Reddit, The Unlikely Medicine for Recovery

By Zachary Siegel 02/10/16

The online recovery communities are a 24/7 source of support for both active and recovering alcoholics and drug users.

Reddit, The Unlikely Medicine for Recovery

When you see Reddit make the headlines, it likely isn’t for fostering pro-social engagement, or anything else upstanding. Labyrinthine by nature, Reddit is best known for hosting the obscene, the disgusting, the offensive. Like the grossly misogynistic men's rights forums or r/CreepShots, a now defunct subreddit once dedicated to posting sexualized images taken of women without their consent. In fact, several subreddits have been outright banned for being too deviant and perverted, even by the Internet’s standards. 

But amidst Reddit’s cruelty and sexism, there are actually compassionate worlds, or subreddits, dedicated to supporting those with drug and alcohol problems. To explore these online, winding self-help networks, I frequented r/OpiatesRecovery (OR), r/StopDrinking (SD), and r/RedditorsInRecovery (RIR) for a few weeks. I also lurked around r/Opiates, where active users support one another, sharing stories and tips (e.g. “Fentanyl in Buffalo, be careful"). Active drug users also need support from compassionate friends, just as the recovering do. 

The threads on Reddit are chock-full of words and memes. It’s not exactly easy on the eyes. I nonetheless committed to following people as they collected time sober, their strange screen names eventually became familiar. The sober time in r/StopDrinking is denoted with a gold star next to one’s avatar. There were congratulatory posts, which in their own way brightened my days. Little mood lifts. “Made it to a year thanks to r/SD.” “Saying Goodbye to my ‘Home’ bar.” Then there were also tragedies. “I made my mom cry.” “Keep relapsing because I want to feel comfortable. Help?” “Sober, but on the verge of being homeless.” 

I must relate the fact that I was banned from posting in r/StopDrinking. It was because I posted a link to an article that either I or a friend wrote, thinking it would be helpful. Moral of the story: read the page’s instructions before posting. They don’t want links to outside websites, as they identify solely as a user-driven support group. But this banning didn’t stop me from private messaging Redditors in the forum to uncover its utility: why people keep coming back to r/StopDrinking. 

At one point in her life, Victoria Purdy was a daily drinker and identified as an alcoholic. She went to an inpatient treatment facility in Ontario. Then, for the first year and a half of her sobriety, she attended AA meetings. She found SD “by Googling ‘alcoholism and reddit’... and that’s where my journey started,” she said.  

At around six months sober, Victoria volunteered herself to be a moderator, someone in the thread who makes sure the guidelines are being followed—the same ones I had apparently ignored. They ask members to be kind and speak from the “I” rather than the second person, “you.” 

“I have been there ever since,” she said. “[I] will be five years sober in May 2016.”  

Along with volunteering her time to SD, she runs, lifts weights, and practices mindfulness meditation to keep herself on track. Like AA becomes the cornerstone for some, it seems SD is what keeps Victoria engaged in the recovery community. And what keeps her coming back “is the huge variety of different recovery methods and the general makeup of people,” she said. It’s not just AA, there is mindfulness and Buddhist traditions, as well as “good old common sense,” she said.  

Another Redditor, who goes by the name TurkishFigs, who also frequents StopDrinking, said, “Unlike the rest of Reddit, StopDrinking is a forgiving place, that understands the importance of sharing our own stories and struggles. In other's stories, we see our own flaws and behaviors. It's easy to relate to each other. It helps keep me in check.” 

“Anonymity over the Internet allows people the freedom to share without shame,” BigndFan, who hangs around SD, told The Fix. Like Figs, Big feels a sense of community by reading the writing of his peers. Big primarily goes to AA meetings but nonetheless enjoys spending time on SD. 

I found a similar climate of storytelling in the r/OpiatesRecovery group. “I primarily lurk here [in OR], I don't post often enough but still benefit from reading posts just as much as I think I would from going to [AA/NA] meetings,” said GerontoMan.

I thought there was something medicinal happening on Reddit, that one person sharing a story with another was doing some healing, much like the way AA was founded. This theme of sharing stories led me to an emerging discipline called narrative medicine. It's a clinical practice that recognizes the meaningfulness and value of people's narratives.

