Watching Friends Recover From Addiction on Facebook

Social media can be a support system for people struggling to give up heroin—and a window into what the drug has cost them.

Through likes and comments, I’ve watched my hometown of Perry, Ohio, disappear into and come back from heroin addiction.

The U.S. is facing a massive heroin epidemic, and nowhere is it more evident than in Ohio, where fatal drug overdoses surpassed car crashes as the leading cause of accidental death in 2007, and increased by 60 percent from 2011 to 2012. Addicts in rehabilitation say heroin is the easiest drug to find. State legislators have called for Republican Governor John Kasich to declare the prevalence of heroin a public-health emergency, and in May he agreed to an Obamacare Medicaid expansion largely because the state badly needed the federal help in funding treatment for heroin addiction.

Perry, Ohio, is a microcosm of the epidemic, which is now infiltrating upper-middle-class suburbs. Thirty minutes east of Cleveland, the town of 1,500 has a median annual income $31,000 higher than that of Ohio overall, but it also lacks opportunities for young adults to start their lives. With the exception of the technical jobs offered by the nuclear power plant—a definitive feature of the town—those without a college degree travel to neighboring towns to work in retail or service industries, and those with a degree rarely return. When I graduated high school six years ago, most of the people in my class left Perry for college, but many of those who stayed behind eventually turned to heroin to cope with their anxieties about the future. Addiction to the drug is growing most quickly among people between the ages of 18 and 25, like the friends who fell off my Facebook timeline as their lives became absorbed by their addiction.

Over time, I forgot about many of these people as I made new friends and experienced new things, and as my Facebook feed became populated with photos of frat parties and college football games. While I photo-bragged about crazy beer fests or complained about all-nighters at the library, they posted less and less. As they turned away from friends and family in real life for fear of negative feedback, they turned away from Facebook, too. Richard Foster, the executive vice president of treatment programs for Gateway Rehabilitation Center in Pennsylvania, says active addicts are “not talking to family and friends and they’re not posting on social media about their struggles.” In active addiction, he says, they are still in denial, usually turning back to their friends, family, and social media only when they are in stages of recovery and proud to share it.

Now, I’m seeing their names pop up for the first time in years, with posts like “48 hours of sobriety and all I’ve gotten is this lousy t-shirt,” messages of encouragement filling the comments. In contrast to the usual slew of carefully choreographed photos of graduations, vacations, and weddings, the raw honesty of these posts is striking. For heroin addicts, who must cut ties with their communities of users as part of recovery, Facebook is both a support system, connecting them back to relationships they had before their addiction, and a venue that helps others understand the fragility of the recovery process. For some in Perry who struggle with heroin addiction, Facebook is a way to call for help and support. For those of us who have left, their posts are stark reminders of the reality of the problem ravaging our quaint hometown.

It was a post from a high school class clown named Khari on September 17 that alerted me that a friend had passed away from an overdose that day. Comments like “Please get healthy!” and “See? Don’t be messing with that stuff!” came flooding in by the dozens. In high school, through puberty and awkward social changes, Khari was funny, fearless, and blunt. When I called her after seeing her post, she talked about the years since we graduated high school, the times she has been in and out of jail for heroin-related crimes, and the friends and boyfriends who overdosed and died.

When I knew her at 19 years old, Khari was against heroin; she says she was “one of those ignorant profiling assholes” that chastised people who did it. But after seeing friends leave town, she started feeling like she was missing out on life and turned to heroin as a way to deal with the pains of the quarter-life crisis.

“When everybody left Perry, that’s when it went to shit,” she says.

She says that after the most recent overdose death in Perry, the most difficult part for her was seeing the online activity of old friends struggling to cope with the pain of loss and the confusion that comes with addiction.

“I’ve been dealing with this on and off for six years, so watching [people] I grew up with go through it was really hard for me,” Khari says.

