A niche strain of meme culture on IG is galvanising a community that helps people deal with illness, addiction, and sobriety
Louisa likes designer streetwear, grime, baked goods, and a quality meme. When not consuming any of the above, she studies at university. She’s basically a very normal twenty-something Londoner, but, like far too many people her age, she’s also a recovering addict.
Descriptions of her chaotic periods of drug use are liberally sprinkled with “vallies”, “xannys”, and talk of the cough syrup-Sprite concoction known as “lean”. It all sounds a little it could be rapped by Young Thug, and that’s kind of the problem. The romanticism of trap-house debauchery, combined with our ironic memeing of anything resembling popular culture, has normalised these substances, especially for younger people. One viral quote marries these two ideas: “Remember when ‘take a chill pill’ was just a saying? But now everyone’s addicted to Xanax so nvm”.
Dig beneath this blasé take on the epidemic surrounding Big Pharma’s anti-anxiety cash-cow – or the notorious codeine syrup (which the body metabolises into morphine just like big, scary, hard-drug heroin) – and what you’ve got are a bunch of pop-culture downers that have become another weapon of choice for the disaffected youth’s perennial quest to get lit – and, most importantly, numb.
“They just make you feel like you have no problems, like, absolutely zero problems,” says Louisa. She’s a follower of the Instagram page @fucking_sober, which is one of a number of popular accounts – along with @cleanandsoberaf, @facebooksober, and @brutalrecovery – that post memes about recovering from addiction.
Max is one of the faces behind @fucking_sober, which started up a little over a year ago. “I saw memes about addiction and sobriety and shared them with friends in recovery. But there weren’t memes about what a headfuck it is to wake up one day and not know how to be human… looking at it objectively, it’s actually fucking ridiculous: I, a fairly large grown man, have wept, loudly, in rooms packed with virtual strangers, just trying to communicate that I needed to use the restroom – as have my friends. So, I started making memes and sent them to those same people, who then convinced me to start this account. Essentially, we try to make each other laugh by exploiting the most miserable times of our lives.”
Nestled among the niche image macros lies a surreal kind of support network that could only exist in our whacky, post-internet present: you can discuss your mental health with an AI chatbot, have an algorithm track your periods and meditate through an app, so, why not memes for recovery? While the aim of these accounts is, of course, humour, they’re also supportive, inclusive and kind of uplifting, with everything pertaining to being and staying sober – something which is facilitated here by the function of the meme as a cultural phenomenon.
“The internet’s an easy place to get distracted and take us away from ourselves and our problems, which for alcoholics or addicts is a problem”– @artpornblog
But what exactly is this function? Well, one way of looking at it is that memes contain a certain level of obscurity that can only be unpacked by you having some specific cultural knowledge – e.g. your middle-class upbringing in the ’burbs, you knowing about health goths, or being a gross fresher, or a fashion student, or whatever. How funny they are hinges on how well they can activate their target audience. They make you laugh, sure, but they also induce a feeling of elevated cultural awareness – whether that be on wellness trends, Drag Race, London’s cringiest cliques, or staying clean.
Memes reinforce the idea that, yes, there are people out there who maybe have similar tastes and experiences to you, who laugh at the same things you do, and who definitely identified with you about this particular iteration of inane internet stupidity. And in this way they cultivate some abstract, temporary sense of community – something that’s definitely needed by humans, with those in recovery being no exception.
But, as poet and performance artist @artpornblog says: “Meme culture certainly has its place in lightening the mood of things, but I do think on a deeper level it can muddy the waters. The internet’s an easy place to get distracted and take us away from ourselves and our problems, which for alcoholics or addicts is a problem. If we don’t address our addictions we literally die, or end up in jails or institutions… our millennial attitude has a habit of putting a glaze of apathy and knowingness onto everything, but, in recovery, we need to un-smug ourselves and actually just sit with the weight of everything for a minute, to surrender to that feeling of silence”.
Maybe this is the dark side, then, of our postmodern love affair with irony – with making light of every scary, personal reality before it can dominate us. After all, to laugh at oneself is to be, in a way, invincible to critique – but, just like the normalisation of popping Xanax and quaffing cough medicine, for some issues that level of light-heartedness can be really damaging.
“NA (Narcotics Anonymous) meetings definitely aren’t the place for joking around, and, honestly, when people start trading their funny, crazy drug stories, it can turn into a kind of one-upmanship which I really don’t think helps anyone,” Louisa reminisces. “But, at the same time, I do think there needs to be a more casual dialogue about recovery... I was freaking out at, like, two in the morning one night (and obviously at that time you can’t just ‘go to a meeting’), and being able to look through the #sober hashtag and see some memes and inspirational posts made me feel a lot better – like I wasn’t completely alone.”
It’s clearly a subjective issue: what can be hazardous for some, can be helpful for others. The most important thing seems to be knowing yourself: what keeps you safe, happy, and healthy. One thing’s for sure, though: that in this heterodox sliver of the Instaverse, there’s something deeper going on than your usual barrage of self-obsessed influencers and anthropomorphic pets.
As Lauren of @brutalrecovery says: “The concentrated inward work of getting sober can shipwreck the parts of yourself that are fun and flippant… I take my recovery more seriously than anything, but that doesn’t mean I can’t also be self-deprecating and sarcastic. I need that balance. Seeing the things I think are ‘just me’ get hundreds of likes and shares shows me just how universal this thing is.”