Meet the Sober-Grammers!

In the early years of Instagram, members were posting a steady stream of nature, food and travel photos. As the social media platform grew, it became known for carefully curated lifestyle accounts, duckface selfies and fitspo (or fitness inspiration).

Now with one billion accounts worldwide, Instagram has transcended its origins as a gallery of pretty pictures to emerge as an effective tool for networking, education and support.

Two years ago, I was looking for motivation to quit drinking and was surprised to discover a vibrant sober community on Instagram. Since then, accounts centered around recovery have multiplied dramatically.

The four Instagrammers below are known for sharing their own stories and extending a welcoming hand to those who are sober-curious, newly sober or looking to strengthen their ongoing recovery efforts.

Alison Evans (@TeetotallyFit)

When Alison Evans, who recently celebrated two years of sobriety, started using Instagram soon after the birth of her first child, her content initially focused on family and fitness. During her first period of sobriety, however, she began shifting her focus as she felt increasingly comfortable sharing her experiences.

“To me, Instagram serves as an open diary,” she says. “By sharing sober content, I feel like I’ve been able to hold myself more accountable, and I’m not hiding a dirty little secret. I’ve also been able to impact and inspire others, which in turn keeps me going.”

When she relapsed after eight months, however, she deleted much of what she’d shared about sobriety. As she explains, “I felt ashamed, plus I thought I was going to be a ‘normal drinker,’ so why keep the sober stuff on my feed?”

After a “final wake-up call” in January of 2017, Evans jumped back into both sobriety and posting about it because “I knew I’d be greeted with virtually-opened arms.”

“I don’t have the luxury of attending regular recovery meetings or meetups,” says Evans, who’s a military wife and the mother of three young children. “Instagram has served as a safe space to connect with like-minded, sober individuals from the comfort of anywhere.”

“Knowing that there is most likely another mother just like myself across the country, or even the world, cushions the idea that we are not alone in this walk,” she adds. “We may at times feel isolated, but then you just open up Instagram and quickly see that we are far from being ‘the only one.'”

Jocellyn Harvey (@SeltzerSobriety)

Three years sober this month and not quite 28 years old, Jocellyn Harvey has been on Instagram since she was 21. “My first account was all about things I bought, places I ate at, and how much I drank,” she says. “About six months after I got sober, I made that account private and stopped posting, though I did start talking about my sobriety within the first month.”

After almost a year away from Instagram, she started her @SeltzerSobriety account and has been writing about recovery and mental health ever since.

Harvey chose Instagram as her primary platform because of its simplicity and the ability to easily connect with people around the globe. “Instagram is a place where you can really create this life that isn’t you,” she says. “I think we’ve all done it. But now people are ready to be more ‘real’ on Instagram, and for some that means getting real about their drinking.”

Instagram hasn’t just offered Harvey a way to share her journey with the world but also introduced her to different recovery modalities. “If I wasn’t online, I’d really only know about recovery from my own program, and I think recovery needs to be well-rounded,” she explains.

While Harvey thinks “being open about your recovery is one of the best things you can do,” she also understands that shouting about recovery from the rooftops isn’t for everyone.

“If you’re more private, you can keep your account locked and follow along on other people’s journeys,” she notes.

Tracy Murphy (@MurphTheJerk)

Tracy Murphy, who’s three years sober and has been sharing about it on Instagram almost the entire time, had a very specific reason for wanting to be out and proud on IG. “It was important to me because, as a queer person, I wasn’t seeing many (or any) other queer people being visible about their sobriety in the recovery communities I was part of,” Murphy says. “It’s easier for people to do things if they see other people who are like them doing it too.”

“Being queer and sober means we’re a subculture within a subculture, so finding other folks with experiences that are similar to yours can prove challenging” Murphy notes. Murphy’s best recommendations?  Use hashtags to find other like-minded folks. (Popular sober queer hashtags, according to Murphy, are #soberqueer, #sobergay and #soberlesbian.)

While Murphy thrives off of being open on Instagram, they also know that “people need to assess to make sure it’s safe for them to do so. Some careers or family situations can become vulnerable or unsafe when folks are open about substance abuse, especially early in the recovery process.”

