We all have an innate desire to be witnessed in our recovery process. It may sound corny, but finding safe communities to grow and be witnessed in are of paramount importance. “Find your tribe” is a saying splattered across wellness circles, but the added layer of being sober can make it initially hard to do so. Though it may be tempting to try and go at sobriety alone, or with one other individual like a therapist or coach, the benefits of diving into a sober community are well worth the initial fears and hesitancies. You may have a knee-jerk reaction to the word community, in which case, find a word that works for you, like crew, gang, or one of my favorites: “my people.”
Why Join a Community?
A community can be defined as a group of people living in the same place or a group sharing similar characteristics, attitudes, or interests in common. Being part of a community–watching how it moves around, changes, and grows in its various iterations is a rewarding experience. To be able to say, “Remember when this group used to…” is a great indicator of longevity–of the group as well as your personal history within it. To feel like you’re part of something larger is another indescribable experience. Sometimes I get that feeling when I gaze at the moon or stars, as cheesy as that sounds, but it’s a feeling that takes me out of whatever existential dilemma or obsession I’m currently hijacked by. In addition to recovery groups, which I’ll go into below, it’s important to balance different kinds of communities around all of your interests if possible, like art, exercise, music, sports, cooking, and anything else you can think of. You can never have too many communities.
Permission to Explore
Everyone knows about traditional 12-Step recovery groups like AA or NA, but if these groups don’t resonate with you, rest assured that you are not the problem and that there is a group out there for you. Check our SMART Recovery, which has a more scientific approach to changing unwanted behaviors, or Recovery Dharma, which uses Buddhist practices and principles. Get creative and think about sobriety-adjacent interests, such as meditation, yoga, movement-based body practices, and see what comes up when you search for these groups in your neighborhood. Doing service is an easy way to contribute; just be honest about what you can give and dial back when you’re feeling overcommitted. Be sure to seek out sponsorship, or any kind of mentorship, which is an inimitable relationship to have and grow in.
Despite its drawbacks, social media can be a great tool to make initial contact with sober individuals and other like-minded individuals. If you need an at-home meeting, try InTheRooms, an online addiction-recovery community that provides over 130 video meetings each week, for not only substances, but also codependency, trauma recovery, gambling, among others. On Reddit, the subreddits “r/stopdrinking” and “r/redditorsinrecovery” are also a communities of non-drinkers who check in on a daily basis to support each other. MeetUp is a great resource for finding community around general interest topics like ice skating, running, or more niche interests like badminton. Although face-to-face hangouts are ideal, where you can read tone and body language, online communication is a good gateway to potential IRL connections.
Measuring Community Safety
Finding safety amongst a group of strangers can seem like a daunting task, but it gets easier to spotcheck over time. It comes with learning how to trust yourself and your gut instincts again, or even for the very first time. 12-Step groups and other modalities of recovery meetings are governed by guidelines and traditions that try to ensure the safety of the group. Of course community culture within each meeting varies, but there is a kind of safety in knowing that no matter where in the world you go, you can bet that the basic structure of meetings will remain more or less the same.
In recovery meetings, individuals are encouraged to stay in touch in between meetings, especially with phone calls. “Dial it, don’t file it” is a slogan I heard on a recent Netflix show portraying a recovering protagonist. However, when you start to frequent other non-recovery communities, the guidelines may not be as clear. Get in touch with your needs and what you may need from those you connect with. It could look like more communication on certain weeks and less on others. It may feel awkward at first to ask for what you need, but it gets easier with time, and clear asks limit the potential of miscommunication and crossed boundaries down the line. If someone’s demeanor starts to feel insidiously toxic or manipulative, remind yourself that you’re always allowed to take some space and come back to that person (or community) when you’re ready.
Agree to Disagree (With Respect)
A healthy community is one that encourages healthy disagreement, not shaming anyone who expresses a different point of view. I recently attended a day-long yoga workshop and discussion, where one of the instructors started us out with “trust exercises.” (You may remember these from elementary or middle school–where one person has to close their eyes and fall forward or backwards into the arms of another person.) One person in my workshop pointed out that she wasn’t comfortable with the facilitator’s insistence that we trust one another on demand. I was reminded that trust is earned with patience and time, not force. The facilitator got defensive and we ended up having a long discussion about personal boundaries and agency. It was an incredibly fruitful discussion that would not have happened had that person not spoken up.
Blocks In Getting Involved
It’s more than understandable – and quite normal – that fears of getting involved can emerge when thinking of delving into a new community.
A big fear of mine when thinking about exploring a new community is the discomfort that can accompany this endeavor – such as potential feelings of awkwardness, stifled conversation (or no conversation), and fears around how others might perceive me or how I might perceive myself as I watch myself engaging with others. It’s helpful to remind myself that I’m definitely not alone in those fears. Sometimes you have to move through small talk to get to the good stuff and sometimes being totally transparent about your fears or anxieties with a stranger is just the topic to break down what may have otherwise been an emotional or social wall.
Another fear of mine when befriending others in a new community is around intimacy, which for me is inextricably linked to fear of abandonment. In early recovery, I remember feeling devastated when someone I got close to would end up moving to another state or to the opposite coast; I would feed myself the line that no one “really” stays and everyone ends up leaving in the end. I now see this as a defense mechanism that would keep me half-in and half-out within friendships. Or if a friend from out of town was visiting, I was already entertaining how sad I’d be when they left–while they were sitting right next to me. Then I’d feel my inner critic leap in and say Why can’t you just be in the moment and enjoy this person while they’re here? I now know when my inner critic is loud, that’s a kind of defense mechanism as well. The goal is to negotiate a healthy balance of hearing all parts of myself, all of which are equally valid and trying to help me in the ways they know how.
One tactic to try if these fears resonate is to counteract “future-tripping” with “positive future-tripping,” or entertaining the potential benefits of getting involved.
Going the Distance
Sometimes your local recovery group meeting or meet-up may not be a great fit for you, which may lead you to seek out other groups in further locations. How far would you have to travel? Is the travel time worth it? Are you willing to go to any lengths is a question commonly posed in early recovery. Some self-worth mantras I lean into are I am worth traveling for. On days when I don’t have the energy to travel, sayings like I am worth staying in and conserving energy for can help. One of my favorite reminders in the face of indecision is that there are no right or wrong decisions, only more information.
Communities are a beautiful thing when functioning on a baseline of respect, trust, and compassion–qualities I did not receive in my family of origin. When I started to question certain aspects about them, I started to distance myself with help from my therapist and a recovery group for family dysfunction, I started a process of grieving and needed to find “chosen” families and communities more than ever, foregoing the ubiquitous-yet-toxic saying that “blood is thicker than water.” Go where it’s warm, where healthy boundaries and limits are respected, where you can go unapologetically as your fierce, sober self. Communities change over time and you might, too, but there will always be one out there for you.
Marina R. for Avenues New York