence around the recovery process is that people need three things to succeed: social connection, motivation, and confidence. Digital resources can help with all three,” Gardner said. “If you have a digital life, you should think about weaving recovery in, just like you want to weave recovery into all other aspects of your life.”

The digital world permeates our lives: We bank online, date online, even order groceries online. So it’s no surprise that people in recovery from addiction and mental health issues are using digital tools, including online recovery meetings, Facebook and Instagram support groups, and mobile apps to support and enhance their recovery.

However, for a culture built on face-to-face fellowship, the growing prominence of online recovery communities can be a bit concerning.

“I do think that [online recovery meetings] are a necessary adjunct when person can’t get to in the room meeting, but a very very important element [of recovery] is being in the rooms, literally,” said Dr. Harris Stratyner, the New York regional vice president of Caron Treatment Centers and a professor at Mount Sinai Medical School.

Recovery organizations including Alcoholics Anonymous, SMART Recovery, and Women for Sobriety offer formal online recovery meetings. These are, for the most part, similar to in-person meetings, keeping with the tone and tradition of each organization. Many people who use meetings to support their recovery say that, while online meetings can supplement face-to-face support groups, they cannot replace the benefits of in-person meetings.

“The online meeting experiences that I have are actually like band aids to my need to attend a meeting,” said Tim B., a member of Sex Addicts Anonymous (SAA) who uses online meetings as a stop-gap if he isn’t able to attend his regular in person meetings.

However, Tim stressed that in the SAA community, which is relatively small compared to more established groups like AA, online communities are important because meetings can be hard to find. Tim drives over 20 miles to attend his meeting, despite the fact that he lives outside a major city.

“If I lived in a remote area… and there were not meetings around, then yes, by all means I would attend [more] online meetings,” he said. That option is especially important for women, who are the minority in the SAA community and may have trouble finding other women in the program locally, Tim pointed out.

Sometimes people who begin their recovery process in online meetings can feel overwhelmed by the language and teachings that they don’t understand.

“I could relate to the personal stories, but when it came to the literature and formats I was lost,” said Kelly Fitzgerald, who tried online AA meetings at the very beginning of her recovery.

Although Fitzgerald had a negative experience with formal online recovery meetings, she said that the digital world was instrumental in helping her get into and stay in recovery.

“It was like the Web and the Internet were what kept me sober,” she said. “It was the first place I went to when I decided to quit [drinking].”

Fitzgerald quickly stopped attending online recovery meetings, but still supported her sobriety through other resources that she found online. Eventually, she wrote about her recovery on her blog, Sober Senorita, and became a prominent voice in the online recovery space.

“The way people operate in the world these days, the first thing [people] do is go to Google,” she said. “When you’re hitting rock bottom and want to get out that’s the first thing you search for… and it helps [addicts] to get to that point where they can get help. In that way the Internet has been crucial for me in my recovery and for passing on the message to others.”

Our quickness to turn to the computer to solve our problems is exactly why online recovery communities are a popular option.

“[The Internet] is where people go,” said Dr. Kat Peoples, who has worked in the recovery industry as a counselor and clinical director for 17 years. “You have to be there to greet them.”

Peoples facilitates a Facebook group for mothers who are in recovery. The group provides a unique support for women who are navigating sobriety and motherhood, and it helps mothers overcome one of the biggest obstacles to attending recovery meetings as a parent—time.

“The biggest advantage is convenience,” Peoples said. “It’s instant access. You don’t have to wait to go to a meeting in two hours. If you have a need or a thought or a craving you can post that and get some immediate support.”

Claire W. uses a Facebook support group to supplement her involvement with Al-anon, a 12-step program for friends and family of alcoholics. Although both have been beneficial, she has found it easier to build fellowship through the Facebook group.

“The evidence around the recovery process is that people need three things to succeed: social connection, motivation, and confidence. Digital resources can help with all three.”

“In person I found that I am slowly making connections, but it is scarier and harder,” she said. “But on the Facebook group I just write what I am feeling and whoever can relate responds, so I’m getting immediate gratification without having to tell my sob story to a bunch of different people.”

Lindsey M., who has been in recovery from mental illness for 11 years, agrees that her Facebook-based support group makes it easy to speak up whenever she needs help.

“When I feel like I’m at my lowest I can go to my group and tell someone what’s going on. Shortly after there’s someone telling me how they’ve been through something similar and what helped them,” she said. “There’s always someone who cares, even if they’re not right next to me, or even in the same state.”

Gardner, of the Hazelden Betty Ford Institute for Recovery Advocacy, said that Facebook pages and groups dedicated to people in recovery have grown exponentially in the past three years. This, he said, challenges another long-held aspect of recovery—anonymity.

“It gives people an opportunity to join the growing movement of people who are celebrating recovery out loud,” he said.

Through formal online meetings, Facebook, and other means, it’s easier than ever to connect with other people who are in recovery—something that is immensely powerful, Gardner said.

“Addiction is a disease of isolation, and in this digital world, no one every really needs to be alone.”

Illustration by Max Fleishman