Still, Murphy knows the benefits of being open first-hand. “If it is safe for you to share your sobriety on Instagram, do it!” Murphy says. “The more people there are talking about it, the more people can see that sobriety comes in all different shapes and sizes and genders and sexualities and races.”

Alyson Premo (@Alys_WickedSober)

When soccer mom Alyson Premo quit drinking in November 2016, she immediately switched her Instagram handle to a recovery based one and started posting about sobriety. “I wanted to give hope to others who couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel—to show them that if I could do it, so could they,” she says.

Premo passes along motivation and hard truths, including the fact that addiction doesn’t discriminate. “I graduated from college, had a successful job and lived in middle-class suburbia, and here I was struggling with alcoholism,” she explains.

As her handle suggests, Premo’s posts show her sense of humor, and she wants people to know that “once you get sober it’s not all rainbows and unicorns. There are some hard days and emotions that we have to work through, but the blessings outweigh your hardest day.”

Now a recovery coach, Premo is a champion of the power of Instagram: “We’re all rooting for each other,” she says. “When someone has a bad day, we’re there to provide encouraging words and ways to get through the rough patch. Someone is guaranteed to get inspiration and hope from what is posted, and that’s what is needed in this world, considering the epidemic that we are currently witnessing.”

While Premo admits that while sometimes sober-grammers do get negative feedback, “being brave and owning our story is one of the greatest things we will ever do in our life.”

It’s no wonder Premo feels so strongly. While many rail against the negative impact social media has on our society, Premo notes, “From my struggle with alcoholism I finally found my purpose in life. Something that was lacking for a really long time. Without Instagram all of this wouldn’t have been made possible.”

The Sober Stand-Up Special You Have to See

The best comics make it look easy, but a successful career in stand-up comedy is much harder than it may seem. Take it from Matt Gallagher. To hear him tell it, stand-up is a circuitous journey that begins with open mics, writing material, making a set, taking it to live audiences, being a barker, getting paid, securing closing spots in shows, going on the road and finally headlining. But what allowed him to take the journey actually involved taking something away. “It only came about because I got sober,” he says. “When I say I did stand-up before, anybody from the outside would say, ‘This guy is not doing comedy.’ The old version was like watching a car accident.”

All told, Gallagher has been seriously doing comedy for about 18 years, since 2001 when he went through rehab. He cut his teeth while living in New York and facing all the terrifying possibilities that new sobriety brings. “I was either at a meeting or I was at a comedy club,” he says of the early days. “I lived in Hell’s Kitchen and meetings and the club were three blocks apart. I was doing three meetings a day and three shows a night, so it was a great way to stay sober.”

It was also a great way for Gallagher to hone his craft, as his new special A Stumble in the Woods, available on Amazon Prime, shows perfectly. Any serious comedy fans out there will notice that Gallagher’s special is unique, even amidst a recently flooded comedy market. As it turns out, his approach was different. “I didn’t work on this special or take it on the road and workshop it,” he says. “I had done it one time for a group of 15 people in a really small space.” That rawness yields a show that is equal parts storytelling and comedy, sometimes keeping the audience guessing as to what Gallagher will reveal and what he’ll withhold. “I didn’t have a concrete plan when I started talking,” he says. “When you put yourself on the spot, the stuff that pops up is really the truest stuff.”

Gallagher performed his special at the historic El Cid theater in Silver Lake, Los Angeles. “I wanted it to have that jazz, underground, beatnik-y feel to it,” he says. “It was all the stories I’m either uncomfortable with or I [felt] like people [needed] to know.” If you know nothing about Matt Gallagher, the special is also a great primer: He was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey to a widowed dad. He was raised with six sisters, two of them much older than he was. Perhaps most notably, both sides of his family had Irish Catholic bar owners.

The special begins as a relatively light retelling of a laissez-faire childhood before moving into darker territory. In one moment, Gallagher tells a wide-eyed story about how he thought priests were magical because bells would chime every time they broke the eucharist in church. In another, he regales his teacher with all the biodiversity that must’ve been on Noah’s arc (facts remembered from reading Ranger Rick magazines). Some of those early experiences with the magical thinking of religion turned Gallagher away from it in the future. “When I did this show, I just kind of embraced that I’m an atheist,” he says.

