Tue. May 24th, 2022

Watch Your ‘Steps’: The F#cked Up-isms of Online Communities

“You’ve heard the phrase ‘misery loves company,’ and no where is there more misery than in active addiction.”

Jodie Gale, MA, Psychotherapist, Life Coach


Talking About Addiction

Once someone decides that the time has come to move away from active addiction, he has simultaneously chosen to begin his own recovery. There are going to be situations that require the know-how of deciphering good and bad friendships, relationships, and connections made while in recovery. So, before venturing to understand how to maneuver inside of the boundaries of recovery, let’s first look at addiction. “Whether caused by substances or undesirable behaviors, all addictions have three things in common: Physical and mental cravings, a habit, and denial to both craving and habit” (Smith). Some, if not most, believe that addiction is a disease, while others believe it to be a choice. Regardless of what one’s personal thoughts are on addiction, the basis is that it involves cravings of the body, it is a formed habit, and that addicts lie to maintain their addictions.

The continued use of any substance will (most likely) result in a physical dependence. As a tolerance builds the dependency will also increase. Ceasing use will cause for withdrawal symptoms and sickness, which is why it is difficult for an addict to stop. However, when the choice is made to begin in recovery, a physical detox is necessary. This is also the first step one must undergo in recovery, even at treatment facilities. Detoxing one’s body is to eradicate it quickly and completely of all toxic substances. Depending on one’s drug of choice (DOC) and the length of use, the detoxing process can vary anywhere from two to ten days in length. While detox remains to be a huge hurdle for many, this is only the the beginning. Moving into and remaining in recovery takes work by the individual in every aspect of his life. No matter how one chooses to help himself in his own recovery process, it is imperative to understand that by just stopping the use of a substance does not equate to one’s being recovered. Granted, there are those that choose to stop using and are successful – it’s not impossible to do. Yet, with over 23 million suffering in active addiction, it is a fair assumption that stopping isn’t easy.

The point of addressing addiction isn’t to reinvent the wheel. However, basic facts about addiction are necessary for one to understand recovery.

What is recovery?

Recovery is the life changing process one undergoes in order to be successful living a life in sobriety. Opinions vary on this as well. It is often said by many that,“Once someone is an addict, he is always an addict.” However, this isn’t a true statement for everyone. There are some that can continue substance use in moderation. There are also those that have simply chosen​ to not use again and are just as successful with their sobriety.

So, for those that are struggling in the beginning of their own recovery, the topic to be addressed, as it should be, is the amount of work that one has to put towards the self. Not only is stopping the use of an addictive substance a necessity for successful recovery, but this also includes: a change of friends or acquaintances, maintaining a personal schedule, allowing for one’s own time to devote to positive hobbies and interests, knowing one’s own triggers, how to handle cravings, what to do to prevent a relapse, how to deal with avoided emotions, how to handle anxiety and stress, how to establish and maintain routines, and how to recognize the importance one’s own thoughts, as well as maintaining one’s thought process. “The transition from addiction to recovery is a personal journey, but it can also involve a journey between two physical and social worlds – from a culture of addiction to a culture of recovery” (White, et al). The key here is ‘change.’ In order for one to allow for himself to move forward in his own self-improvements, those improvements have to be a necessary and beneficial change for his recovery. Along with this, it is important for one to understand that both addiction and recovery have to be learned about, and unfortunately, being an addict doesn’t make anyone an expert.

No matter the chosen route into recovery, such as Narcotics Anonymous (NA), Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), SMART Recovery, spiritual recovery, through God, and with or without the inclusion of individual counseling, one assured constant is that group therapy can and does work. “Whether individuals disentangle themselves from their addictions with or without professional help, they are necessarily and inevitably influenced to varying degrees by their interactions with others” (Palmer and Daniluk). While the recovering addict loses the ability to block raw emotions, in sobriety these emotions will often become overwhelming due to the fact that they have been preventeded from surfacing. Dealing with stress and anxiety often leads to depression and the desire to self-medicate.

It is also important to remember that “[R]ecovery ultimately constitutes an individual journey that could not be the same for any two people” (Neale, et al). It is not unusual for those in recovery to find meetings that they are not comfortable attending in-person. While most addicts also suffer the fate of becoming ostracized and left to their own vices in their communities, placed into separate sections of society, and figuratively put into their own corners of the world, acclimating inside of public view proves difficult for many in recovery. Surprisingly though, it is society that holds the most doubt that people can change and that addicts can (and do) recover.

