From Sober Mom Squads to Anti-Anxiety Manuals: Do New AA Alternatives Work? | Alcoholism

One of Victoria Smith’s first missions after joining A Sober Girls Guide was to find a name for her “self-saboteur,” her inner voice of insecurity.

“The Inner Saboteur?” thought Smith. “I already learned that from RuPaul’s Drag Race.”

Smith had paid $297 for the month-long sobriety program, which she found on Instagram, but didn’t find the content particularly enlightening as she participated in group discussions and practiced the self-reflection exercises – another consisted to write steps to become the 2.0 version of itself.

“I wanted more. Maybe I wanted something deeper,” said Smith, a 39-year-old special education teacher in Phoenix.

Victoria Smith celebrates seven months of sobriety in a photo posted to her Instagram in July. Photography: Victoria Smith

She was hesitant to dive straight into Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)—she considered herself a heavy drinker, but not an alcoholic. A Guide to Sober Girls is an online sobriety blog, podcast and group. With articles like “5 Red Flags Your Relationship With Alcohol Is Toxic” and “How To Have The Best Summer Sober Girls,” he offers “an alternative or supplement to AA”. Where AA requires all members to self-identify as alcoholics, Sober Girls Guide will against strict labels and embraces the millennial doctrine of mindfulness on the spirituality emphasized in AA.

A Sober Girls Guide is one of a cohort of online sobriety groups that rose to popularity as more people struggled with sobriety at the start of the pandemic, and they appear to be here to stay. They have less rigid standards than AA, which has dominated the alcohol recovery space since its founding in 1935. Many, like Storm and The luckiest club, offer regular virtual meetings, and are made up of people with varying degrees of professional training — Tempest, for example, has an advisory board of clinicians, in addition to peer recovery coaches closer to AA sponsors. Many were founded by and center women, a demographic that — even before the pandemic began, which has seen alcohol abuse statistics hover – had been catch up with men in drinking and binge drinking, but were less likely seek treatment for drug addiction. Most of these online programs charge membership fees and are run by paid staff, in stark contrast to the free, completely non-hierarchical, volunteer-run AA model.

Some may find this new online approach a little too lax. Not all creators or founders are trained in recovery. Effectiveness rates are unknown. Critics take issue not just with charging for membership, but also for “add-ons” — for example, for $8 you can download an 11-page “Slay Your Anxiety” workbook from A Sober Girls Guide, which includes worksheets and a mood tracker. Access to Sober Moms SquadThe private community forum starts at $15 per month; a package with daily support meetings, group coaching, and access to webinars costs $190 per month. And while the inclusion of women is a priority, these programs appear to be aimed specifically at upwardly mobile white women, despite racial discrimination being correlated with alcohol abuse.

Still, the urge to explore alternatives is valid. Dr. Lance Dodes, a retired clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, has conducted extensive research on addiction treatment. He estimates that the success rate of AA is very low – between 5 and 10%. “It fails most of the time and it does a lot of damage,” he said. “People believe in a program that can never help them, a program that tells them, ‘This is the only way to do it. “”

AA was founded in 1935 by two white male members of a Christian revival group, Bill Wilson and Bob Smith – a Wall Street analyst and a surgeon, respectively – and has approximately 1.5 million members in North America. . The effectiveness of the program has long been the subject of debate among researchers, with the first critical research beginning in the 1980s. There are many ways to measure sobriety success: how long a person stays sober, how manages to reduce her alcohol consumption in volume, how much she is less likely to suffer from health-related consequences like high blood pressure or liver disease. In 2020, a review of 27 clinical studies suggested that AA is effective by one of these measures (continuous abstinence rate) – but not the others.

Sarah Allen Benton is a clinical consultant at Strathmore House, a sober living program in Boston, Massachusetts. She says that even if people want to avoid shame or labeling, there can be therapeutic value in “owning the term” and identifying as “alcoholic,” an AA principle. But Benton says it makes sense that people like Smith, who admit they sometimes lose control of their drinking but don’t feel like alcoholics, would be reluctant to join AA.

“It’s a drinking problem,” Benton said. “I can see why they don’t want to go to AA because they really aren’t sure they’re alcoholics. They are simply looking for a place where they can explore their relationship with alcohol in a safe environment.