Still, Gallagher credits the 12 steps with helping him get and stay sober—and he still harbors a curiosity about the natural world that borders on spiritual. “My fascination is with the vastness of the universe,” he says with a laugh. “That to me is more powerful and interesting than any of the Abrahamic religions.” For anyone who missed it, the title of his special is a nod to A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson, the naturalist non-fiction writer who chronicled his adventures on the Appalachian trail. “The title resonated most with me,” Gallagher says. “Some people didn’t get it.”

Although Gallagher portrays himself at moments in the special as the red-nosed, drunk uncle at the end of the bar (inspired in some ways by his Uncle John, described throughout), Gallagher and his stories often strike a literary vein. Throughout our conversation, Gallagher quotes James Joyce and George Bernard Shaw and also references Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung. Though he explored the latter two while he was still drinking (“I was always searching for something—I kind of became a religious assassin in a way”), the ideas about mythic structure seem to have stuck. “[This special] was my little Hero’s Journey,” Gallagher says with a laugh. “I went through the underworld and I came out with the magic power of self-discovery.”

For a special that is digressive and relatively unstructured, viewers might be surprised at how neatly everything comes full circle. Beyond the allusion to Bryson, an anecdote at the end of the show gives the title new and deeper meaning. Still, I won’t spoil it here. For Gallagher, the next step in his work is to make meaning of his new life and his place in the world—a scary prospect for someone who has slain all the obvious dragons. “I’ve started working again,” he says. “I’ve been happily married for 11 years, I have two happy and healthy children. When I stop and take a breath, I see I have everything I want.”

But I Thought the Rules Didn’t Apply to Me?

I can’t believe this is happening but it is.

Yep, it’s true. I’m growing older.

Look, I get it—most of us are appalled by aging. But I feel like it’s different for me. Every day that it happens, which is to say every day, I feel more and more like one of those people you hear interviewed on NPR after they’ve survived a disaster—the ones who say, “I’d always heard about this happening to other people. I just never thought it would happen to me.”

In other words, I’m flummoxed, stymied and every other SAT word we had to memorize over the fact that time is passing and with it, I am aging. Because I truly never, ever, ever thought it would happen to me.

I’m biologically programmed to be shocked by this turn of events. Both my grandmothers were obsessed with defying their age and had face lifts long before this practice was more common. My mom, at nearly 80, looks no older than 60. And my brother, after helping to invent a product that prevents people from looking older, is now quite literally working on the cure for aging.

(None of this is BS hyperbole. Google “Nathaniel David.” Yep, one of the world’s leading experts on anti-aging.)

I don’t think it’s an accident that my family is obsessed with not aging. We are a family, you see, that lives by another credo: the rules don’t apply to us.

No one ever said this to me. They didn’t need to because I absorbed it.

And what rule is more unfair and yet more unavoidable than aging?

My point is this: I always understood that aging would happen to you. I just thought I would stay eternally, say, 38 while you guys would get grey hair and clogged arteries and other, far worse things. Whenever I’ve spied a grey hair, I’ve felt inarguably, stupefyingly betrayed by my body. As I tweeze it and then pretend the whole thing never happened, I all but scream at the sky, “How could you do this to me?!”

And that brings me to my years of sobriety. While it’s lovely in many ways to be sober for 18 years, that also means not being able to avoid one completely horrific fact: unless you got sober as a prepubescent, you simply can’t be 18 years sober and not kinda, well, old.

But aging isn’t the only horror I’d assumed I’d be able to avoid throughout my sobriety. I’d also had this idea that I’d be able to duck some of the other issues I’d heard other people discuss—namely, depression.

Now I understood from the beginning that it’s not like you get sober and then things just get better and better all the time. I got that there were peaks and valleys only followed by more peaks and valleys. Still, at a certain point—SAY, 18 YEARS OF SOBRIETY—you sort of just maybe kind of think all that’s over?

See, I’d heard early on that years seven through 10 of sobriety were not easy but I buckled through. Cool, I seemed to think, survived that, scratch it off the list, move on, share in meetings about the gifts of sobriety, keep meditating and praying and all that and the tides rise and stay there. Right?

Er, not really.