Of course there are some that shift back into active use once they have begun the process of recovery, but considering all of the self-care and work that goes into one’s own process, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. And let’s face it, society is a cruel place. It’s full of judgment and criticism. That’s just the reality of the world, unfortunately. Therefore, it also shouldn’t come as a surprise that many have resorted to finding comradeship and support in online recovery groups. While addiction is accompanied by the negative stigmas that society has placed upon it, those moving out of active addiction find that whether it be by self-sabotage or externally inflicted, shame often hinders the seeking of therapeutic means within one’s own community. Even more prevalent, is that this shaming also sometimes happens within formed groups on social media sites.

Social Media Steps In

Inside of social media, many moving into recovery and living in sobriety have found needed support from members of online recovery groups and communities. While they find solace in the bonds formed from within the walls of their own homes that allow them to adhere to their own schedules, it seems that remaining understanding of their own vulnerabilities is soon forgotten. There seems to be no caution from all previous warnings toward forming close contacts with strangers online, with these having thus been thrown to the wayside. Just as we were warned years ago of the dangers of online predators, it seems that there should be more attention brought to this fact. Simply put: Not all in recovery are doing the necessary work for their own mental growth. Without working on self-improvements, the mental behaviors from active addiction remain.

Not only are some forgetting to acknowledge the inclusion of their own personal mental work, but “individuals whom others believe at the time to be supportive, have social associations that they are coming to later realize from interacting with these people that this has kept them in their destructive lifestyles and were those people whose lives also involved not only a lack of support, but were offering rejection, disrespect, or betrayal to others” (Palmer and Daniluk). And as most of us hope to find support immediately, opening up to earn trust from others is how this happens. We are social creatures by nature. And unfortunately, meeting new people means that we have to entrust that we can find like-minded individuals in the places we’d expect to find them. As we get to know people better, this is when true personalities and behaviors typically reveal themselves. 

Yes, society is full of the naysayers and those with impenetrable walls, so just imagine the added difficulty when the uncounted negative layers of addiction are combined. Within the realm of online communities, those seeking help are entrusting personal facts to people they have never even met. Online recovery groups are positive and prevalent additions for those utilizing them correctly. But without actually knowing the work any one person is putting toward bettering themselves, how can it be acceptable to wholeheartedly believe that each of them are doing what they should to build strength in their own recovery?

Please note: There is no implication here that online groups are not helpful and that all members of these communities are falsely representing themselves.

Sporadic Recovery

There are many people that are in recovery and are committed to bettering themselves. These people live and breathe recovery, chasing it just as hard as they did their next high while still in active addiction. The downside is that while society has condemned most addicts to a predetermined fate, trust is built rather quickly by members of groups with similar experiences. The dependency and reliability of the members is what is sought by those in need. The reason is simple really, they can relate and share similar stories. And while social media giants, such as Facebook, have their own rules and standards of conduct for members, these communities that develop under this umbrella are sometimes far from being run properly and supervised by any mandated qualifications from their entrusted administrators.

On the other hand, groups that meet in-person, those through NA, AA, or SMART Recovery, are facilitated by those who have the experience and/or have been trained to do so. “Effective facilitation…involves strong knowledge and skills about the particular topic or content the group is addressing in order to reach its goals…” (McNamara). This is important for anyone that has begun and maintains online groups. The group should not be overseen by anyone that doesn’t have an extended length of time (in year’s lengths) with their own sobriety or is not knowledgeable about both addiction and recovery.

The former of these, NA and AA, do have the requirement that only former addicts can conduct their meetings. While this seems to be a fairly suitable standard, the benefit of these groups is that face-to-face meetings happen; not only do these happen, but sponsors, or those that have years of sobriety, mentor newcomers by helping to commit themselves to teaching steps for self-improvement. Different from this, SMART Recovery endorses its facilitators with certification of course completion. So while the true addict experience doesn’t apply here, those conducting these meetings have the knowledge needed and networking available to attend to all matters and concerns as they arise.

Is Peer Support Prevalent?

