SALT LAKE CITY — Christmas Day marked exactly 13 months of sobriety for Melissa Leventhal — the longest stretch the 20-year-old had experienced since childhood.
A self-proclaimed "troubled kid," Leventhal began dabbling with drugs and alcohol at age 14 and bounced in and out of treatment programs for the next six years, resenting being there and faking her way through.
Her social media habits reflected this life: She'd post pictures to Instagram of herself drinking and coordinate drug pickups through Facebook.
Yet, over the last year as her most recent treatment finally clicked, she's noticed her entire life — both physical and digital — shifting.
"My timeline is completely different," says the Basking Ridge, New Jersey, native, noting she now posts positive quotes and thoughts, reminders of recovery-related events, and advice for others in recovery.
She's completely open about her journey, proud of what she's doing and who she is today.
"I'm sharing these things so people can see that recovery is a lifestyle," she said. "People have this idea that if you're addicted or have been addicted to drugs, you're a bad person because you did bad things. I'm an addict in recovery and I've completely changed my life around."
While social media is often blamed for ruining society, it has become a powerful way for those in recovery — including many celebrities — to tell their stories and reshape the addiction narrative. And though data is slow in coming, experts who study technology and recovery are excited by social media's potential to create a paradigm shift about the way people access help — as long as folks fill their feeds with supportive friends, not reminders of past addictive behaviors.
In 2016, an estimated 21 million people ages 12 or older needed substance use treatment — about 1 in 13 people, according to the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Yet only 1.4 percent of those people — around 3.8 million — got any sort of substance abuse treatment, and only about 1 in 10 got treatment at a speciality facility.
Part of that may be because recovery is seen as a "huge deal that upends their lives," says Brandon Bergman, associate director and research scientist at the Recovery Research Institute within the Center for Addiction Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, and an instructor at Harvard Medical School.
But if someone can just log on to a website or find a recovery network through their Instagram feed, treatment feels doable, affordable and relatable, he said. In fact, a paper he published earlier this summer found that about 1 in 10 Americans had used online technology for recovery-related use.
This creates a ripple effect: As more people use social media to find support and share their own stories, the stigma decreases, the conversation broadens and goes beyond "the addiction horror stories," says Bergman. "It's very important for people to be exposed to the idea that not only is recovery possible, it's probable."
When people think about social media, they tend to focus on the negative — privacy violations, smartphone overuse, the demand for instant gratification, says Brenda Curtis, assistant professor of psychology in psychiatry-addictions in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.
But "if you really think of what social media was built to do ... it was to bring groups of people together," she said, "especially marginalized populations that wouldn't naturally meet in public. Social media allows for these groups of people to congregate in a safe place and talk."
For Allie McCormick, 36, that safe place was Reddit, on a subreddit called 'r/stopdrinking' that she visited when she was three months sober, but heading off on a 10-day cruise to the Bahamas with her husband where they'd be constantly surrounded by alcohol.
On the subreddit, people quickly chimed in with their recovery stories. They reassured her vacations are better sober because you actually remember things and shared tips on how they'd managed trips in the past.
She soaked up the advice, had an amazing, alcohol-free trip and can't wait to do it again.
"You can have access to such a huge, wide community, even more than you can going down the street to AA meetings. It's a huge resource that really has no bounds," said McCormick, who lives in Los Angeles. "The internet and social media is completely empowering for us."
Group support used to mean an AA or NA meeting in the local church basement, and connecting with fellow recoverers over coffee afterward. The blending of technology and addiction recovery dates to the early '90s, when folks could get a CD-ROM of clinical lessons to go through at home, said Bergman. In the mid-2000s, they could log on for web-based treatment.
Today, social media's free, peer-to-peer connections and global connectivity, rather than instructor-to-patient or computer-to-patient relationships, aren't just a new mode of delivery, Bergman says, but an entirely new approach.
While studies on the role of social media in recovery are few, Bergman's excited to learn more and is knee-deep in research on the topic, including a study that surveyed 123 users of IntheRooms.com, an online recovery-focused social networking site. It found that daily meditation prompts and live online video meetings — the most commonly used features — helped with recovery motivation and self-efficacy.
Curtis recently published a study showing that individuals in outpatient treatment programs feel generally positive about using relapse prevention apps and social media monitoring to prevent relapses.
Even without more data, Curtis said she's encouraged by stories of people who have found help and support through online digital platforms. She's hopeful these will complement in-person recovery support groups, which offer important face-to-face interaction, eye contact and human touch.
"While we can't say that (online interventions) will cure you," she said, "most of the ingredients for a good treatment (program) are in these groups. So I think there's definitely a place for (them)."
While Facebook may be dwindling in popularity among teens, it's still a haven for recovery groups, with groups like "Sobriety One Day at a Time Support Group," which reaches 42,000 members with 10+ posts a day, and "Never Alone Recovery Group," with 25,000 members.
