DRUGS

How Opioid Addicts Are Using Social Media To Get Clean

Facebook groups and other online forums offer many addicts a digital path to recovery

DRUGS
Illustration: Tara Jacoby
Apr 15, 2017 at 10:33 AM ET

For one stay-at-home mom from Ohio, her secret addiction to painkillers started with a bad back.

Two years ago, when Jane (not her real name) went to see her doctor for back pain, he doled out the synthetic opioid tramadol “like candy,” she said. But then her doctor refused to refill her prescription, and Jane began feeling sick. “It took me two days to realize it wasn’t the flu, and I was experiencing withdrawals,” she said. Jane turned to the street to get more pills, eventually graduating to heavier narcotics such as oxycodone.

During this time, a friend — and one of the people she bought painkillers from — extended her an invitation to a Facebook group dedicated to opioid dependency, called Opiate Addicts. She accepted, if only to see what it was all about. After all, she had nobody to confide in offline. Virtually nobody knew she was an addict. “I had no intention of getting clean at first. I just stayed in the background of the group, reading other people’s stories,” Jane said.

Soon Jane started connecting with group members. She saw some people get sober, and others sink further into their addictions. Over time, Jane started learning different ways to kick her habit, and eventually used advice she picked up from the group. This started a cycle that’s all too common for addicts — recovery and relapse. She would be clean for a few days, only to use again for a few weeks, over and over again.

Eventually, with the help of the Facebook group, she got off pills for good. She’s been sober for roughly a year, and is now an administrator helping others recover, too. “I’m not sure I would have gotten clean without this group,” Jane said. “Reading their stories and hearing people describe the same thing I was going through gave me hope and made me feel like less of a failure — it wasn’t just me. Other moms, wives, friends were also living secret lives.”

As the opioid epidemic rages on, addicted Americans are turning to unconventional methods for recovery. While many still turn to the rehabilitation industry — there are more than 14,000 treatment facilities across the U.S. that generated $35 billion in 2014 — addicts are also flocking to groups on the internet to share first-hand information and connect with people who can relate to their struggles. Sites such as Facebook and Reddit are home to scores of digital recovery communities for users dealing with substance abuse — particularly opioids.

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The group Jane joined, now called Opiate and Opioid Addicts, is one of the larger Facebook groups dedicated to the cause. Its founder and main admin is a man named Kevin Blythe, a 32-year-old former opiate addict from a small town outside of Richmond, Virginia. Blythe is on Social Security disability, and currently takes Suboxone, an opioid replacement medication composed of buprenorphine and naloxone, to aid in his recovery.

Blythe said his addiction started after doctors put him on powerful painkillers such as OxyContin to ease his back pain at the age of 16 and then abruptly cut him off. “They just discontinued the prescriptions all of a sudden,” Blythe said. “At that point, I started buying them off the street and the addiction continued for a few more years.”

To wean himself off heavier drugs, Blythe said he started taking Suboxone about eight years ago, and has been on it ever since. (Technically, he is still dependent on opioids, he noted.) He was also in and out of rehab numerous times before settling on maintenance treatment. Blythe said he was inspired to start the Opiate and Opioid Addicts group by a desire to connect with others in his situation as well as a lack of options that he could find online at the time.

“When I first started recovering from opioid addiction myself, I was looking for some support somewhere and I just thought, maybe search Facebook to see if there’s a group or a page or anything that could assist me,” Blythe said. “There really didn’t exist anything specifically for opioid addiction and I just decided, why not start one? Eventually, just slowly, 30 people joined and then 50 and 75 and 100 and 500, so I just decided to build something out of it.”

That was about five years ago. Now, the private group counts over 8,900 members, and has three admins including Blythe and Jane, plus five moderators. Its pinned post is a 16-point manifesto on Blythe’s “rules, procedures, and information,” which include: No drug seeking or selling; no bullying or name-calling; no pictures of illicit substances or pharmaceuticals; no asking for money (in all caps); no links to outside groups; a reminder that his group is not a dating site; and lastly, a suggestion to have fun.