Emma is another Perry kid, one I knew through mutual friends, who turned to heroin after high school. She started smoking weed at age 12; by 15, she and her friends were taking Oxycodone. At 17, her boyfriend taught her how to shoot up heroin, saying that he was protecting her by showing her how to do it safely. When her friends left for college, she moved into her boyfriend’s grandmother’s basement, and she says that’s when things turned for the worse. She felt like she didn’t have anything to look forward to, as if she was doing nothing with her life.

“I remember the day all my friends left for college,” she says. “I was stuck in Perry and it just made me want to get high even more.”

For the next six years, Emma was in and out of relatives’ basements, friends’ couches, and rehab centers in California and Florida for months at a time. Once, on a binge while in treatment in California, she crashed the car of her employer into the car of the owner of the rehab center. She was kicked out, and moved back to Perry to attempt to start her life over … again. She relapsed in 10 days, spending the next two months getting high and using up the entire $6,000 she had saved.

Now seven months sober at a different rehab center in California, she has been posting her progress on Facebook routinely: “90 days sober!” received over 200 likes and comments.

“There’s people [commenting] that I haven’t seen in years, people that knew me from I was little,” she says. “My mom’s friends are saying ‘I remember when you were little’ and saying that they are proud of me.” She says seeing people from her childhood showing that they care helps keep her accountable for her sobriety. The feedback confirms that a community cares about her recovery. “It makes me feel really good, you know?”

Foster, the rehab-center executive, says the shield of the screen may make people feel more comfortable admitting they’ve been an addict than they would be in real life. “It’s safer than going in to a room and saying ‘Hi, I’m Rich and I’m an addict,’” he says.

But Angela, another classmate who popped back on my timeline last year with an announcement of newfound sobriety, is more skeptical of the role social media can play in recovery. She says that while the encouragement from Facebook can be uplifting, it doesn’t help people understand the intensity of addiction.

“Liking someone’s status about clean time is a good way to remain supportive without too much risk, especially for people you’ve been close to who have been hurt by broken promises and relapse,” she says, but posting about her problems in the throes of addiction would likely scare people away from reaching out. “You can’t tell people, ‘I’m so sick, I’m dying, please give me money so I don’t have to go fuck the dope boy or go rob somebody.’”

At 16, Angela was smart, witty, gorgeous, and always one step more mature than everyone else. She was also a little harder than everyone else. She gave me my first shot of moonshine in the stands at a football game before I knew what moonshine was.

By senior year, she managed to get a full academic scholarship to a private college in Ohio … and she was shooting up heroin every other day. At high school graduation, where she was Summa Cum Laude, she missed walking across the stage because she was dopesick— nauseated and vomiting from withdrawal— in the bathroom. She tried to quit heroin before leaving for college, but ended up going to school still addicted and dropping out before the first quarter ended. The night she decided to quit college, she says, someone from Perry paid her a visit and brought heroin with them.

“I just went to go on a dope run and I never came back,” she says. “It was always people from home.”

Ashamed of disappointing her family, Angela says, she gave up completely on battling her addiction after she dropped out. She became reclusive, lost friends. Her younger sister shunned her completely. In the last six years, she has been to rehab eight times and detox centers 20 times, and continues to struggle with addiction while on house arrest today.

“I turn around and I think ‘This isn’t what I planned for my life,’” she says, adding that she sees posts from old friends about great life improvements, and she feels like she missed out. “My friends have these great jobs, these great lives, [they’re] buying houses and doing big things and I’m just clueless,” she says. When I asked her what she sees on her Facebook timeline from friends who do heroin, she says, “mostly deaths.” But, she says when she sees posts about sobriety and recovery from other friends, it is motivating to pursue recovery and gives her hope that it’s possible for her.

“You’ve seen that person down at their worst, and then [when] you see them looking happy, it’s like, ‘I can do this too,’” she says. “It’s like support groups, kind of, to see that everyone is touched by it.”