Additionally, member numbers vary for each group, ranging anywhere from two hundred to several thousand in numbers. More so, those only hoping to gain all of the same insight and support they would receive if they had the availability and the correct means to attend groups in-person, can find it within these communities. “Through peer support people can act as resources for each other. When we receive and also give support, we begin to learn what we have to give” (McNamara). By bettering ourselves, we better the world around us. Those that seek the this support for the correct reasons will be able to receive it. Not only that, they can also give back to others suffering. “Self-help groups are comprised of people who share the same problems, life situations, or crises. Members provide emotional support to one another, learn new ways to cope, discover strategies for improving their condition, and help others while helping themselves” (www.addictions.com). The ability to give back what one has received is a basic construct for the recovering communities. Equally so, it is a basic construct for recovery as a whole.

However, this isn’t always the case. While there are those that are hindered in their own growth, there are also those like-minded individuals that are doing the proper self-work and community work that can be found here. It is important to again remember that we are social creatures by nature. We find support from those around us. It only makes sense to use other available outlets to do so. The more support one can find and maintain in their recovery, the better his chances of success in sobriety.

What happens in these online recovery communities though isn’t always ‘cut and dry.’ Sometimes the lack of in-person communication can have an adverse affect:

One of the main reasons social networking sites may be associated with depressive symptoms is the fact that computer-mediated communication may lead to the altered (and often wrong) impression of the physical and personality trains of another user. This may lead to incorrect conclusions regarding…educational levels, intelligence, moral integrity, as well as many other characteristics of online friends” (McNamara).

It is here that members spanning the entire globe come together for support and help. This also means that there is no basis for how each group is ran other than someone started it and has placed trust in the individuals helping to maintain it. “Not only is entrusting another person with assistance important for the maintenance of the group’s activity, but a good facilitator is not easily unsettled – the facilitator does not take challenges and conflict personally” (McNamara). This is one of the most important aspects to leading group discussions. There are many instances that arise and conflicts ensue but a good leader and a good overseer will not allow those to further develop to cause damage to any members.

Insert Toxicity and How to Approach It

Unfortunately, when large numbers of people do come together then the increase for the unpredictable happening also comes with it. Not only are there those coming into these communities seeking positive reinforcement, but these same people are putting themselves and their stability into the hands of others; they are also increasing their chances of coming across those that remain mentally unimproved. Not only is this a huge negative, but it also means that those not doing the appropriate self-improvements or step work are complacent in their own recovery. The formed relationships then will negatively affect those not aware of their own vulnerabilities.  Without the certainty of the in-person work being done like with a sponsee with his sponsor, as in NA/AA per se, there is no real way of proving any one individual is at a point in his own recovery where he can then extend himself to helping anyone else. In such large communities there really is no way of verifying that some people are who they say. Conundrum, right?

There is an upside even though there may not seem to be at this point. The good news is that those who are committed to their own recovery can very well sense when another person’s mental state still shows signs of active addiction behaviors. It is important to remember that addiction is not just an effect that takes place physically. For the recovering addict, the mental behaviors can be a bigger hurdle to overcome than the physical addiction itself:

It’s common for those with toxic behavior to: create drama in their lives or be surrounded by it; try to manipulate or control others; be needy; use others to meet their needs; be extremely critical of themselves and others; be jealous and envious of others; bemoaning their bad fortune and others’ good fortune; abuse substances or harm themselves in other ways, and be unwilling to seek help from loved ones, a therapist or a recovery program” (Gale).

When the appropriate steps for managing one’s required maintenance are not in place, it hinders his ability to recover. Therefore, while a person can be substance free and living life in sobriety for any length of time, the mind can, will, and does, remain in the mindset of active addiction unless dealt with also. One of the most constant commonalities found with any addiction is dishonesty. Whether lying is done to one’s self or to others, denying the obvious problem is the root of the unwillingness to desire change. Yet one of the most basic beginning steps toward recovery is recognizing that responsibility and accountability is at the forefront of healing. Unable to be honest with ourselves maintains dishonesty with all of our personal relationships.

