Living Cyber

By Joe C.

In my journey, online recovery is a story of liberation. Let me use my own example as a story about the profound value that online recovery can bring to life. As you are likely reading this or listening to this online, I suppose I am preaching to the converted, but still, I have my unique story to tell.

As a fellowship, or to be specific, our fellowship’s organizational structure, the new frontier of the internet is viewed as a potential threat to AA unity and longevity. “A knee-jerk reaction takes three years to pass at the General Service Conference,” is an amusing way our delegates and trustees explain the let’s-not-act-until-we-have-substantial-unanimity approach to democracy.

I make the distinction between our fellowship’s general service structure and our fellowship because while GSO ponders risk and asks, “Should AA’s Public Information messaging be on YouTube or Facebook or Google?”, AA is already there. We—the fellowship—embrace social media. We’ve acted AA-like online since ICQ and early message boards. The General Service Conference is still hesitating, but you and I are as AA as they are and we’re already on the very internet that they are avoiding on our behalf. It must be frustrating to Public Information’s trustees’ committee. We have great videos that explain anonymity, what it’s like to be a teenager in AA, AA’s position on public controversy, and how we cooperate (not affiliate) with the professional community. These are well produced public service announcements that aren’t being seen—not much, anyhow. If you navigate AA’s bulky aa.org website, you can find them. But they aren’t available where millions of people are looking for answers: YouTube, Google+, Twitter, and Facebook.

“What is GSO waiting for?” you ask. What they have always waited for: for us to tell them what we want and expect. If our GSO seems out of touch or old-fashioned, we need to educate the General Service Conference to the ways AA is carrying the message online. When we want GSO’s opinion, we give it to them. That’s a simplified version of how an inverted-triangle service structure works. GSO serves the members and groups; GSO doesn’t vet or oversee us.

Does it sound like there is a communication breakdown? It does to me; how did we get here?

Just like demographers depict generations and attribute unique characteristics that differentiate the Silent Generation (born before 1946) from the Baby Boomers (1946 – 1964), Gen-X (1965 – 1976), and Millennials (1977 – 1995), I think there are recovery-community generations. The formative years for each of our generations leave lasting impressions on us. If you were a Baby Boomer, your worldview differs from AA Millennials born in the ‘80s[i]. This has influenced everything from our popular drug-of-choice to the size and personality of AA when you or I attended our first meeting(s).

I see the 12-Step community as having generations, too. Instead of differentiating us by our birthdates, I look at the era of our first emersion into 12-Step culture. I think it’s reasonable to stretch this generational paradigm to say that someone coming to AA in the 1970s formed certain impressions in their formative years (first few years of sobriety). A 1970s newcomer’s impression of AA may be very different from the experience of a 1990s newcomer’s, and those would be different experiences from those of us who came here for the first time since 2010.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, but for the purposes of our discussion about technology and online recovery, I think there are too many old-timers at the bottom of our inverted triangle planning AA for the next generation of newcomers. We need a bold, culturally diverse, and tech-savvy stewardship to take the reins.

Imagine the advice from a sponsor who sobered up in 1985 compared to someone who got clean and sober in 2015. If you’re from the 1980s, you might say, “Sure, spend some time on 12-Step Facebook groups but they’re no replacement for face to face (f2f) meetings; your computer or smartphone won’t keep you sober.”

However, if your sponsor got sober in 2010, she is a native (vs. an adaptor) to the online recovery community. The class of 2010 sponsor might have done her own research about alcoholism online, answered the 20 questions online, poked around AA online communities under an alias, and watched YouTube videos about AA before she ever went to her first meeting. Based on personal experience, the millennial sponsor always had an AA that was online. Your 1980 sponsor never visited an online recovery community until they were over 20 years sober. Each will have biases informed by their formative and early recovery experience.

My story

My recovery was changed by access to an online AA community. No one was concerned about anonymity at the level of YouTube in 1976, or 1986, or 1996. Even in big city AA, AA is a small town: everyone knows everyone in a short time. Our annual local conferences are like country fairs: you’re going to see everyone there, every year. I grew up in AA without the secular AA group option. I was not an odd-ball, but I found myself as a minority. Montreal was my home; I moved to Calgary with less than two years of sobriety (1979) and later settled in Toronto (1985), going on ten years of sobriety.

