1 August 2016
A growing number of people are turning to the internet for help with their sobriety, finding online tribes of like- minded people wanting to reframe their relationship with alcohol. Whether you need help to cut back on the booze or you’ve decided you’ve had your last drink, help is available, and it comes in many forms. Matt Calman talks to the trailblazers of three thriving online communities.
Writer and mother of three Lotta Dann often sits at her dining table in suburban Wellington, sips her steaming coffee and looks out towards a hillside dotted with houses. Her eyes dart between the flickering living-room lights, and she wonders which houses harbour someone who appears fine but is secretly miserable because of their drinking.
In September, she will be five years sober. It’s two years since she appeared on TVNZ’s Sunday – supported by husband and TVNZ political editor Corin Dann – to reveal she was a recovering alcoholic, putting a face to her Mrs D blog persona. At the time, she was getting about 600 visits to her blog daily. The day after the interview, she got a staggering 30,000.
“I just felt really driven to do it,” Dann recalls. “I just knew ... there were lots of people out there, and I just kept one image of one imaginary person in my mind. If I reach her, that’s all that matters. I’ll take any shit that comes at me.”
Dann says she often becomes evangelical when talking about how great her sober life is now. She seems to have an inexhaustible enthusiasm for leading people from the darkness into the light – to the better place she has found.
“Everything I do, it’s all just to reach people. Because I know how stuck and alone and miserable I felt and how good I feel now, and I just want other people to see that it’s possible.”
Her blog and subsequent book of the same name, Mrs D is Going Without, have acted as a rallying cry for thousands of mainly middle-aged women. In August 2014, Dann, after noticing a dearth of online support, launched the Living Sober website with Matua Raki, the Health Promotion Agency and the New Zealand Drug Foundation as backers.
“I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if [my readers] could talk to each other instead of just reading me and leaving me a comment?’.”
She writes the website’s original content and acts as online moderator for a membership of about 4,000.
Living Sober statistics released in May show 86 percent of members actively interact on the site, and 96 percent said the site helps them make changes to their alcohol use. The membership is mostly female (94 percent) and New Zealand European (93 percent), but Dann says men are starting to join in greater numbers. Most are aged between 36 and 65, and 70 percent use no other form of support. Dann says people are logging in for an average of eight minutes per visit, which even trumps Facebook.
The website offers resources, a calculator that displays days sober and money saved, links to experts and Dann’s blog. Membership (which is free) allows access to the Community Area where members post on a live feed. Dann explains the fact members can remain anonymous means there is less of a filter on what people are prepared to share. People vent, describe challenges, share triumphs and give each other support and encouragement. If a member is having urges to drink, messages of support are just a finger click away.
You see people are loving being engaged. They’re building new habits. They get to take that home and still get to stay connected and supported.Tanith Petersen, He Waka Tapu
New members are welcomed within seconds of joining, and the connections made online have filtered into the real world, with regular coffee groups meeting in Auckland, Christchurch and Dunedin. On a chilly weekend in June, 23 women from around the country gathered in the Christchurch home of Living Sober member Lizi Reese, who has been sober for more than two years.
“It was magic,” Reese, who is 60, recalls. “There was just so much respect and trust in this room. You could harness it.”
Reese managed to run successful businesses, raise a family and maintain relationships despite her drinking problem. Through Living Sober, she says she has finally connected with a highly functioning and motivated group of people she can relate to. On the website, she uses the alias Prudence.
“Yes! What a bloody relief. They get it,” she thought when she joined. “These are the most deep-thinking, beautiful, warm, intelligent, wonderful people. Without the website, I do not believe I would still be sober.”
Reese is what Dann describes as one of the website’s “lamplighters”, standing at the end of the metaphorical dark tunnel of sobriety and “lighting the way” for those who are struggling. It’s a key reason Living Sober works.
Dann says the website’s partners provide both funding and valuable “professional” backup to bridge gaps in her knowledge or help navigate potential safety issues that occasionally arise online.
“It gives it validity, because the internet is a wild west. There’s all manner of who knows what on there.”
Māori social services provider He Waka Tapu is located in one of Christchurch’s poorest suburbs, Aranui. Clients are referred there from around the South Island to battle addictions to alcohol and drugs and other social issues such as anger management. Three years ago, He Waka Tapu developed Whaiora Online to support clients, particularly in the often fraught year after discharge. Chief Executive Dallas Hibbs says vulnerable people are many times more likely to commit suicide, for example, in the year after emerging from residential treatment.
“We haven’t worked with a lot of the more highly functioning alcoholics,” Hibbs points out. “We’ve tried to have a more targeted lens for those that might struggle a little more.”
The Whaiora Online community numbers just over 200. Each eight-week rotation of He Waka Tapu’s eight residential clients is added to the website’s community (which also includes supporters, peers and clinicians). Members can connect and share on a live feed, and there is also a section where they can choose from a range of health goals and track their progress.