Another good aspect that comes with  personal recovery is that toxic, negative, and complacent individuals are easier to notice. Once someone has shifted his own thought processes to an understanding of the reality of undeniable truths, then he will do what is necessary to live honestly. “[A]s they develop a stronger sense of themselves, [individuals] become aware through interactions with others that they could choose to avoid encounters they perceive as negative or harmful” (Palmer and Daniluk). It is important to note, if paths are crossed with toxic people that are otherwise not engaging in appropriate activities and behaviors as those in recovery, each of us has the option to remain in contact or to stop all contact.

Often the person is deeply wounded and for whatever reason, they are not yet able to take responsibility for their wounding, their feelings, their needs, and their subsequent problems in life…they may over identify and act out the part of who they are, such as the victim, bully, perfectionist…they act from these parts trying to get their needs met, albeit in an extremely unhealthy way” (Tartakovsky).

The person that remains complacent in his own recovery will be the one that adheres to promoting and maintaining negative activity. But should engaging in these types of behaviors with these types of people become bothersome on a personal level, there are ways to reverting the focus back to one’s self and his own recovery.

Self-Growth and Positive Self-Help Groups

Although it seems that it could become problematic to join an online recovery group, this is not the case. These groups are highly beneficial to those unable to attend local in-person meetings and for those needing support from others. Just because there are those who are not putting their own focuses where they should, does not also mean that these online communities are not helpful for those interacting with them. Actually, quite the opposite is true. These online groups provide 24/7 support for their members. The benefit of being online is that there is no specific schedule to adhere to when reaching out. Members of these groups are also worldwide, so anyone needing help can find support at any time. The outreach within these communities is irreplaceable. “Members are encouraged to support one another and help each other by bonding over their mutual histories and current recoveries. Support groups are not a place to be judged or to judge others” (www.addictions.com). The experience from those within these groups is impeccable – it is helpful having a place to get support that is not judgmental and where one can receive real, honest answers from others.

It is equally important for someone to understand that if they are made to feel uncomfortable or wrong for putting forth their best honest efforts into their own recovery, it is justifiable to not associate with anyone keeping that from happening. However, because toxic people are harder to disassociate with when the time comes, the upside to that is to losing the negativity that comes with them. No one should feel guilty by choosing to put their own recovery first. “If the person’s toxic behavior doesn’t change, or the relationship is just too toxic for you, send them forward in life with love and compassion, and then move forward with your life” (Gale). Recovery is a selfish process for the individual which means that one’s self comes before anyone else. In order to achieve success in sobriety, personal boundaries must be established and adhered to by all, including the one that has set them for himself.

Comradeship is an important aspect of the online communities as “these organizations often foster a strong, community-type connection among members in order to provide the kind of support necessary to recover from addiction” (www.addictions.com). In order to ensure that the relationships established in the online community are the ones needed to move forward in recovery, make sure that no signs of toxicity are present. Some of these include any one (or more people) that “doesn’t respect the word ‘no,’ emotionally affects another with their drama, ignores anyone’s own values and beliefs, or causes another to emotionally ‘check out,’ for a period of time” (Tartakovsky). Having the cues to watch for toxicity in others will be helpful for those devoted to their recovery. Everyone has within them the ability to move forward in their lives without allowing for anyone else around them to stunt their physical, mental, and spiritual growth.



Works Cited
McNamara, Carter. “Requirements for Facilitating Recovery Groups.” Critical & Creative Thinking Program. U. Massachusetts, Boston. 10 November 1998.
Neal, Joanne, et al. “You’re All Going to Hate the Word ‘Recovery’ by the End of This: Service Users’ Views of Measuring Addiction Recovery.” Drugs, Education, Prevention, & Policy. 1 February 2015.
Palmer, Roma S., and Judith C. Daniluk. “The Perceived Role of Others in Facilitating or Impeding Healing from Substance Abuse.” Canadian: Journal of Counseling. Vol. 41:4., 2007.
Tartakovsky, Margarita. “Clinicians on the Couch: 10 Questions with Therapist Jodie Gale.” Psych Central. www.psychcentral.com. Web. 9 June 2017.
University, Wichita State (WSU). Center for Community Support and Research. www.webs.wichita.edu. Web. 11 June 2017.
White, William, et al. “New Addiction-Recovery Support Institutions: Mobilizing Support Beyond Professional Addiction Treatment and Recovery Mutual Aid.” Journal of Groups in Addiction & Recovery, 7:297-307, 2012.

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