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Warning: Contains discussion of suicide.
“When someone accuses you of getting high, and you are but you aren’t about to admit it…”
“When you’re walking into an inpatient rehab facility for the 13th time of your adult life…”
“When you’re at a family function and your grandma says how handsome you are but you can’t reply because you’ve got a mouth full of her meds…”
To many, those are bleak descriptions of what sound like absolutely miserable situations.
But to some drug users and recovering addicts, they’re simply setups to funny, accurate jokes about their lives. They’re relatable, shareable, and the gateway to an online community full of other people who really get them in a way, say, concerned family members or professionals might not.
Over 700,000 people follow the Dank Recovery Memes Facebook page and 47,000 follow the corresponding Instagram account, where shooting heroin mixed with puddle water or falling asleep while driving are punchlines and commenters say things like, “Goddamn, [I’m] called out so hard.”
The content is enough to make anyone flinch. But followers say that’s only because it mirrors the severe realities of their lives, and frankly, they’re ready to find a little relief in an existence marked with the seriousness of depression, feelings of failure, stints in rehab, arrests, and even death.
“Dark humor has been a godsend for me personally,” 27-year-old Dank Recovery Memes follower Ciara Marelle told the Daily Dot. “I’ve been struggling with my mental health since I was a child and drug and alcohol usage since I was a teenager, in and out of rehab since I was 16. I’ve always felt that I have no choice but to laugh at and find humor the dark situations I’ve been in, otherwise I might try to kill myself again.”
When Timothy Kavanagh founded Dank Recovery Memes in 2015, it was people like Marelle who he had in mind as a target audience—not those who would balk at jokes about stealing Oxycodone from grandparents or blowing out veins using drugs intravenously. In the past four years, the page’s popularity has boomed. Posts often get hundreds, even thousands, of likes, comments, and shares.
“I initially created the page for people in recovery but realized that lots of people were relating. A lot of active drug addicts were seeing themselves in the memes. It became something not just for people in recovery, but all kinds of people taking many different paths of recovery,” he said. “Normally, recovery humor is very safe and cheesy.”
Kavanagh is 35 with a fiancée, kids, and a career defined by a dedication to helping drug addicts find their way into recovery. Beyond being a meme admin, he’s been a counselor in a treatment center and is the regional director for Pinnacle Peak Recovery. He’s also a recovering heroin addict who’s been sober seven years, advocates for the 12-step approach, but doesn’t care how an addict gets clean—whether it includes 12 steps, memes, counseling, or medically assisted methods like taking suboxone or methadone to stave off opiate withdrawal—as long as they do it.
For Kavanagh, like Marelle, the indelicacy and macabre humor are an integral part of processing the past and coping in the present. Dank Recovery Memes is an extension of a unique brand of comedy that is just part of who he is.
“I’m very awkward in a fun way,” he said. “I’ll go out to eat and the waiter will say, ‘Can I get you a beer?’ And I’ll say, ‘I can’t. I’m allergic. I break out in track marks.’ The waiter will just look at me like oh my god…”
In his own recovery, Kavanagh is aware that if he smokes weed or drinks, he’ll start using heroin again; it’s how his addiction works. In his practice, he is clear that the use of any substance, from alcohol to methadone, would disqualify and reset his sustained sobriety. As his platform has grown, however, he’s become more vigilant about making sure his followers know their recovery can and probably will look different from his or the kind depicted in various memes on the page. One recurring punchline that pops up every few days on DRM is “suboxone isn’t sober.” Whenever he or one of his four deputy admins post a “suboxone isn’t sober” joke now, he includes a disclaimer designed to prevent anyone on suboxone from feeling like they can’t be a part of the community.
That community of users, recovering addicts, and supportive or curious family members does more than just comment and like, too. Kavanagh estimates that across Facebook and Instagram, he fields 100 direct messages per day. 70 of those are submissions, which he and his co-moderators sift through for posts. 15 are “thank you-type messages” from followers who’ve found solace or a path to recovery through DRM’s images and comment sections. The remaining 15 or so are requests for help.
Kavanagh typically replies to every message, but remembers one in particular: A young woman reached out, he says, telling him she was in Syria, struggling not only with living at the site of a civil war, but also with her own nine-month recovery journey. Dank Recovery Memes, she said, meant a lot to her at a time and in a place where she couldn’t talk to anyone else about what she was going through.
“She laid out this whole other world of what it’s like to go through addiction,” Kavanagh remembered. “To know that I’m being a fucking idiot on the internet—just making funny memes and every once in a while sharing my story—and that somewhere halfway around the world, someone can grab on and build their own recovery, that was moving.”