I traveled, so I got to AA meetings in different countries and in different towns and cities. Everywhere was the same—most people believed in sobriety-granting, prayer-answering, parking-spot-finding higher powers. I felt welcome but different. I wondered if my sobriety and welcome were on shaky ground because I didn’t act and believe like everyone else.

I faced double stigma as I was a visible minority, too. I was a teenager. Some wondered—and they weren’t good at hiding it—if I was a “real” alcoholic. The favorite one-liner was, “Kid, I spilled more booze on my tie than you ever drank.” While I couldn’t hide my age, I wasn’t outspoken about never experiencing “the hand of God.” In a way, it was like being gay (LGBTQ) back then: no one asked, and no one told. Who cares what each other believed?

I admire the unabashed who quip, “I stay sober without god the same way you do: because there is none!” I wasn’t so confident. I was always ambivalent about the soundness and security of my position in AA because of being both young and non-theistic.

Online recovery was the most liberating experience for me in AA since the feeling of not wanting to drink every day. Online, in the early 2000s, I found my people. Back then, it was ICQ groups and message boards. It barely exists anymore, but in 2005, I found the Yahoo Groups AAWR (AA With No Religion).

In October 2005, there were 1,650 posts from sober nonbelievers finding other sober nonbelievers. It was one of the pioneering secular communities. I found AA freethinkers groups from AAWR. By 2007 MySpace started taking over, then Facebook, and by 2013, monthly posts of AAWR fell to single digit numbers, including “how to unsubscribe.”

AAWR members weren’t getting drunk; they were simply migrating to new platforms. But AAWR changed my life. It was affirming to know that I was no longer alone; my secular sobriety was not second-class or on shaky ground. I couldn’t have known that—not without having a broader relationship with like-minded AA members than any f2f AA gathering had provided.

I found a community that I bonded with, I found out about the New York AA worldwide directory of agnostic AA meetings, and I planned to attend one. At my first agnostic meeting in New York City, I thought, “Toronto is going to love this!” I was partly correct about that, as history would later reveal.

I also found AA History Lovers, where I could read posts from the likes of Ernie Kurtz, Mel B. (author of Pass It On), Glenn Chestnut, and other history buffs. In more ways than one, my 12-Step world was expanding.

I also fell into what would be more like a millennial newcomer’s experience. I was struggling with addiction again—process addiction. I don’t know how many 12-Step and other mutual-aid meetings I’ve been to. Sometimes I’ve been there to support others, but there are several groups to which I call myself a member. Adult Children of Alcoholics in the 1990s showed me that there was more to emotional sobriety than looking after “my side of the street.”

Neglect and abuse had a role to play in my beliefs and behaviors. This led to professional help with grief and the exploration of early childhood trauma that I had glossed over in my early AA inventorying. I’ve been a periodic attendee at NA meeting where I am constantly reminded that “more has been revealed.” NA’s literature is mostly from the 80s and in the case of Living Clean, 2012. The magic isn’t only found in 80-year-old books.

In my 30s, sober—but still unmanageable—a well-meaning AA friend invited me to a Sex & Love Addicts Anonymous meeting. By the age of 32, I had two failed “boy meets girl on AA campus” relationships, two children from two hostile exes, and my life didn’t feel or look like what a 15+ years sobriety power-of-example life should look like. I had relationship and impulse control problems. I learned why from SLAA but I thought I wasn’t that bad really, more like a victim of a series of bad breaks and serious misunderstandings. I didn’t stick around. By 2004, my life was more unmanageable: I was now HIV+ and one of my children had been abducted by her mother who was now wanted by the police. The rest of my family was suffering the loss of our daughter/sister/niece/grand-daughter/cousin. I felt responsible and ashamed.

In a way, I was a millennial newcomer, coming back to SLAA for my relationship and boundary issues and going to therapy for my shock/trauma and depression. I was sober but barely holding on, emotionally. I used the internet. My new secular online 12-Step community helped me get more rigorously honest about not fitting the “God could and would if He were sought” model of the 12-Step paradigm. I revisited the Twelve Step in a more authentic way. I didn’t skip words; I replaced them with what was true for me.