The bumps have continued and I feel as betrayed by them as I did by that grey hair I tweezed this morning. Don’t all the happiness studies claim people get happier as they get older? Isn’t that how I consoled myself over the fact that the aging rules did apply to me? When the fuck, I want to ask that deity that I seem to have a hard time finding when I’m going through the shit, does it just get easy?

Never have I been more gobsmacked by that question than early this summer, when early childhood trauma I’d spent a lifetime trying to avoid came screeching out. This all happened to come along at a time when I had truly established myself “out there” as a person who shared her dark to find her light. My company, Light Hustler, was successfully helping people write and publish and sell books. I had made my life philosophy clear in the world: if you share the things that have brought you the most shame, you will heal and help others to as well.

In a certain way, I was the perfect person to lead this charge. After all, I had been doing that since I published my first book about addiction in 2007.

For years, I’d been receiving accolades for my bravery when it came to sharing about my addiction. I’ve received hundreds of emails and social media messages and in person declarations from people who tell me that my podcast or something I’ve written or said has helped them to come to terms with their own addiction. They often add something like this: “Even though I may lose my family or career by coming clean, your bravery has given me the strength to do so.”

For a long time, I accepted this praise, no questions asked. God damn it, was I a brave person, I would tell myself. And I didn’t even have to try!

But that shield of self-congratulations I’d created to honor my bravery fell apart in the face of my summer breakdown. I am generally not a crier but I became someone who cried so hard, so publicly and so often that it wasn’t even surprising one day when I was walking down the street, sobbing, and a homeless man asked me if I was all right. Humiliated, defensive, I responded, “Yes!” He looked at me, said, “You don’t seem okay” and shuffled off.

It just happened that I had a book coming out at this time—a book I needed to go out there and promote. I dramatically told a friend one day between sob sessions that I couldn’t be publicly together so I was going to cancel everything.

She shook her head. “I don’t get you,” she said. “This is your whole thing. Sharing your dark to find your light. Why wouldn’t you be open about struggling?”

So I had to ask myself the same question. And that’s when I saw that I’d never been ashamed about being an addict but I’d always been deeply, horribly ashamed about suffering from depression.

The truth, I suddenly saw, was that I seem to think sobriety is cool and that you, whoever you are, want to hear about it. I remember going to a restaurant early on in my sobriety, ordering a Diet Coke from a waiter and then adding, “The reason I’m ordering a soda and not a drink is that I’m newly sober after a crippling cocaine addiction and if I have a drink, that will just lead to more and next thing I know I’ll be calling my dealer and then it will be 6 in the morning and I’ll be wired to the gills, hearing the birds chirp and thinking about killing myself.”

And I recall him nodding warily and, while backing away, telling me my soda was on the house.

Even if I haven’t overshared about my addiction with you, I’m just a genre of person whom most people in the world would expect to be an addict. In LA, they say, you throw a rock and you’ll either hit a sober person or someone who needs to get sober. People in recovery are so out and proud here that we don’t even realize there’s any other way to be. And writers? Well, we’re supposed to be drowning out our senses to near incapacitation in order to access our creativity.

Point being: I was never going to not get a job because of having been addicted to drugs; if anything, it would help me get hired.

In other words, I wasn’t nearly as brave as the people coming to me for help sharing their recovery stories.

I was a hypocrite.

Unlike a movie character’s epiphany, however, I didn’t have this realization and then change. This wasn’t Grease and I wasn’t Sandy, ready to have Frenchie convert her from the person she’d been to the person she wanted to be.

In fact, when I signed on, puffy-eyed, to do a video interview the day after my friend confronted me, I told the person interviewing me that I had “just gotten some bad news” and might not be able to do the interview. This was about a month into my crying jag so the “bad news” was a lie.

Ignoring my attempt to duck out of the interview so I could surrender some more salt water from my eyes to the pillow, he said, “Well everyone here loves and supports you” and I realized that I wasn’t just talking to a friend but to the hundreds of people who had signed on early and were already watching online. I felt humiliated.

The truth I had to face is that I only wanted to share dark experiences if they were in the past…that I wanted to look perfect but talk about a broken past so that I could be respected or even feel better than other people. “I struggled once, just like you’re struggling now,” I wanted to communicate. “But look at me now!” I wanted to have the ugliness be a funny or meaningful story from my past.

