Nearly five million Americans woke up on New Year’s Day with champagne headaches and a new resolve to renounce drinking. Traditionally, that would involve pouring out the content of one’s liquor cabinet and heading to a doctor’s office or an AA meeting.
“I tried everything,” said one member of the forum, who goes by the username Cake_Or_Radish and has been sober for more than 560 days. “The support I saw in [StopDrinking] on day one felt like nothing I had experienced in hundreds of AA or SMART meetings.”
r/StopDrinking is a fascinating case study, both as a thriving online community and as a possible new vector for addiction treatment. It’s run entirely by volunteers, most of whom are themselves former alcoholics. It includes an astounding 31,339 subscribing members, as of this writing, plus untold thousands who view the forum but don’t subscribe or comment.
Of those subscribers, one in five say r/StopDrinking is their sole support group, and most say they visit multiple times a month. A majority of subscribers call it their most helpful tool in their fight against alcohol, more so even than counseling, rehab, or more formal peer-recovery groups. Similar self-help forums on Reddit, like r/loseit, have recorded similar successes.
Experts don’t doubt it: While StopDrinking lacks a Big Book, a step program, or even a coherent philosophy on addiction and recovery, it includes all the hallmarks of an effective peer-support program.
“It’s the fellowship factor that’s effective,” said John Kelly, an addiction researcher at Harvard Medical School. “There’s accountability and monitoring over time. There’s 24/7 support. There’s cheerleading. It’s incredibly valuable, especially early on.”
In many respects, in fact, StopDrinking functions much like a conventional peer support-group. There’s a daily check-in, where members affirm their sobriety. (“It’s been 30 days.” “I’m in!” “Sober weekends are where it’s at!”)
There are badges — each personally bestowed, along with a congratulatory note, by one of the forum’s six moderators — that celebrate the days or weeks since each user’s last drink.
There’s a 24-7 chat room, where users can nip in for conversation or emergency help. A virtual book club and movie night once helped members adjust to sober social schedules. In the main forum, where dozens of people post every day, members share their revelations (“I’m happy again!”), struggles (“a post to help me get through my cravings”) and questions (“does controlled drinking ever work?”).
During the holidays — a particularly trying time for many recovering alcoholics — the forum lit up with tips for surviving a sober Christmas with the in-laws and suggested replacements for the usual holiday drinks. (Pomegranate juice and sparkling cider are, far and away, the favorites.) On New Year’s Eve, hundreds of members signed a pledge not to imbibe. In another life, they may have cherished the evening’s bar crawls and midnight toasts; now they settled into their couches early, nursing a soda water, laptops open.
“I remember once saying that if I needed to I was going to check in [to StopDrinking] via my phone underneath the table at Thanksgiving dinner,” said Cakes, the D.C. Redditor. “I totally meant it.”
Cakes recalls logging into StopDrinking frequently during the holidays or while travelling; it’s when she most feared a relapse. A single woman with a high-powered K Street job, she’d gone out of her way to hide her drinking as it escalated in her mid-30s — reassuring herself, like many female alcoholics, that she was still “high-functioning.”
Few of her friends and family knew how much she drank; she certainly didn’t share with them every time she relapsed or celebrated another sober month. But in StopDrinking, thousands watched her progress daily as she reset her “badge,” the little icon next to each user’s name that celebrates how long they’ve been sober: Seven days. Fourteen days. Zero days. Seven days. Two months. Zero again.
“In the very beginning, /SD was so integral to my sobriety,” she said, “because I felt like it made me accountable, not only to myself but to thousands of strangers.”
It’s fitting, and not entirely coincidental, that r/StopDrinking came of age just as researchers and clinicians began to rethink exactly how alcoholism treatment works. In a brochure released last year, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, a division of the National Institutes of Health, began pushing treatments like medication and cognitive-behavioral therapy, right next to 12-step programs and traditional rehab. Meanwhile, a series of breakthrough studies have finally demystified the efficacy of Alcoholics Anonymous, particularly over the long-term.
Surprisingly, Kelly and others have found, it’s the peer solidarity that really works — not the ritual introductions, the religious overtones or the much-revered Big Book.
That means that any good addiction-recovery therapy should essentially do three things, Kelly said. One: Teach cognitive-behavioral coping skills, like the ability to deal with bouts of depression and anger, and confidence in the face of stress or temptation. Two: Change the addict’s social network, so that she changes her lifestyle and gets fewer cues to drink. Three: Motivate people to recover, largely by reminding them how they lived and felt before.
Twelve-step programs accomplish all three, through their particular blend of sponsorship and peer-group therapy. But they still don’t work for everyone: particularly people in rural areas, people who feel uncomfortable in group settings, or people afraid to discuss alcohol abuse under their real-life identities. According to the NIAAA, 14 percent of all American adults are currently “problem drinkers” — but fewer people than ever are seeking treatment for it.
“Addiction is still seen as a moral or a motivational problem, and that makes people very afraid to admit it,” said George Koob, the NIAAA’s director. “Particularly to a man in a white coat, who’s an authority figure.”
Communities like StopDrinking override that stigma, the thinking goes, by letting people connect in complete anonymity, direct from their computers and smartphones.
Despite that potential, groups like Alcoholics Anonymous have been reluctant to do much in the way of online outreach, and an AA spokesman declined to discuss the new wave of Internet efforts. AA members convened their first-ever workshop on the Internet and the fellowship just last year; their official guidelines on Internet use still stress extreme caution around subjects like social networking.
That doesn’t make much sense to Victoria Purdy, a long-time moderator of StopDrinking and an addictions counselor in Oshawa, Ontario, who thinks treatment needs to “meet people where they are.” She personally attended AA for two years and has taken other women to meetings in her former hometown, Ottawa. But when newcomers flock to the forum, as they do each January, Purdy reassures them that they have options far beyond the traditional recovery methods that they may be accustomed to.
“Everyone thinks you need to go to AA, and AA has pushed that attitude,” she said. “But in reality, there are other ways to get sober. And for me, Reddit has been a powerful tool.”