In this interview series, recovering addicts speak about the ways in which they have used social media as a tool in recovery. This month’s interview is with “Melanie,” a 28-year-old writer and teacher, who chose to use a pseudonym for our interview. Melanie was an early adopter of the #xa and #recovery hashtags in 2009, connecting with a sober network through an anonymous handle. Our conversation explored the challenges of sharing in early sobriety, non-alcoholics tweeting about Drynuary and being “out” as sober in academia.
How are you doing?
Good! Thanks for doing the series. It’s just so nice to see people talking about sober issues in a public space.
Awesome. Can you share with me how you got sober? And how I should refer to you?
Call me Melanie. That was my drunk alter-ego. I used to always say “Here comes Melanie” at the beginning of a long night.
That’s very Real Housewives of you.
I know. I have a family history of alcoholism, so I didn’t drink at all in high school. I started when I got to college and I got sober when I was 21, so I was very efficient in my destruction. A lot of times when I tell this to non-alcoholics they’re like, Well, everyone drinks a lot in college. But there was something different about the way I drank; I hungered for it.
How did you stop?
I decided I was going to white-knuckle it, went on an epic binge and experienced a sexual assault. A couple days later, I processed the experience and it terrified me. I saw an alcohol counselor at my school. She gave me a survey that told me how much income from my campus jobs I was spending on alcohol and how many calories from alcohol I was consuming every month.
Calories, that’s an interesting motivation.
I was drinking like the equivalent of ten cheeseburgers a weekend. It explained something about my college physique! [Laughs] The counselor warned me that most people who end up quitting cold turkey end up relapsing; I thought I had it. I ended up having a bunch of massive relapses, crawled back into her office, and she brought in someone from AA to do a 12-step call. She became my first sponsor.
It seems to me that first meeting would be a very intimidating one.
Right? The first meeting, I raised my hand and said I was counting days; that particular meeting had an unofficial policy of focusing on the first step (“We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable”) when there was a newcomer in the room, and that really helped orient me. AA is such a good place to be awkward – you can just word vomit onto the floor and people will be supportive.
At what point in your recovery did you start using Twitter?
I had almost two years of sobriety when I got laid off from my job and I stopped going to my workplace neighborhood meeting. So I got online. When you’re new in the rooms – and two years is still pretty new – you are just so excited. You want to tell everyone I’m sober, it’s great, these people are so nice to me! You don’t appreciate the value of your anonymity. I think I told my whole college choir when I had 90 days.
But I knew anonymity was a core value of AA so I made an anonymous handle. I registered myself under a sober category so people could find me. I look back now and it’s so embarrassing, I was so eager.
What was your handle?
@RecoveringM. I started to use #xa, which the whole recovery community can use, rather than #aa or #recovery, because there’s a 12-step group for just about everything.
What sort of things would you post about?
If I saw people tweeting they were counting days, I’d weigh in and say congratulations. I wanted to be a role model and a cheerleader. It was not very authentic. It’s hard to be vulnerable when you’re not sure who’s listening, when your role has been to inspire. There’s a quote in AA that you can’t save your face and your ass at the same time.
I love that.
My recovery Twitter was me trying to save my face.
Even though your Twitter was anonymous, you felt a sort of pressure – that the medium couldn’t handle nuance. How did you start fading out on that account?
I used the recovery Twitter handle most when I was laid off and had just moved, so I didn’t have a neighborhood home group. I stopped tweeting when I wasn’t capable of being a cheerleader. Plus, your ego gets all wrapped up in how much you’re being communicated with; if people don’t respond, then you feel bad. But if you just go to a meeting and share that you’re struggling, people will actually talk to you. I also started doing Intergroup, which has a hotline that anyone can call. Most times people just need directions to meetings, but sometimes they really need someone to talk to. It was a much more one-on-one kind of service than being on Twitter spouting platitudes.
So when you found a stronger community of sober friends in real life, Twitter became less necessary.
Yes, definitely. For a lot of alcoholics, the disease is just an extension of things that are going wrong: you take away the alcohol, you start cleaning up your personal life, you address the underlying neuroses, one of those is a feeling of being isolated. Then you find people who think like you and you feel less lonely.
How much do you find this story – obviously it’s a big part of your personal story – coming out in the work that you share as a nonfiction writer?