It felt vulnerable to come out in the rooms. This is only my own anecdotal observations, but I remember the 1970s AA environment as not caring exactly what I believed so I didn’t care that much about it, either. But in the 21st century, the rooms seemed more polarized—the right way and the wrong way. I had, to be honest, and it felt risky. Would I be accepted, exactly as I am? Two faulty core beliefs I’ve always struggled with:

  1. If you really get to know me, you will reject me, and
  2. There will never be enough (money, love, time, security, strength).

I was depending on the fellowship, face-to-face and online, and you were there when I needed you.

I find the most antisocial, hostile, and humorless AA members online. I also find the most sincere, vulnerable, and accessible AA members online. Like f2f meetings, if you haven’t found an online group you don’t like, you haven’t been to enough online groups yet. But you can find your people online; I did. Just keep looking: your niche is already meeting online somewhere.

The internet wasn’t only changing my recovery. The music business was transformed; publishing, sex, entertainment, business, and dating were transformed; everything changed.

I was already podcasting my radio show, indiecan.com. The first show was 495 episodes ago (at the time of writing). That steered me to the first Podcasters Across Borders, an international gathering of indie broadcasters/podcasters who hosted shows about hip-hop, parenting, Marilyn Monroe, motorcycle fan clubs, and new technology. In the early days (2004 – 2008) most podcasts were about podcasting. I remember finding addiction/recovery podcasters. Many of the earliest finds don’t exist anymore. There was a guy named Paul G. from Thailand who offered periodic insights about life and struggles in recovery from addiction. There was The Monty Man from Take 12 Radio, a lover of all things Big Book, and there was Recovery 101, a “meeting after the meeting” with Shelly, Mark, and Bruce each week from Southern California.

Today, we find everything from magazine-style shows, audio-memoirs, interviews with authors or celebrities, and niche shows: women’s shows, recovery news, atheists/agnostics, and addiction-specific shows (weed, porn, sugar, heroin, consumer debt, the science of addiction, or even technology addiction). Some shows last and some fade.

Here’s a case study of a great show that once was: kleanradio.com It started broadcasting live on the radio and then video-casting on YouTube. They interviewed experts and celebs from their studio in Burbank, CA. They landed TV personality Pat O’Brien (recipient of the Experience Strength and Hope Award in February 2017), the one-time sports commentator who, in sobriety, authored I’ll Be Back Right After This: My Memoir. Klean Radio was syndicated, had high production value, and now they are … we don’t know. They just fell off the radar in the Fall of 2015. There was no explanation for how they went from the next big thing to off-air.

Here are some of my favorites which are in no way intended to be construed as a “best of” list. They are just podcasts that I am a regular listener of:

Of course, I’ve never missed an episode of the AA-Beyond Belief podcast, and so long as I have my hearing, I never will. There are others that have been great: The Bubble Hour, Share Podcast, non-recovery podcasts, too, like The Thinking Atheist, The Friendly Atheist, and don’t get me started on indie music. I have ten favorite music shows, too. Again, this isn’t a “best of” but rather my regular haunts online. There are plenty more I get to when I can.

Life/Recovery balance is an issue too. Having a healthy relationship with technology, including the Internet, is one of sobriety’s balancing acts that requires self-monitoring. Me? Moderate? Well, that’s the idea, anyway.

How relevant is the internet—as a medium—for reaching the still suffering addict/alcoholic? In Austin at our 2016 International Conference of Secular AA (then known as WAAFT-IAAC), I hosted a panel called “Living Cyber.” It featured people who credit the online community for their inspiration to stay sober and carry the message. So, online recovery isn’t a second-rate substitute. Think of the shift workers, single parents, people with disabilities, and people with social anxiety disorder or other mental health issues that make public gatherings a barrier to recovery. Well, it’s not a barrier anymore. Sincerightnow, who participated in the panel, simulcast the meeting on their website and then posted it for streaming for interested visitors. In two days, over 2,400 people had seen a secular AA meeting. That’s six times the registered attendees for Austin’s November 2016 gathering. Online recovery matters. It’s accessible; it’s effective, it is one of several ways we fulfill our purpose as a movement by removing barriers and building bridges.