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Laura McKowen, founder of the Luckyest Club, credits AA with its own sobriety, but also recognizes its limitations. “I’m a fan of AA and I see its beauty, but it can be quite dogmatic,” she said in a video call. “It gets very, ‘it’s the only way, and if you refuse to accept a higher power, you’re kidding yourself and you can’t really get sober.'”

In 2020, when his local AA chapter closed due to the pandemic, McKowen – who had just published a memoir about his sobriety, We Are the Luckyest, in January, and had amassed strong social media following – began hosting free online meetings, several times a day, using a format of its own design. To support the rapidly growing community, McKowen implemented subscription fees and hired employees to lead more meetings; currently, access to Luckyest Club group sobriety meetings is $22 per month.

Laura McKowen, founder of the Luckyest Club.  McKowen amassed a following on social media after publishing a book about her sobriety journey.
Laura McKowen, founder of the Luckyest Club. McKowen amassed a following on social media after publishing a book about her sobriety journey. Photo: Courtesy of Laura McKowen

One of the fundamental principles of AA is that membership will always be free, and McKowen said she has often been criticized for charging money. “It’s hard work running these meetings, and people should be paid for their work,” she said.

Like The Luckyest Club, Sober Mom Squad – an online community formed at the start of the pandemic for mothers as well as women planning to have children – initially held free get-togethers.

“One of the things we’ve had to fight is the culture of ‘mommy wine.’ “When your children complain, I drool. “It’s cute for moms to drink,” said Kristi Tanner, a single mom of four, who spent about a year hosting Sober Mom Squad meetings.

As its members grew into the thousands, a monthly fee of $15 was added.

“I understand that it needs to become a business, but then it becomes a business and not a support group,” Tanner said. “When I was hosting, things started to change when membership fees started. There were rules, timers, policies. I get that nothing works for free, but that makes it a little less intimate.

There is also the delicate ethical question of taking advantage of people who need help, a situation which has led to widespread abuse in the for-profit rehab industry. Lewis Nelson MD, who spoke on behalf of the American Society of Addiction Medicine, expressed a need for caution around this model. “The pursuit of profit has historically been a strong driver of suboptimal behavior, so we must approach this new form of caregiving with caution,” he said.

In addition to charging fees, which she defends, McKowen receives criticism for something she also sees as a problem. People of color are underrepresented in AA, with 89% of members in North America identifying as white, according to AA most recent surveyand that doesn’t seem to change with the new programs.

“I agree that the representation in online recovery isn’t great,” McKowen said. “It’s still very white. We are constantly working on this.

When New York lawyer Khadi Oluwatoyin couldn’t find a recovery program related to her experiences, she created her own. “As the field of recovery expands, our conversations must also expand,” she said. In 2018, she founded Sober Black Girls Cluba free online collective of black women and non-binary people “living or contemplating beautiful sober lives”.

Khadi Oluwatoyin couldn't find a recovery program related to her experiences, so she created her own
Khadi Oluwatoyin couldn’t find a recovery program related to her experiences, so she created her own. Photography: Courtesy of Khadi Oluwatoyin

“For me, self-recovery was more than just putting the bottle down. It was about being okay with being black,” says Oluwatoyin. be successful in life.”

The Sober Black Girls Club hosts group meetings for Bipoc and queer participants, offers a mentorship program similar to the A.A. sponsorship system, and operates a medical fund to help members with health expenses related to rehabilitation. Membership is free and the running costs of the group are funded by donations and Oluwatoyin’s personal funds.

Victoria Smith echoes Oluwatoyin’s sense of alienation from the online recovery community. Smith is a member of the Hualapai tribe. Recovery, for Indigenous peoples, often involves discussion of specific phenomena – intergenerational trauma, forced assimilation, widespread abuses in American and Canadian residential schools – but few recovery programs address these issues.

“I’ve never met anyone like me in sobriety. I struggle in the recovery community. There’s a lot of white women,” she said. , as [the blog] Sober brunette girls, but I haven’t really connected to anything yet. There are not a lot of things for aboriginal people. Either way, she’s sober now, having put together a “toolkit” that works for her. She goes to a gym in Phoenix run by a non-profit organization called The Barbell saves the project, who offers free fitness programs for people recovering from drug addiction and has the support of a weight loss group where she discusses her sobriety. Smith said not drinking allowed her to live more authentically. “I really feel my emotions and myself.”

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