So far, the only way that I’ve been able to successfully write about it is by drawing comics. I couldn’t write my story sincerely; I kept thinking, “Oh who cares?” But when I started visualizing my disease, I felt like I had something new to say.
It helps that there are other sober people in my non-AA life. When you’re newly sober, it feels like everyone’s drinking but you – you feel like a freak. Being in AA from 21 – 26 helped me see how sober people lived. It helped me grow up. I knew their real names, I became friends with them on Facebook.
How do you use Facebook?
It’s how I keep in touch with sober friends I don’t see at meetings anymore. We don’t talk about AA online. At AA conventions, especially ones with young people, when they say “anonymity at the level of press, radio and film,” people will shout "and Facebook!" It’s very Rocky Horror.
The only sober thing that makes it onto Facebook is my anniversary date. I will write the number of my anniversary as my status – like, just a “7” for seven years of sobriety. Someone on The Fix wrote a snarky post about doing that but I like it.
If I read like a “4,” I would think it was a butt dial.
Right—sometimes nonsober folks will send me a message and be like “what was that?” and I have no problem telling them, and most people don’t notice it. Even though I made a conscious decision to stop going to meetings, I want my sober friends on Facebook to know that I’m still sober. I’m not out there drinking.
Tell me about leaving AA.
There’s an expression in AA that at 5 years you get your marbles back. I think I got bored. I started to think, this isn’t a lifestyle that I want. These are tools that I want. They’re really important and I really need them, but the lifestyle – like having a sponsor and calling them every day – I didn’t want. One suggestion my sponsor had was that I should stick around to help a newcomer (which, if I had just been feeling distant and wanted to throw myself back into doing service, is a great suggestion), but in order to sponsor someone they have to want what I have. If I’m rolling my eyes in the meeting, even though I’m not drinking, what I have to give them is not really AA.
You’ve been out of the rooms for a year and a half?
Yeah. There were six months where I had to force myself to go; I didn’t know if it was my disease talking being like You should stop going to meetings and go get drunk (sings) or if it was my sober, self-aware me being like, OK I don’t need this kind of support right now.
You’re still sober, but not in the rooms and you don’t have an online recovery-based presence now. Do you feel you’re cultivating your own recovery practice?
I would definitely still describe myself as in recovery. I still don’t drink, I still use the tools of AA, and if I started feeling the old obsession again, I would definitely go back to meetings. I still have my regular twitter; it says ‘sober’ in my Twitter bio, and sometimes not-drinking comes up. I’ve been following a thing people are doing called “Drynuary,” where they stop drinking for the month of January.
What do you think of Drynuary?
I think if you’re having a really hard time doing this for a month, you might have a problem with alcohol. I started to scroll through the hashtags – non-alcoholics were being so glib about it, complaining about how hard it was. It bugs me to see people make such a big deal out of something while also seeming not to take it that seriously. But on the other hand, I swore off drinking for a month and thought that would fix me, and then I crashed really hard. I didn’t know how serious a problem I had. So anyone who is doing Drynuary and is going to have a rough February where they relapse, I feel for them, because I’ve been there. People have all different kinds of relationships to alcohol. Because I never drank normally, I don’t know what normal looks like.
What do you want to communicate to others in recovery using social media?
In early sobriety, I wish I had paced myself. My mom’s biggest concern for me as an alcoholic who wants to write about it and also teach is that someone’s going to Google me, find out I’m an alcoholic and not hire me.
On one hand, I want to decrease the stigma of alcoholism and addiction by not being secretive about it. I probably wouldn’t want to work anyplace that would not hire me for being a recovering alcoholic. But I also want to be in charge of when and how I tell people, and if you’re really public online about your AA recovery, you could get reblogged or retweeted right out of your anonymity. It’s risky because of the way people might treat you once you’re “out” and because of the way you might misrepresent AA. The founder of AA declined to have his face on the cover of Time magazine. Now everybody knows Bill Wilson’s name in connection with Alcoholics Anonymous – but in the beginning, nobody did. It was just one alcoholic helping another.
Melissa Batchelor Warnke is a freelance writer and editor invested in work that illuminates human experiences & ideas. Follow her on Twitter @thewarnke. If you are interested in being featured in the series, please contact mwarnke09 [at] gmail [dot] com. We're happy to run the stories anonymously.