AA is concerned about “where is the growth (in membership)?” Maybe it’s happening, and we don’t know how to record it. I think it’s urgent to learn how to record the numbers of online recovery participants, in an anonymous way, of course. It could be that AA is growing, but we’re just not going to f2f meetings where AA membership is recorded. Will online meetings be the norm in another 20 years? I don’t know. Could be; let’s make room for this possibility. More of our gathering ought to be available online in a way that is mindful of our Traditions. What’s our declaration? Anyone, anywhere.

Well if our “anyone, anywhere” efforts aren’t online, I don’t know where we ought to be extending the hand of AA.

[i] http://genhq.com/faq-info-about-generations/


About the Author, Joe C.

Joe C got sober 40+ years ago in Montreal Canada at the age of 16. Rebellion Dogs Publishing released Joe’s Beyond Belief: Agnostic Musings for 12 Step Life, the first secular daily reflection book for addicts and alcoholics. Joe is a regular columnist, focusing on music, finance, billiards and addiction/recovery lifestyle. Joe also hosts IndieCan Radio and Rebellion Dogs Radio. Sometimes, Joe facilitates workshops for behavioral health professionals and sometimes for members of the recovery community. 

You can find Joe on Facebook or @ http://www.rebelliondogspublishing.com 

Artwork

Original artwork for this article was created by Kathryn F.

Audio Version

The audio version of this article was recorded by Len R. from Jasper, Georgia. Len is interested in starting a secular AA meeting in his area. I fyou would like to join

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  1. Joe C February 7, 2017 at 12:33 pm - Reply

    Thanks everyone for your feedback. DG, it was great to have your participation @ Living Cyber in Austin and I nodded my head through most of your article. I was a 20/something sober road warrior travelling from Toronto to Bancouver Island from my base in Calgary. It was white-pages for finding AA in new towns back then. No Facebook in the 80s, no aaBeyondBelief or any othe others.

    These are good times for people in or wanting recovery. Gerald, there are a lot of people who just don’t have the time to spare or a meeting to get to. Online is here to stay and I say, “recovery is good online.”

     

  2. Gerald February 7, 2017 at 12:51 am - Reply

    Thanks, Joe C. for both the informative article and for your personal story. I appreciated your informative articles at another site – was it a google group, perhaps, that I attended just a couple of times?

    Anyways, born ’73, sober’93, first online recovery experiences 2015 – present. I’m a loner  in fringe-rural Japan, might be here for the rest of my life (!) don’t know when I’ll be able to make a f2f meeting …

    … And this period of my sobriety follows a five-year hiatus from the entire world of recovery, no meetings, almost no contact with other 12-steppers. That’s a story for another day, but just let me say that those were the best five years of my sobriety ever and they continue to be so today, some eight years now without f2f meetings.

    Yes, I am able to find a quality message of recovery online. I help myself by sharing online. I feel validated. I get out of self.

    I relate to your young person’s recovery story. I relate to those feelings of shame and to your ACA experience. I relate to coming back into recovery online, as an old timer, and the online experience reinvigorating my recovery.

    I have four little kids. The eldest has Down syndrome. Plus we’re taking care of Grandpa, who slipped into early onset Alzheimer’s. I have no time to spare. I don’t even get to cut my fingernails as often as I’d like to. It has come to that point … 🙂

    Well, no more kids for us 🙂 but it’s going to be a long while till I can break away from here and make that f2f Tuesday night AAAA meeting they have in Tokyo. I look forward to it, but it’s going to be a while.

    Till then, online recovery is what I have, and I’m grateful for it.

    Thanks,

    Gerald

     

  3. D. G. February 6, 2017 at 10:18 pm - Reply

    Thanks Joe C.! Great article. I wrote about my own experience using technology and online AA (specifically atheist and agnostic AA) in an article on AA Agnostica and in an article here on AABB, so no need to repeat myself. Without it, I’ve no doubt that I wouldn’t be sober right now! At the cyber workshop in Austin the question of “is online AA as ‘valid’ as traditional face to face meetings?” was posed and my answer, just for myself- remains the same. For me, It does not matter whether it’s as good or as valid or what anybody’s opinion is about it- it’s what’s available to me (I travel for a living in the trucking industry), it’s what I use, and it’s how I’m sober. And I’m damn grateful for it, and for the service work that makes it available to me by people like John S., Roger, Joe C., and everybody who works behind the scenes and contributes and comments. I make it to F2F meetings when I can – they’re few and far between for me- but I use podcasts, this website, etcetera EVERY DAY.  So many interesting points in this article that I hadn’t thought of – thanks again Joe!