Across social media, there are graphic, detailed, and very dark memes available for not only addicts and individuals in recovery, but everyone imaginable. DRM is one part of a massive meme ecosystem that does include problematic content. On Instagram, a search for “#edmemes,” or eating disorder memes, will earn a user a pop-up message from the app: “Can we help? Posts with words or tags you’re searching for often encourage behavior that can cause harm and lead to death. If you’re going through something difficult, we’d like to help.” However, all it takes to access over 60,000 posts about bulimia, anorexia, binge eating, and more, is for the user to tap “See Posts Anyway” instead of “Get Support.”
In comments under the eating disorder-related posts, the depression-related posts, the anxiety-related posts, the conversations tend to be alike: The original poster uses the caption space under a meme to write about their daily life (think studying for finals, filling prescriptions, or hanging out with family members), then followers comment on the relatability of the image and offer advice or small talk. It’s almost like the poster’s Instagram page is a forum, not a photostream.
Even though the posts may be graphic depictions of using opiates, bingeing and purging, or harboring suicidal thoughts, the fact the conversations facilitated in the comments can be so quotidian suggests the memes are more or less a conduit for finding a supportive group of peers. But some professionals are concerned it represents something less comforting.
Dina Bombardiere, a licensed clinical social worker with a specialization in psychotherapy, has worked with individuals struggling with addiction for the last decade and warns against the “risk of desensitization” that could come with consuming too many dark memes about serious issues.
As she looked at a meme that sets up the joke with “when you’re walking into an inpatient rehab facility for the 13th time of your adult life,” Bombardiere wondered what effect seeing the image would have on someone who actually had gone to rehab 13 times, likely accumulating bills for hundreds of thousands of dollars in the process. She also worried about the effect of such a flippant joke on individuals who had never been to rehab or started the recovery process, but who might be considering it.
“If some people feel it’s helping them, that’s a positive,” she said, but “they don’t know how someone seeing it early on in their recovery will react.”
Bombardiere says there is less a concern that a viewer could be triggered to relapse than there is that using such in-your-face humor to talk about something as serious and deadly as addiction could undermine important conversations on the topic in general. Triggers, she says, are too specific to each person; there is no greater risk in seeing a meme than there is in driving past a certain pharmacy that brings back painful memories.
“I’m a proponent of [Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous],” she said. “When I walk in there, there’s laughing. It’s OK to laugh if you’re sober! But laugh without desensitizing yourself to the fact that you could have hurt someone or killed yourself.”
“I can see why the humor expressed on a page like DRM or by addicts or people who struggle with mental health in general might seem insensitive or triggering,” admitted Marelle, who has been clean 18 months. “It’s definitely not for everyone, and I think it’s OK if people know their boundaries and know that this kind of content can trigger them. I work in a rehab facility now, and after eight stints in rehab myself, I’ve found that most of ‘us’ can find humor in our past bizarre, disgusting, self-harming behaviors. Some people don’t ever get to that point, and like I said, it’s OK.”
Kavanagh takes a similar stance when faced with opposition from family members of drug users. While he understands that graphic pictures and descriptions of life during active addiction and recovery won’t be helpful for everyone, from his vantage point, there is a definite hunger for dark humor among addicts.
“They would say things like, ‘My son is an addict. This isn’t a joke,’ and I would say, ‘I know this isn’t funny to you, but show this to your son. I guarantee you he will think it’s funny,’” he recalled. “And they would.”
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There is one point on which nearly everyone seems to agree: Kavanagh, Marelle, and Bombardiere all underscored the importance of finding humor in seemingly hopeless situations. All three identified the ability to laugh at oneself as a stepping stone on the path to self-forgiveness and a better future.
“There are other people like me who are sober right now who don’t know you can be sober but still laugh,” Kavanagh said. “Being OK with your sense of humor and laughing at your past is a form of self-forgiveness. It helps to remove the shame, stigma, and isolation that comes with addiction. In early recovery, one of the hardest things to get over is not feeling like you’re worth a better life. You have been beating yourself down so much, you don’t feel like you deserve it. When you laugh at it and see other people have been through it, you can see, ‘Maybe I am worth it.’”
Kavanagh should know. Before he could launch his meme empire, he had to forgive himself, not only for his past drug use, but for his own attitude toward it.
“I had to reconcile the fact that I can have a really fucked-up sense of humor but not be a fucked-up human being,” he said.
For his hundreds of thousands of followers, that might just be every bit as relatable as stealing medication from Grandma.
If you or someone you know would like more information on drug addiction and recovery, visit the National Institute on Drug Abuse at drugabuse.gov or by calling 301-443-1124.