Dr. Rita Charon is the executive director in the program in narrative medicine at Columbia University in New York. “In the most general way, what we refer to as narrative medicine is a practice, a very heightened awareness of how stories work,” she said. “Not a breezy awareness, it’s very disciplined.” Disciplined indeed, Charon is a medical doctor who also holds a PhD in English. 

Hundreds of medical students steeped in the indifference of biology take classes in the narrative medicine department, where the medical gaze shifts away from the body and toward meaning and storytelling. “The students will say, ‘I didn’t go to medical school to take English—what are you doing to me?'” said Dr. Charon.

During an interview with The Fix, Dr. Charon said people are taking narrative medicine into jails and prisons, psychiatric hospitals, and homes for those who suffer from dementia. I thought, what about rehabs? 

Given her expertise, I asked Dr. Charon to speculate what might be different from reading or writing a Reddit post than from sharing a story in an AA meeting. “The absolute biggest difference between Reddit and AA, is that Reddit is written. The writing, the activity of writing, of making something with words, has the healing benefit,” she said. 

Many of those I interviewed for this story stumbled upon their respective subreddits because they did not like the support groups that were available in their immediate area, mainly Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous. One Redditor who goes by the name Wubalubadubdub (a nod to Rick and Morty fans) said that in r/OpiatesRecovery, “You don't see people telling you that you are a failure if you are on psychiatric medicine or going to a [methadone/Suboxone] maintenance clinic as often as you would at a 12-step group.” 

I told this to Dr. Charon—that behind a cloak of anonymity, without any guiding framework, people feel less constrained in sharing on Reddit. “You’re not reduced to, ‘Hi my name is Bill and I’m in recovery,’” she said. Rather, a person may feel more at liberty to speak about him or herself beyond recovery. This freedom of expression, the ability to structure your own story in your own way, may be a factor in the healing. 

That there are even supportive subreddits for those who still use opiates or heroin shows just how free this digital world is. Rarely do active drug users find support in real life. “In-person support groups tend to mute the voices of people who are still in active addiction,” Tracey Helton, once dubbed Reddit’s heroine of heroin, told The Fix. 

Helton, who has a book about long-term recovery coming out in March, sends free naloxone through the mail to drug users who visit r/Opiates. Her service has saved lives. “I feel that Reddit provides a venue where people that are still using can provide valuable insight into a conversation based on their own experience.” She said active users could provide some of the best feedback, because they’re so near to the situation at hand. 

The intellectual and expressive freedom on Reddit seems to appeal to many of the skeptics and agnostics I bumped into in the threads. Helton said, “12-step members may be completely unaware of recent innovations with, or even discourage, medication-assisted treatment due to their lack of knowledge and personal biases. On Reddit, a person can start a thread and get up-to-date information from users with recent experience.”

This taps into a major problem in the current climate of recovery. The country is seeing a massive increase in opiate-related deaths. President Obama recently proposed a $1 billion plan to expand medication-assisted treatment, that would make methadone and Suboxone more available to opioid users seeking treatment. The data show these medicines help reduce overdose. Ideology, emotion, and motivated belief, however, tend to outweigh empirical evidence, making old abstinence models—the ones you find in 12-step treatment centers—hard to break. Reddit may, in fact, be an unlikely antidote to abstinence-only ideology. 

There is something about the groups being purely digital that make some users feel they’re missing something. Wubalubadubdub said, “I would much rather go to a real life support group, but the groups that I would feel comfortable with, like LifeRing and SMART Recovery don't have meetings in my area.” 

But the depth to which these digital worlds exist is incalculable. At this moment, there are 33,566 Redditors who subscribe to r/StopDrinking. Who knows how many thousands more visit the page but do not subscribe or comment. In r/OpiatesRecovery there are almost 5,000 subscribers. I visited the threads throughout the day, and there was always someone there. Even late at night and early in the morning, posts were still being created. It’s nonstop, 24/7.  

These numbers, however, pale in comparison to the latest estimates of members and meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous. A 2015 survey revealed there are roughly 60,143 meetings and 1.2 million members in the United States. It is unlikely AA is going anywhere, and for many, a real life support network is irreplaceable. But after weeks on Reddit, it’s clear that the online support group culture is quickly growing. Recovery, like the rest of the world, is merging with online culture.

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Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist specializing in science, health and drug policy. His reporting has also appeared in Slate, The Daily Beast, Salon, Huffington Post, among others. He writes often about addiction, sometimes drawing from his own experience. You can find out more about Zachary on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.