So I’m here from the front lines to report: I’m not cured. I still fall apart. And I can quote Leonard Cohen all I want and talk about how the crack is where the light comes in but the reality is it fucking sucks when I’m going through it. Even though, of course, just like all those people promised, I always come out on the other side having learned something invaluable. It just can take a long god damn time—unlike aging, which seems to happen in a millisecond.

In other words, it’s taken me this long to truly accept the fact that the rules do apply to me. I even have the grey hairs to prove it.

Crossing Finish Lines: Carrie Steinseifer Bates’s Road to Recovery

Road to RecoveryWhile alcoholic falls from grace are as common as they are tragic, there isn’t often an Olympic pedestal involved somewhere in the story. Unfortunately for three-time Olympic champion Carrie Steinseifer Bates, her story has one in it. Her decades-long plunge into alcoholism didn’t just devastate her family and destroy relationships—it almost erased her monumental athletic achievements from memory. “When you have somewhat of a public life, your problems aren’t any worse or more dramatic,” she says, “but everyone in my community knew. And let’s face it: when you’re being put in the back of a police car at three in the afternoon when the school bus is dropping off kids, the gig is kind of up.” Bates, who first competed in the 1983 Pan American Games, realized that none of her gold medals mattered much if she couldn’t escape the long shadow that alcoholism cast across her life and remarkable career.

At 15, Bates won gold medals in 4×100-meter freestyle and 4×100-meter relays, which she parlayed into Olympic wins the very next year. Beneath the brightness of her wins, though, something dark was percolating and about to rear its head. “I grew up in an alcoholic home, so swimming was my escape and my safe place—and I just happened to be good at it,” she noted. “That’s where I went to work out my fear and my anger. I took it all out in the pool and nobody can see you cry underwater, right?” Where that fear and anger informed her will, commitment, and singular drive to succeed in her competitive career, it later underscored a just-as-epic drinking career, too. “All the [sayings] that brought me my greatest accomplishments: ‘Don’t ask for help,’ ‘Barrel through it,’ ‘Bulldoze your way there,’ and ‘You’re strong’ became the same things that nearly killed me.”

Bates first tasted alcohol on a 14-hour flight from Tokyo, which sent her off to the races (pun intended): “I was on an airplane and I was one of the youngest traveling with the national team,” she remembers. “Nobody was monitoring what we were doing. Not only did the drinking feel good, but it was more of a feeling like, ‘Oh my God. I finally fit in.’ I’d always had a sense of not being comfortable in my own skin.” (She drank enough wine coolers to vomit on the plane and pass out.) Still, her competitive swimming career continued after her ’84 gold-medal wins and meeting then-President Reagan. She attended the University of Texas, where she was a member of three NCAA national championship relay teams, not to mention representing the US at the 1987 Pan American Games and the 1989 Pan Pacific Swimming Championships. (She won gold medals for the latter two, as well.) And yet, alcoholism doggedly pursued her like a competitor in her own swim lane. “I don’t think I really crossed that proverbial line to alcoholic drinking until my late thirties,” she said. But when Bates finally crossed the line, everything came crashing down.

“You have to remember I lived in a world that was about excess. Everything that we did was entitled and of excess,” Bates observes. “As elite athletes, we have this mentality that we work really fucking hard, but we play really hard, too.” And just as she did in the pool, with alcohol, she pushed the boundaries of what she was capable of. And while she later managed to get through two pregnancies without drinking, she knew that she was an alcoholic. “As I got older and was raising kids, I could definitely start to see that my disease was starting to progress,” Bates says. “I started to hide [my drinking]. I started to drink more than my girlfriends and more often, too. Eventually, it wasn’t just the quantity but the frequency.” It’s a story that sounds familiar to most any alcoholic, but it’s a particularly unsettling one for a champion who’d trained her entire life to be the best, if not quasi-invincible. Alcohol just wasn’t something she’d factored in. “I’d become everything that I hated in life,” she remarks, “and I didn’t even see it coming.”

