When I started my sobriety journey two years ago, social media (Twitter specifically) became a haven for me. Twitter, you say? Indeed.
I created a totally new account for my blog and carefully curated my following list so that I was only interacting with other members of the sober community and thought leaders in the mental health and self-improvement world. There I found the support that I didn’t have in my real life.
My husband was the only person who really knew how bad my drinking had become, but he didn’t always know how to respond to me. The sober people on Twitter did. They knew my pain, my struggles, and my wacky thought process because they’d been through it too. I firmly believe that without this network of strangers, I would not have been as successful as I’ve been in my sobriety.
Social Media and Sobriety Two Years Later
Fast forward to December 2018 and I have mixed feelings about the role of social media in sobriety, even though I’m still here, still using it to build and develop a sense of community.
As with major cities and countries where people from different backgrounds come together to coexist, so is the plight of the sober community online. More people are choosing sobriety, which is great, but everyone brings with them their own unique reasons for doing so and that has started conflicts.
Petty, stupid conflicts.
Facebook groups erupt into catty back and forths about whether Alcoholics Anonymous is really necessary or useful. Members who identify as sober post about going to a party last night and only having one drink, to which they are met with either encouragement (You go, girl!) or disdain (You’re not sober if you’re still drinking).
I recently left a popular sobriety Facebook group for mothers because of this cattiness. The admin went on a rant about how the recovery community doesn’t have ownership rights to the term sobriety and then proceeded to bash the so-called recovery purists in the group, removing members who had raised complaints.
She tore into a woman who had thirteen years of sobriety under her belt for trying to make the point that the new influx of posts from people bragging about having one glass of wine with dinner was problematic for people with drinking problems. That’s not why she was part of a sober mothers group. The admin was having none of it.
How dare someone try to dictate sobriety to another person!
Well, I guess?
I left that aforementioned Facebook group, not because I believe everybody who seeks sobriety needs to abstain from alcohol for the rest of their lives, but because it was not a group that was serving me.
Unlike Miss I Had One Drink At The Party Hooray For Me, I cannot have one drink at the party. My sobriety is defined by a total abstaining from alcohol (although I do cook with it occasionally), and the reason for that is simple: I can’t moderate.
I strongly believe there should be spaces for everyone to find the support they need, but I also understand why people bragging about how they managed to only have a couple drinks on a sober Facebook group can be disarming for other members of that group.
It feels a bit like being in a Celiacs support group and watching someone who has a self-professed “gluten intolerance” brag about having a slice of bread without getting congested or bloated.
Good for you! But that’s not my reality, sister. Stop making me want bread!
How Or Should We Regulate Sober Spaces Online?
I’ve seen this strange debate of “sober” people versus “recovery” people play out mostly in Facebook groups, but also on Instagram and in the comment sections of various blog posts. People who should be theoretically likeminded are at each other’s throats about semantics.
I’m not an alcoholic! That isn’t even a real thing. You don’t get to define my sobriety! I don’t believe in recovery! Having a sip of wine doesn’t mean I’m not sober anymore! Yes, it does!
From what I can tell, people are generally falling into two camps: sober for health or trend reasons versus self-identified addicts or substance abusers. For the record, I think both groups have value. Both groups are helping to bring awareness to the issue of alcohol abuse and addiction, and both groups are doing positive things for their lives.
But I also know that for people who identify as alcoholics or addicts, being in allegedly sober spaces with people who are merely trying on sobriety to see how it fits, and then deciding that they are defining “sobriety” on their own terms, can be dangerous.
How many times did I try to convince myself that I could set rules for my drinking? If I just drink on the weekends, it will be better. If I just have two drinks at this party, then I can prove that I’m okay.
Maybe that works for some people, but more than likely that two-drink streak will devolve back into a proper binge. Watching people play Russian Roulette with moderation in a sober social media group for sobriety is NOT helpful for people who are there because they NEED support to stay sober.
I’m not suggesting that people can’t or shouldn’t define sobriety on their own terms. Sobriety is deeply personal. Everyone needs to do what is best for them. I am suggesting, however, that people don’t use sober spaces to highlight their choice to continue drinking alcohol.
