Sobriety is going digital as substance abuse increases in the pandemic

[If you're struggling with drug or alcohol abuse, scroll to the end of this article for local and national resources.]

The global pandemic has turned the United States into an experiment in prolonged panic. An increasing number of people are using drugs and alcohol to cope.

According to Consumer Reports, alcohol sales for home consumption were up 22% percent in March 2020 compared to March 2019. Relapses and overdoses are also increasing.

How people get and stay sober and where they find support is also changing. Now there's an app—or a Zoom meeting—for that.

Several Memphis-area Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings have moved online. Some local treatment centers are also offering more digital resources.
L to R: Andy Branham, founder of Mid South Sober Living, and Walter Williams, founder of First Step Recovery Services. (Submitted)
For the past five months, the Mid-South Sober Living treatment center's counselors have been holding group sessions via Zoom that include their residents and people who don't live at the facility.

Founder Andy Branham said people who have been in recovery for some time don’t like it. They want to be able to hug someone and miss the personal interactions. Rounds of hugs are a beloved custom at most 12-step meetings.

But many people who want to attend their first meetings find it easier using Zoom.

"Sometimes, there is anxiety about walking into meetings for the first time. That is a very big step. By being able to meet via Zoom, much of that anxiety is reduced," says Walter Williams, founder of First Step Recovery Services and a close partner of Branham in providing local recovery resources. 

“...there are people with 60-90 days [sober] that started recovery during the pandemic, and they are doing fine. This is their new normal. They are thriving as well as they can.” says Branham.

For the people who were accustomed to in-person meetings to maintain their sobriety, coping with the 21st century’s greatest uncertainty can be especially difficult.

“There has been a significant spike in relapses and overdoses since the pandemic started and part of that is because when everything shut down there was a huge lack of digital resources for those in recovery," said Paul Brethen, co-creator of the Your SoberBuddy app.

Your SoberBuddy is a drug and alcohol recovery app created by Brethen and Tara Schiller. It doesn't replace formal treatment programs; it’s designed to fill the void in digital sobriety tools.

“You have a culture that is more comfortable using social media and the internet. You don’t have to worry about stigma or people finding out that you are in recovery. [Digital sobriety tools are] confidential and personal. People seem to be more comfortable.” said Brethen.

"The most important thing for people in recovery is knowing and feeling that they are not alone. Online recovery communities help create this sense of support and belonging. This is the exact ideology behind SoberBuddy,” said Brethen.


Mid-South Sober Living provides housing and treatment for Mid-Southerns battling addictions, with a focus on those without means or with limited means who are new to recovery. 

To keep the center's residents safe, they're also now taking precautionary measures including temperature checks, mask-wearing in communal areas, and social distancing at the women's center's weekly in-person meetings.

Branham and Williams are both in recovery themselves and know the complexities of getting help and staying sober.

“We didn’t want people that don’t have insurance or money [to go to] jail if they are addicted to drugs or alcohol. They need help. It doesn’t make any sense to put them in jail,” says Williams.


If you're struggling with addiction, these resources may help.
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Read more articles by Deborah Gaddy-Robertson.

Deborah Gaddy-Robertson is a recent graduate of Strayer University, where she earned an MBA in Leadership. She is a Certified Life Coach and author of a fictional novel, "Cor 'poor' ate America." She is currently working on her second literary project, "Little Epiphanies from God."