  4. John L. February 6, 2017 at 4:35 pm - Reply

    Thanks, Joe.  This is a wonderfully informative article.  AA Beyond Belief and AA Agnostica have meant a lot to me in the past few years.  At the same time I still need an occasional face-to-face (ftf) meeting.  Is AA growing through on-line meetings, if not through ftf meetings?  Here in Boston one of the oldest groups, Beacon Hill, folded, after being in existence for 58 years.  It was one of the few that still ended meetings with the LP.  Some meetings do seem to be shrinking.  Perhaps there are fewer “pure” alcoholics now — those whose sole or main addiction was alcohol.  I myself was one.  For me, alcohol was sufficient, and it almost killed me.

    • Joe C February 6, 2017 at 7:32 pm Reply

      Toronto’s biggest f2f meeting drew 100s in the 80s. Many of them are dozens now.  Still there are vibrant and growing groups, too. But not like 30 years ago.

  5. Joe C February 5, 2017 at 3:43 pm - Reply

    Happy Sober Bowl (to NFL football fans)… See you online 🙂

     

  6. life-j February 5, 2017 at 10:50 am - Reply

    Joe, thanks. I almost made it to the end. Someday I’ll have to check all this out. I started trailing off into the ditch when I got to the first thing you didn’t explain, and there are too many to list – but I imagine if you had done it, there would have been too many people who didn’t need it explained who would have lost interest faster than I did. Which of course underscores your whole point with the article.

    Really, so far as I can tell, this is a great article.

    And I’m not even entirely lost going on the internet. I did get to meet the ornery oldtimers at AAonline around 2009, found a better crowd at Stepchat not long after, and eventually really found my people at AAagnostica around 2012. But I don’t use facebook, twitter and all that. I refuse to, for better or worse. Same with texting.

    I can not even quite imagine how all this seems to people 10 years older than myself, but it’s obvious how much easier it is to you who are about that much younger to navigate all this, though with respect to sobriety we have been around for more or less the same amount of time.

    I just last week sent off a bunch of information to a fellow agnostic in a nearby town about online ressources. He did preface his request with that he wasn’t all that internet savvy. Now I can’t help but wonder if I put him into the same information overload shock that you just put me into. We’re all as far along as we are.

    One of these days we’re going to need an article that we old and/or ill-informed folks can keep up with.

    Other than that, it was great, I think…..

    So at least: thanks for opening the can of worms. Too bad the early bird gets them. LOL

  7. John S February 5, 2017 at 10:15 am - Reply

    I think it’s interesting to look at different generations of AAs and how their experience in early recovery influences their level of comfort with online recovery communities. I got sober in 1988 which of course precedes the Internet, and I was an early adapter to technology. My first experience with online AA was sometime in the mid to late 1990s. I had a computer that my brother-in-law built for me, and I had a membership to America Online, which was charging a crazy hourly rate to access their content.

    Once online, one of the first things that I did was to seek out other AAs. I found an AA chatroom, and that was my first experience with online AA. In a few years, I built a website for my home group, which I believe was the first website of any AA group in Kansas City. I took the meeting directory from Central Office and put it on the site. That was also the first time that the meeting directory in Kansas City was online. (This sounds like I’m bragging, and maybe I am.)

    In the mid-1990s, I got involved with an online email AA community called New Beginnings. They had an email list with groups that consisted of about twenty people in a group. I belonged to NB22. I loved this because it opened my horizons and I was learning about AA from other places, other states, and countries. I took what I learned from people in other places and brought their experience to my hometown.

    After 1999, I drifted away from online AA, and stayed away until I realized that I was an atheist and I started searching the Internet for others like me. This search started a journey that has been the most incredible and amazing of all my time in AA. I feel like I have a deeper connection with my online AA friends today. I love the Facebook groups, AA Agnostica and of course this site AA Beyond Belief.