McCormick joined a women-only, alcohol-related Facebook group for women who want to drink less or stop drinking completely, including those who've been sober for 10 years and those who gave up drinking yesterday. There are no requirements, just a support network of nearly 2,500 women who can ask questions of each other without judgement.
Her Reddit support network, r/stopdrinking, has more than 144,000 subscribers and describes itself as a "place to motivate each other to control or stop drinking. We welcome anyone who wishes to join in by asking for advice, sharing our experiences and stories or just encouraging someone who is trying to quit or cut down. Please post only when sober, you're welcome to read in the meantime."
InTheRooms.com, which claims to be "world's largest online social network for the global recovery community," has more than 13.8 million comments and 4.3 million messages, according to its website.
A search on Instagram for #recovery is just a few posts shy of 10 million, while #sober reveals nearly 2.1 million posts and the hashtag #soberlife shows more than 917,000.
Posts show before and after pictures of folks in addiction versus recovery and smiling people holding up cards proclaiming a certain number of months sober.
@Sobermotive, a feed with more than 6,700 followers, posts inspirational quotes: "You seriously have no idea what people are dealing with in their personal life so just be nice, it's that simple." or "What is coming is better than what is gone. Live Clean!!!"
Wanting to study how people were talking about sobriety on Instagram, the Laguna Treatment Hospital in Aliso Viejo, California, recently did a study of nearly 135,000 posts related to sobriety and recovery, and discovered that from 2011 to 2018, on average, 73 percent of posts were positive, with 11 percent negative and 16 percent neutral.
"I think sobriety is one of the rare cases where social media is pretty much 100 percent positive," says McCormick, who has since started her own website, "Sober Alley," where she shares inspirational quotes, tips for recovery and insights from her own journey. "It's a vulnerable position to be in when you're out there showing your face, name, showing the rawest part of your recovery journey to the world. People who follow that understand it and appreciate it."
Support for those who share their struggles was seen on a massive scale earlier this year when singer and actress Demi Lovato overdosed in July. Having been public about her struggles in the past, she was immediately flooded with messages, tweets and posts of support.
When people are willing to come forward with their struggles and put a face to the problem it breaks down stereotypes and preconceived notions of "us versus them," says Curtis. It also increases public support, which can impact governmental funding toward addressing the disorder.
Power of peers
But social networks don't always lead users to healthy behaviors.
In fact, the more images someone sees of alcohol use and abuse in their feed and the more pictures they post of their own drinking, the more likely they are to be heavy drinkers, explains Joseph LaBrie, a professor of psychology at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California, who studies the role of social media and its influence on risk-taking behavior among college students and emerging adults.
Social media feeds filled with alcohol-related posts may also convey a false sense of a peer group's norms — whether in high school, college or a professional environment.
"With young people, we know that the No. 1 predictor of how much they're going to drink is how much they think everyone else is drinking," LaBrie said.
And unlike 20 years ago, when "everybody else" meant those in their close or extended friend circles, today's young adults have social media-based peer groups that circle the globe — a network that helps explain a "unique amount of drinking (among) young people over and above what their close friends are doing," LaBrie said.
In that same vein, college students who swamp their social media feeds with pictures of things unrelated to alcohol — hiking, pizza parties, movie nights or study sessions with doughnuts — create another narrative about what norms might be, says LaBrie.
Knowing that, Utah's non-profit, Utah Support Advocates for Recovery Awareness, works hard to create a new norm for Utah. The group posts stories on its social media accounts about "leaders in recovery;" organizes events such as January's stand-up comedy show, "Laughing Sober"; and hosts Facebook pages where people can chat with others in recovery, reminding them they're not alone in their journey.
"Our interest is to help people, after they’ve experienced the acute episode of treatment, find their community, find a group of people they can call their own," said Evan Done, community outreach and empowerment coordinator for USARA. "Nobody does this alone. We're all people in long-term recovery from substance abuse disorders. We get it."
Transitioning from a life of active substance abuse into a life of recovery often means leaving friends behind — both in real life and on social media, says Done. Some in recovery find that this is best done by deleting accounts and starting fresh, or unfriending those who aren't helping with their recovery.
Done started his own recovery journey in 2012 and found that hiding the alcohol ads on Facebook was a "huge benefit" to him. He has posted on USARA's website about how others can do the same thing.
Now, because most of his social media friends are folks within the recovery community, he gets to see "celebrations of recovery on my Facebook all day long," he said.
While on the phone with a reporter, he logged in and saw a friend in recovery celebrating a recently earned bachelor's degree in criminal justice.
"How cool is that?" he said. "I get to see people's progress and that gives me hope ... that things do get better."