Soon enough, Bates found herself in AA rooms, even though she still struggled with hitting any honest stretches of sobriety. “Talk about driving the shame stake deeper into the ground,” she sighs, recalling the memory. “I was a complete fraud. I’d literally stand up and take coins when I knew I wasn’t sober. My life was so defined by my achievements that I was so afraid that people would find out my truth.” That truth was its own full-time job to conceal. Bates spent as much time drinking as she did maintaining the illusion that she had a perfectly manicured life as a wife, mother, and career woman. “If you could divide me into three [parts], there’s me as a sober, recovering, strong woman. There’s also the diseased alcoholic [who is] really sick and near dying. And then there is me as a successful athlete, great mom, and a good career. For a long time, I felt like they were three very different people and I couldn’t quite connect the dots, but in sobriety, I can.”

Sobriety remained more elusive to Bates than an Olympic gold medal was to an ordinary person, though. “Elite athletes aren’t easy people to get sober,” she admits. “We have pretty big egos, usually.” Still, Bates had hit a bottom where suicidal thoughts, destroyed friendships and divorce waited for her, so she turned to treatment. That trip, though, wasn’t successful. “I wasn’t fully honest in treatment. I told the staff and the counselors what they wanted to hear,” Bates says. “I only told them parts of my stories because if I told my truth, I’d have to stay. I have a life to get back to, don’t you know? But I didn’t see how much that hurt me and my ability to stay sober.” Needless to say, her time in treatment didn’t work. She returned to treatment in 2012 after sitting at a kitchen table with two girlfriends, drinking alcohol out of a coffee cup. It was that moment when she decided to quit cold turkey, arranging for 90 days of out-of-state treatment. “And then went into this really, epic, dangerous withdrawal,” she says with a disturbingly cold, matter-of-factness that belies just how horrifying the experience must have been. “It was full DT’s: voices; hearing TVs that weren’t on; no concept of night or day. I was lucky I didn’t die, but I’m not so sure I didn’t want to die.”

Years following treatment, however, Bates hasn’t just found sobriety—she’s found purpose. “I was sick of getting A’s in Treatment and F’s in Life,” she explains, looking back on decades of drinking with equal parts terror and awe. Now, she’s focused on being the best mother possible to her two daughters and making them “aware of what’s running through their veins.” She’s also taken a very vocal stance against the stigma of addiction, using her achievements as an Olympian for a greater purpose. While Bates respects the anonymity of others in 12-step programs, she’s dedicated to living out loud and helping others. “I talk about recovery openly,” she said. “It’s so much bigger than the medals. It’s about using this platform to help other struggling people who are ashamed to come out of their front door.” When Bates speaks about recovery, you can hear the passion in her voice: the electricity in between each syllable; the way she punctuates her sentences with confident periods. She doesn’t hit one inauthentic note. Bates is resolute when she describes being active with the California treatment center where she finally got sober—a place she visits frequently with her family. “I watch my girls tell other moms that their kids will forgive them, as they did me, if they stay sober. Those are my proudest moments,” she says.

It’s particularly interesting to listen to Bates describe her recovery because she begins to speak with pronouns like “we” and “our,” rather than describing it as some sort of sad solo act. “My daughters aren’t ashamed of me and they’re not ashamed of our journey. We all own our story out loud and my kids have no interest in hiding the truth.” As Bates reflects, it’s clear that she’s come a long way from not only her drinking days, but an early recovery that found her “paralyzed by fear” and afraid to leave her house out of shame. Now remarried, Bates credits her “fabulous” husband for helping her achieve sobriety, saying that “he would walk in front of me until I was brave enough to be seen, in back of me in case I slipped, and next to me with pride when I was strong enough.”

In many ways, Bates is as much a force of nature now as she was as an Olympic champion, if not more so. She recounts signing up for half-marathons, full marathons and Iron man competitions with enthusiasm and grace, not an unbridled ego ready to destroy other people. Bates isn’t broken by her past so much as she’s humbled by it. She’s keenly aware of the gulf between standing on the Olympic pedestal and lying on her kitchen floor. “I have the seen the world from a view that very few people will get to see in their lifetime: as an Olympian, a gold medalist, as someone who traveled the world,” she notes. “I have seen and done things a lot of people will never get to do in their lifetime. But I’ve also absolutely lived in hell on earth.” True champions never let the fire inside them die out, and Bates is no exception. For someone whose career was built on speed and endurance, it’s remarkable to see that Bates continues to outpace her demons, leaving them all far behind.