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 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:
- If you really get to know me, you will reject me, and
- 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:
- SinceRightNowBrobriety with Jeff, Matt, and Chris, and sometimes guest hosts.
- “After Party Pod” with Anna David, former editor of TheFix.com and award-winning author. “After Party Pod” was a spin-off from the online After Party Magazine which includes addiction/recovery regulars such as Tracy Chabala, Danielle Stewart, and more.
- What the Fuck (WTF) with Marc Marron. He’s not doing a show about addiction, but it comes up … a lot.
- Real Sobriety: Recovery in 5 minutes or Less. Robert, how do you do that? I so admire brevity. I can’t get to the point in the first five minutes.
- Talk Recovery Radio from Vancouver with Giuseppe, Frances, and Darren
- sobercourage with Magz A diary of sickness, family struggles, and real-life recovery.
- In Recovery Radio, an off-shoot of In Recovery Magazine and new to the game.
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.
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.
Original artwork for this article was created by Kathryn F.
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