He Waka Tapu IT Co-ordinator Tanith Petersen says users have responded well to the website’s nature-inspired graphics and calming colour palette. It is designed to be a nice environment, rather than a cold clinical website, to encourage usage. “You see people are loving being engaged. They’re building new habits. They get to take that home and still get to stay connected and supported.”
Petersen has been travelling the South Island sharing the website’s story with others from the sector.
“People are just blown away with the tool.”
Hibbs adds, “In a sector that historically hasn’t had a lot of accountability for outcomes, tools like this are really helpful.”
The Canterbury District Health Board is so impressed, Hibbs says, it has committed funding to increase the community by another 200 and is keen to add clients from outside He Waka Tapu.
“To convince the District Health Board to invest a significant amount of money to ensure the tool continues and grows ... is really exciting affirmation for us.”
Hibbs says one client’s experience sticks out from the hundreds of instances where Whaiora Online has supported someone in a time of stress. A woman whose son was “calling her out” on her addiction and was refusing to go to school logged in and blogged about it. Within seconds, she was receiving messages of support from peers. The woman later reported her social worker had discharged her and that she had gained more parenting skills and coping techniques. He Waka Tapu clinicians are able to track such incidents in real time and observe subsequent actions such as a follow-up call from a counsellor.
Hibbs says the tool has the potential to support people in isolated communities where there is an absence of treatment facilities. Canada’s largely isolated First Nations communities are an example of a group that could benefit from something such as Whaiora Online, Hibbs says.
“We’ve had interest from people who are in that situation who are watching us closely.”
Hibbs believes the Whaiora Online model could be transformative to the sector by driving changes in clinical practice and the composition of services. They had also secured funding to commercialise it.
“For us, the real excitement is in whether we can fundamentally change the way we work with vulnerable people living with mental health and addiction issues.”
In Australia, blog-based website Hello Sunday Morning, which began in 2009, now boasts more than 83,500 members who commit to quitting alcohol for a period of time and blog about it.
Hello Sunday Morning founder and CEO Chris Raine says there is evidence of a “strong cultural shift” in the way people view alcohol. He cites recent statistics that 45 percent of Australians want to drink less, and 13.7 percent want help doing it.
“I imagine the culture’s changing over in New Zealand as well. Young people are drinking less than they ever have ... which I believe is indicative of drinking cultures becoming aware of themselves.”
Raine says a sample study of 245 Hello Sunday Morning members showed 50 percent were initially high-risk dependent drinkers, but after 16 weeks of engaging with the website, this had dropped to 7 percent.
“We have good evidence to show that being part of a therapeutic community online is just as good as being offline.”
Much has changed for Raine since he embarked on 12 months without alcohol at the end of 2009 and blogged about the experience. He was a 22-year-old nightclub promoter at the time. He certainly didn’t foresee his blogging would lead to Hello Sunday Morning becoming what he describes as the largest online movement for alcohol behaviour change in the world.
“I think that, in cultural change, you have to create artefacts that create conversation. The way to do that in social media is to create positive, inspiring stuff that people want to share and talk about. It’s very much more solution oriented than something that’s negative.”
Raine says a new app called Daybreak will be launched by the end of the year to help people with issues around alcohol and a range of other social ills. While access to Hello Sunday Morning is currently free, the organisation is moving towards a paid membership model by year’s end. Licences to its products, including Daybreak, are being sold to Australian Primary Health Networks to provide for their clients, Raine adds.
“We are doing this to be sustainable. We have also found those who pay for premium membership on Hello Sunday Morning currently have greater retention and behaviour change.”
The resources on Daybreak will benefit from a raft of data gleaned from seven years of Hello Sunday Morning, research on alcohol behaviour change and input from a team of clinical psychologists. It will include links to clinicians, a range of 100 choices for people to tailor the best approach for them and the all-important peer-to-peer support. One of its main strengths is its immediacy.
“You can access it on your phone right now and get that social connection. I think it’s a really huge opportunity ... to build things that are meaningful rather than apps that get us food quicker or help us hail a cab.”
While many websites follow a commercial model, Dann says her blogging counterparts overseas are “in awe” of Living Sober being a government-funded free website. Whatever the funding model, the common factor for the success of websites such as Living Sober, Whaiora Online and Hello Sunday Morning is the positive, supportive environment.
Dann says giving up alcohol can be hugely difficult for people, especially while having to navigate a seemingly booze-soaked world.
“It’s hard work, and it’s gritty. We have to deal with feeling like a sober loser, and we have to deal with our emotions, and we have to deal with reforming our identities as non-drinkers. And so to be warm and lovely and positive can really help.”
Reese becomes emotional as she describes the impact of Living Sober and the sheer power of Dann’s example.
“Lotta is one brave, strong, driven woman who had the guts to do what she did in that one interview. Lotta is the golden thread that stitches the fabric of our lives together every day. She’s changed all of our lives.”
Lizi is a member of the Living Sober online community. Read about Lizi's experience of sobriety.
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