Unlike other online communities and forums, many people post under their real names and identities. On any given day, the Opiate and Opioid Addicts wall will contain calls for prayer for somebody’s recovery, or detailed stories about the joys and/or perils of using. Other posts include celebrations of “x-amount of days clean!” or lamentations about “ending it all.”

“People have posted from time to time, ‘Oh, life isn’t worth it, and I’m going to off myself,’ and that is a big concern right now,” Blythe said. He and the other admins deal with these situations on a case-by-case basis. “If we think someone has developed a real suicide plan, we do try and locate them and call proper authorities,” he said.

In the years since Blythe started Opiate and Opioid Addicts, users have many more options for recovery groups online. But Blythe said he’s still focused on building a diverse community of people in all stages of their recovery. “One thing I’ve always tried to do is allow and invite openly people who are still active users so that they can get support and reassurance that they’re still of value to society and they are still loved,” he said. “So it’s also getting people to get along and accept each other and not be judgmental of one another.”

That means mostly dealing with rowdy posters that break one or several of his 16 commandments, and people who have opposing views on how best to deal with an opioid habit.

For instance, Blythe said there is occasional friction between those who subscribe to replacement therapy such as Suboxone, methadone, or even kratom, a Southeast Asian herb that has been gaining traction in recent years as a more natural opioid alternative, and others who back 12-step programs and cold turkey abstinence. Still others advocate using other drugs such as marijuana and benzodiazepines during recovery.

“People are different,” Blythe said.

While online groups like Blythe’s are thriving, some question whether they’re the best way for addicts to seek help in their recovery. John French, a recovering addict who now lives in Costa Rica and helps others with addiction, said that while users have access to thousands of internet support groups, the medium may not provide the same sort of care and benefits that personalized treatment provides. Not only are these groups not run by professionals, they may not give addicts what they truly need, he said.

“Some see addiction as a disease of isolation. To the extent that is true, then recovery focused on internet communication is not as rewarding as one based on in-person contact,” French said, although he added that online support “is far better than none at all when no other is available.”

Ivana Grahovac, director of advancement at the nonprofit group Facing Addiction, takes issue with his assessment. Grahovac, a former heroin addict who sampled several different treatment methods before quitting her drug of choice, said that online communities provide important resources to those who don’t have other options.

“Ideally there would be enough people from diverse backgrounds readily and willingly available to form a regular, visible, engaging community in every single city and every single town,” she said. “We know that the opiate epidemic has particularly hit the rural areas very, very hard. And so you can’t just dismiss these online communities because it’s better to meet people in person — it’s simply not available in some geographic areas.”

Grahovac said she has seen groups such as Opiate and Opioid Addicts offer positive reinforcement to people with nowhere else to turn. “When a person reaches and out and says, ‘Hey, I’m really struggling today. I feel like getting high,’ what I see is a wave of responses from people in all different stages of their recovery saying, ‘Whatever you do, don’t go out and use,'” she said. “They offer solutions, they offer support, they offer compassion, and if we can build that into society, we will see more people get well.”

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John Talmadge, a professor of psychiatry and addiction medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, went as far as to say that online recovery communities could even replace traditional therapy. A recovering addict, he found support at intherooms.com, which serves the Alcoholics Anonymous community, among other online groups.

“I’ve been in personal recovery from addictions since 1983, and as far back as the mid-eighties there were online support groups through services like AOL, Compuserve, and Prodigy,” he said. “Some were in bulletin board format, and others used the just emerging chat rooms that are now ubiquitous.”

Talmadge warned, however, that there are risks involved in groups like Opiate and Opioid Addicts, with non-experts feeding one another information. That’s why, he said, groups like AA, NA (Narcotics Anonymous), and SMART — an alternative to AA and NA for people who don’t connect with 12-step programs — are more rigidly regulated.

“People get weird advice from all sorts of places, and I find myself often dispelling a myth, rumor, or the latest quackery to come down the pike,” Talmadge said. “Like everyone else, alcoholics and addicts can be persuaded to believe something that’s simply not true.”

Despite these drawbacks, Jane said, online support was crucial for her recovery. “This group has taught me so much — good and bad — and I think it may have saved my life,” she said of Opiate and Opioid Addicts. “It helps me stay accountable and humble.”