Surely there are other places where they can celebrate that?
How Can Social Media Better Serve The Sober Community?
Social media is doing a lot of good to alleviate the stigma of addiction. When communities become more visible, they become better understood and more widely accepted. There is a fantastic “coming out” occurring online where people are saying, “Yes I am sober and here is my story.”
It helps to change the narrative. People who are suffering in silence now have access to communities of people who get it. Celebrities come out as sober and tell their stories. It’s suddenly cool to not drink.
We need more of that!
Social media photo and video campaigns for sobriety like “Recovery Advocacy Action Week” encourage people to share their stories with their social media networks and legislators to bring awareness to substance abuse and addiction. There is power in seeing hashtags like “ThisIsWhatRecoveryLooksLike pop up on your newsfeed with strong, resilient faces smiling back. It allows us to all coalesce around the idea that there is hope on the other side of this thing.
Visibility is important.
An article in Adweek discussing the new trend of addiction awareness on social media talks about how these platforms have helped people find their tribe:
“The share features of tools like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram don’t just offer greater visibility and personalization to the struggles of those with addiction; they are also venues for building community and solidarity among those in recovery, but with the perk of more anonymity when desired.”
Social media has the power to bring people together who feel alone and ashamed. It allows them to know that their experience is not unique. There are other people who know exactly what they’re going through, and there is hope. Likes and comments help us get through another day without drinking or using.
It also provides a system of accountability and encouragement for people in desperate need of it, which is why interference by dabblers can feel so disruptive.
Who Gets To Be In Sober Spaces
I worry about the bandwagon effect where people hop on the “sobriety train” and feel entitled to tinker with its boundaries in traditionally sober spaces.
These folks are not to be confused with people who are still trying to get sober, but struggling with it. Nor are they the people who are worried they might have a problem and are seeking information about sobriety, the “sober curious” as many of us call them.
I mean the people for whom sobriety is not a life or death issue – the folks who are sober in the same way they are on a keto diet.
When these folks enter sober spaces and disrupt them by posting about having one glass of wine per week, they run the risk of triggering someone whose sobriety is hanging by a thread. I’m not suggesting that these folks should be unwelcomed in sober spaces. I am saying they should be self-aware enough to behave responsibly in them.
There are a few people in my FB group who still drink, but they both receive and offer benefits to those and from those who do not because everyone respects the core purpose of the group: to help people stay sober and change their relationship with alcohol.
The Downside of Social Media on Sobriety
Social media is already filled with people posting about getting blackout drunk, which experts believe is conditioning us to see alcohol abuse as normal, acceptable behavior. The rise of mommy drinking culture and a constant barrage of advertisements for alcohol and themes of heavy drinking and drug use throughout popular culture perpetuate this idea that all of this is normal.
Facebook has started experimenting with features that allow people to turn off alcohol advertising for six months, one year, or permanently. Twitter is trying to restrict access to alcohol brand pages for underage users.
Efforts are being made to break the pervasiveness of alcohol and alcohol use on social media, but we have a long way to go.
I personally do not feel affected by seeing pictures of friends partying with drinks in their hand or advertisements for Smirnoff whatever popping up on my TL, but there was a time when I did feel troubled. People have a right to shield themselves from addiction triggers and, I believe, a reasonable expectation that they won’t have to encounter them in social media groups that are purportedly about sobriety.
What Are The Next Steps?
As curators of sober spaces, we must be clear about the norms for our groups and pages. You cannot be all things to all people.
If you do not want people posting about moderation or cutting back on alcohol in your space, be upfront about that in your rules. Be clear about who the space is for before people decide to join.
Are you a hardcore advocate for AA? Say so. Don’t care either way? Be upfront about that as well.
Create clear norms for how people should interact with one another: “I strongly encourage people to participate in AA, but realize it is not for everyone. Please do not use this space to bash AA.”
Simple as that! And if someone finds this too restrictive or is in some way offended or annoyed by your rules, they probably won’t benefit from the group anyway so it’s best you establish that before there’s an issue.
Some people do well in more free-wheeling spaces, but some crave more structure. Both are fine, but we need to be transparent, less tribal, and more respectful of each other’s boundaries.