    AA Beyond Belief has become my second home group. The process of working with other AAs to make this site happen, and to participate in the community is just as important to me as anything that I do in AA. In fact, I often think that I would be perfectly happy if my AA experience consisted entirely of what I do online. That might be true, but now my online AA community and face-to-face AA has become blended into one. They compliment each other.

    I spent too much time in this comment writing about myself. I apologize, and now I shall turn my attention to Joe and his brilliant article. I’ve learned more from Joe than perhaps anyone else that I’ve encountered online. He’s right that we are “as AA, as GSO,” and we’ve been online for decades. I do think that we should try to get the General Service Conference to catch up with the rest of us, and the Grapevine too! The Grapevine has a great website, but I think they could do a better job leveraging the site to promote the magazine. There is a reason to support the Grapevine and to be involved, but they need to be smarter with how they do their website. I know that Ami told me in Austin to send her my ideas, and maybe I will.

    It also never occurred to me that perhaps AA is still growing, but the growth is online, not in face to face meetings. That’s interesting and may very well be true. The online AA world is pretty busy, to say the least. It keeps me hopping anyway.

    Again, thank you, Joe. What an honor it is to know you.

    • Joe C February 5, 2017 at 1:03 pm Reply

      Thanks for sharing your experience, John. Grapevine or Beyond Belief or someone could collect a bunch of stories about online recovery and make a collection of short stories. I bet s lot of members have their story to tell.

  8. Thomas B. February 5, 2017 at 8:12 am - Reply

    Excellent Joe — thanks for the exemplary example you are of living cyberly !~!~!

    My continued recovery was saved when in early 2012 I found Roger’s AA Agnostica online. At the time, my wife, Jill, and I had moved to a most reactionary small town on the southern Oregon seacoast, where we were shunned and shamed and labeled as not “real alcoholics” due to our non-Christian beliefs. After a while, we moved further up the Oregon coast and were privileged to be part of starting vibrant secular AA communities in nearby progressive Portland and in our hometown of Seaside.

    Five years later, now living in a tiny farm town in the middle of the wide expanse of endless Illinois cornfields, we get most of our continuing recovery sustenance online, since again we live in an area dominated by the God-He-Only style of recovery as found in the “sacred” Big Book, now over 80 years out of date.

    Though we attend a small men’s only secular meeting (which Jill occasionally crashes) in a nearby small city and another traditional meeting in another nearby town, where we identify as non-Christians — to be an example for others — I primarily rely on AA Beyond BeliefAA Agnostica, the Secular AA Coffeeshop on FaceBook, and online meetings and email communications I have with other ICSAA Board members, as we prepare for the Toronto 2018 ICSAA Conference for my experience of the Fellowship that I still daily need in my 44+ years of recovery, not only to stay sober but also to experience continual evolution of consciousness spiritually. Jill Skypes or FaceTimes with several women, a number from Oregon and one from New York City whom we “happened” to meet at a Quad-A meeting in Chicago.

    I am immensely grateful for the way we are able to live in accordance with our Responsibility Declaration through the digital means of  living recovery cyberly . . . 😉

  9. Bob K. February 5, 2017 at 8:06 am - Reply

    Thanks for this, and for many other things as well.

    “..most people believed in sobriety-granting, prayer-answering, parking-spot-finding higher powers” reminded me of an earlier era. Telling a tale of divine intervention in supplying parking spaces was almost  rite-of-passage at one time. AA can be a bit like a gathering of adolescents, the pre-teens mindlessly repeating stories to be like “the big guys.”

    We should hand out Oscars for this stuff – best original noon meeting screenplay, and best actor to that guy who tears up during the telling of his mall lot salvation.

    A guy arriving late to the Heron Park nooner explained to the chair about a multi-vehicle crash that had caused him a half hour delay. “There were cops everywhere, 8 firetrucks, a dozen ambulances, crushed cars, burning trucks – I’m sure several people were killed. (Pause for effect) I guess that was God teaching me patience.”

    True story. You can’t make this shit up.

    I do a crazy amount of online stuff. It’s where I first connected, in significant volume, with fellow heathens. That’s probably a “God thang.” Or not 😉

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