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 “Caleb,” a 32-year-old man living in Silicon Valley, who chose to use a pseudonym for our interview. After becoming as addicted to the approval rush of social media as he had been to drugs and alcohol, Caleb cut off his Facebook account and got rid of his wireless router. Our conversation explored the darker side of social media use in the recovery community, and the challenges of maintaining anonymity online.
Tell me about your early years.
I come from a fairly normal, upper-middle class home. But I could tell very early on that I liked to change the way I felt, with food or by spinning around in circles, making myself dizzy.
When I was 16, I drank a whole bottle of rum with my friends and blacked out. The next night I drank a twelve-pack. When I went to college at a UC school, I was on the swim team; we were expected to hook up with girls and be jocks. I took it as an excuse to get drunk a lot. I got my first DUI when I was 19. Immediately after that, I became a big pothead and a year later I quit the swim team. Then I started getting into cocaine and crystal meth.
Why did you quit the team?
I quit swimming to come out of the closet. But it actually just gave me more time to be a mess. When I would walk by the LGBT center my third year, it was just all these kids that I would have never hung out with. I hadn’t really found another place to be. By that time I was using crystal meth every day. I wasn’t a partier; I liked to drink alone and do drugs alone. I would go to parties and leave quickly thereafter.
What’s doing crystal meth like?
It’s sort of like going 100 miles an hour but you’re totally OK with it. The very first time I did it, I knew that I wanted to do it for the rest of my life. I remember playing it off, saying “Oh, what was that stuff we did? Yeah, let’s do that again.”
What happened from there?
My fourth year of college came around and I was barely a junior credit-wise. That last summer, I sat my parents down and said “I got kicked out of school, I’m using all of your money on drugs and I can’t stop doing them.” They sent me to a fancy rehab in Arizona with a bunch of D-list celebrities. I had a great time and five days after rehab I was drunk again.
That whole year, I couldn’t put more than 30 days together. When I really got sober, it wasn’t a big dramatic thing that happened. I was 24 years old, living in my parents’ house doing nothing but drugs; it was pathetic. I picked December 12 as my sobriety date because 12-12 sounded cool. I’ve been sober for eight years.
What was your first experience using social media in recovery?
I started going to gay AA meetings, which is really where I learned how to be a gay man. Even though I’d come out when I was 21, I was really uncomfortable with gay people; the only gay people I met were the people I was sleeping with, who I would meet online. I started finding my friends from the gay AA group on MySpace.
I feel like my memories of MySpace are so hazy. I almost want you to take me back there.
I know! It was before all this casualness that you see on Vine and Twitter; it wasn’t so loose. We wrote on each other’s walls but wouldn’t reference our sobriety–I didn’t want to break someone else’s anonymity. All of a sudden, through meetings, I had this whole network of people.
Did anonymity ever get broken accidentally?
Part of the problem with social media is that, for instance, Facebook seems to change their guidelines and logistics all the time. So, say I’m throwing my sponsee a 1-year sobriety anniversary party. I’ll create an event and then invite everybody that I know who’s in the rooms (AA lingo for “at meetings”). But I don’t know if Facebook has changed their settings and all of a sudden that’s going to be public and in everybody’s feeds. So I have to be as vague as possible.
Does AA condone using Facebook to organize events?
There is no central leadership in AA; it’s autonomous, which adds to the confusion about social media and what to do. But there are a lot of people in the community who think that breaks the traditions. I worked my way up to become the head of one of California’s Gay AA groups and I felt like the only way I could organize effectively for our conference was by using Facebook.
I’ve also seen some ridiculous stuff happen. One time a sober friend of mine made direct references to this drunk friend of his in a status update. In the comments, the drunk friend chimed in and was like, “Fuck you, fuck all of you!” I love that shit. That’s the shit I eat up and the shit I don’t need to be a part of.
You deactivated Facebook four months ago. Tell me about that.
There have been pluses and minuses. Now I’m not part of the gossip when it comes to who’s doing what. I feel isolated in a different way; I’m not checking my phone all the time, but I’m putting effort into talking to people.
You’re actually craving information now.
I can get addicted to anything–I’ve had issues with caffeine, sex, exercise, money and food–and it’s sad to say, but I’ve had to deal with Internet issues. I don’t have cable or Internet at my apartment now. Sobriety for me is life or death. As much as I love to get pats on the back for eight years of sobriety from my network, all that’s doing is feeding my ego. The primary quality of alcoholics, according to AA, is that we’re selfish people. The bigger my ego gets the closer I get to a drink.
Is the idea that alcoholics are selfish people, or that all people are selfish?
Alcoholics are more selfish. And the more I’m on social media, the more I get into my head. The head is a dangerous piece. I wonder, why people didn’t like my post? Did I post too many shirtless pictures?
So your revulsion against social media as a recovery tool is about containing the ego.
For me, I can’t incorporate sobriety into my branding of myself. Even though I’ve been sober for a long time, it’s so tenuous. I still have big struggles. Not that I’m going to drink, but that I’ll go off on this person or cheat on my boyfriend, which I’ve done in sobriety. I just can’t take praise for it.
If you are all about keeping people updated, what happens if you relapse? You have to make sure that you won’t be so embarrassed that it keeps you from starting again. I’ve seen people de-friend big swaths of folks because they’re no longer sober or slowly disappear from Facebook altogether.
A number of people I’ve spoken with have talked about social media as a way to show that sobriety can be fun. What is your reaction to that?
I feel like my experience was different from a lot of people. I’ve never been to a gay bar drunk; my drinking was so bleak and solitary. I would like watch Requiem for a Dream over and over again. So the fun and lightness–that’s what I found after I got sober. I never had it before.
I had a sponsee my age who just had a year of sobriety and he’s like where are the go-go boys? I don’t know how to answer that question. Staying at home and reading the big book is not as exciting as going out and getting wasted and hooking up with people. I’ve had to give up pieces of my personality that don’t serve me anymore. They don’t do me any good. They served me for a long time.
You said to me earlier that taking your sobriety off of social media made it real. What does your real life look like these days?
I live in Northern California and do open water racing. I have really good friends from before I was drinking, people who have been there for a while. I have a great relationship with my family. I work as a coordinator at a community college. My life is pretty low key, but I love my life. For a long time I mooched off my parents, and I pay my own bills now. What’s cool about sobriety is that it gives me structure to be a self-supporting human being.
I really appreciate you doing this series. There are a ton of messes out there.
There are a ton of messes that aren’t alcoholics too. Just a lot of people trying to navigate this complicated space of how we talk to each other, and about what.
It’s exciting and it’s terrifying.
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.