Downtime

“She Could Still Have a Life”

Why I follow the addiction stories of strangers online.

A woman sits at a desk that holds a framed photograph of two women and a blank computer.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by mkos83/iStock/Getty Images Plus, Paul Bradbury/iStock/Getty Images Plus, and SeventyFour/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Rabbit Holes is a recurring series in which writers pay homage to the diversity and ingenuity of the ways we procrastinate now. To pitch your personal rabbit hole, email humaninterest@slate.com.

For a long time, I liked to think I had two lives. In therapy, I would even call it my “life down here” and my “life up there.” My life “down here” in New York City was the shiny one, where I was the copy director of a major global beauty brand, was married, had lots of friends, and traveled often. I could order groceries whenever I wanted and could take oddly niche and expensive workout classes. Things were actually pretty easy.

My life “up there” in upstate New York was a lot darker. Both of my siblings are addicted to opioids and have been in either active addiction or recovery for over a third of my life. For over a decade, sprinkled between nice family memories were those of overdoses, locked doors, screaming fits, and secrets pushed under box springs.

The people closest to me know about this life, but I have never liked telling anyone at work about my family. I didn’t want anyone to know about the tearful phone calls taken in stairwells, the real reason I had to work remotely for a week, plane tickets put on credit cards, or the bouts of panic I endured during Tuesday lunch hours when one of them went missing. I hated the idea that any of these things could affect the life “down here” I had worked so hard to create for myself, and I tried to hold onto my localized happiness no matter what. But feelings don’t work that way.

When you can’t save the people you love, the coping mechanisms you create for yourself might end up being a little unconventional. Which is why I follow the addiction stories of people I don’t know on Instagram, and generally procrastinate by consuming addiction content from internet strangers daily. Rather than upsetting or triggering me, it soothes me in a way that nothing else has really been able to, and it makes me feel closer to my sisters and their struggles.

Even before Instagram spirals and Wiki black holes, I had a penchant for falling into darker media content. None of my college friends understood how I could put Requiem for a Dream on as background noise, and later, how I could describe Euphoria as “relaxing.” If you perused my bookshelves, you would see dozens of addiction memoirs, from Bill Clegg’s Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man to Cat Marnell’s How to Murder Your Life. The truth was, I didn’t have any real examples of people with the same experiences as me. I went to 12-step meetings occasionally and found them helpful, but exhausting. And in normal life, no one talks about their addicted or alcoholic loved ones much—there’s still a lot of shame and embarrassment around it. But we all want to feel less alone. So, I turned to all the social media platforms I was already obsessed with.

Facebook is really only good for community groups now, and there is a group for everything. I found a 12-step group for friends and family of those living with addiction, and everything changed. Here were real people with identical stories to mine, hopeful and desperate and loving and angry. I could follow along from my couch, without sitting in empty church basements with bad coffee brewing. I watched as these people offered advice and bickered over what one woman should buy her meth-addicted husband for Christmas, the pros and cons of going to rehab family weekends, and how one mother could get custody of her grandson. I found the Addict’s Diary, a group that shows before and after photos and stories of relapse and recovery. I’d find photos of people whose before photos looked just like my sister now and feel a sweeping relief at the tearfully grinning after photos. That could be her someday. She could still have a life.

With some searching, I found addiction and recovery podcasts that were not overly psychological and distanced or paired with a logo of a pastel waterfall against a setting sun. Dopey Podcast is hosted by an anonymous addict in recovery (it used to be hosted by two, but the other died of an overdose in 2018) who interviews people navigating addiction about their war stories. The humor that is injected into the pain mirrors the way my own family has had to cope with our experiences. It’s refreshing and comforting to hear laughter surrounding terrible events, rather than the usual pitying eyes and anxious confusion I get from the people in my life who don’t get it.

There are even meme accounts like @relapsedrichboi and @dankrecovery dedicated to poking fun of addiction in a way that is directed at Gen Z and millennials. I follow along, getting the humor from a distance and liking comments of people sharing “LOL this was me” or “two years clean today.” Through accounts like these, I started following actual addiction battlers who share experiences about using and then their struggle. Girls around the same age as my sisters, who clearly share the same drug of choice. When they don’t post for a while, I pray they’ve accepted help and gone to rehab. When they reappear, cleareyed and bored-looking, I am happy for them. I see their families tagged in photos, and stare into their siblings’ eyes. I know the pain that’s there. The fear. The tenuousness. The constant holding of breath. When one of them dies (because eventually, one of them will), I cry. I mourn. I understand the family’s sense of sadness, of relief, the haunted feeling that they never did enough to help save them.

I used to think that if I could just keep things separate, I wouldn’t have to admit that what I was actually feeling was guilt. My sisters look like me, talk like me, have the exact same humor and caffeine tolerance as me. We are very almost exactly the same. The fact that they are addicted and I am not—there was an element of chance to that. And although I know I worked hard for my life, somewhere in my blood, there was a possibility for me to have had a very different one. One less polished and shiny and easy. I can’t change that.

What I can change is pretending that I have two lives. I can stop putting pieces of myself in separate boxes, only looking into the darker one when it’s convenient. I can stare at all of myself, the “up there,” the “down here,” and the what could have been, at the exact same time, all the time.