How Memes and a Good Laugh Can Help People in Recovery

Timothy Kavanagh, 36, a recovering heroin addict and addictions counselor, was in his second year of sobriety when his brother was killed in a drunk-driving accident. “I went into an overwhelming state of depression,” he said. “Finding recovery memes helped me get through it.”

In 2015, he started to make memes about the process of recovery from drug and alcohol addiction, creating the account @dankrecovery on Facebook and Instagram.

Mr. Kavanagh said he hears from people looking for help every day, at least 35 a week. “It could be a question about combining coke and Xanax, to ‘I’m lost and I don’t know how to stop using,’” said Mr. Kavanagh, who works in community outreach in St. Louis and now collaborates with a team, who are also in recovery, to run the account. “Our team is very qualified when someone reaches out.”

Memes can convey a shareable feeling or emotion through comedy without the need for face-to-face interaction. For people in recovery, anonymity is often an important part of their sobriety and memes can be a way to process and share experiences as a strange and darkly comedic form of self-care.

These memes often pull from the language of 12-step-based programs, incorporating experiences and vocabulary known only to members of that community.

“In AA we talk about finding a fellowship,” Mr. Kavanagh said. “That’s a big part of being a healthy person in general, having people around you that just get you. When I stumbled into the recovery meme community it was like, ‘These are my people.’”

Amy, 25 (who is being identified by her first name only to protect her anonymity), posted on the @dankrecovery Facebook page three years ago asking for help.

“I’m a millennial so I love memes,” she said in a phone interview. While in rehab she met another person who had been guided there by the @dankrecovery account, she said. “What are the odds? That something created as a joke could end up helping a lot of people.” She has now been sober for two years.

“The power of memes is that you can, in a very simple way, express something universal that resonates with people,” said Lauren, an opera singer in training and former heroin addict, who started @brutalrecovery in 2018. Lauren said that the best memes come from a place of vulnerability: “We need to remember that on the inside of this is trauma, addiction and pain.”

After creating @heckoffsupreme in 2017, Andy Hines, who worked as an accountant, began to attract more attention for his memes. He was hired to create content for a corporate social media account (this is the brass ring of the meme world — to create memes for a living). Mr. Hines made memes because “it feels good,” he said in a phone interview last year. “One of my big problems is that I bottle things up. It’s not easy for me to directly open up about things all the time. This is a really good way to do that.”

In doing so, Mr. Hines helped popularize this alt-comedy genre.

“With memes you either have it or you don’t,” Lauren said. “He had it.”

Mr. Hines, who learned he was bipolar in 2014, was honest and gutsy in his memes, but was also struggling. In May of this year, he died by suicide.

“I thought I knew where he was at, but I was 10 steps behind,” said Meghan Fitzgerald, 36, an accountant, who was married to Mr. Hines and is the mother of their two sons. She still cries every day. “Mental illness is misunderstood,” she said. “If it’s unchecked, it will turn into a nightmare. And for him, it did.”

George Resch, who got sober in 2002 and started posting memes in 2015, said, “I felt a little piece of my enjoyment for life went with him.” Mr. Resch has three meme accounts, including the popular @tank.sinatra.

“I get to laugh about my addiction, and that’s a privilege,” said Mr. Kavanagh, who pointed to the last meme Mr. Hines posted before his death: The caption reads, “Me getting ready to post a fun and relatable meme,” over a video of a crying man. (Ms. Fitzgerald and some of his friends kept posting on the account after his death.)

“Not everyone who goes through the darkness gets to walk out of it,” Mr. Kavanagh said. “Making memes is part of my recovery, but it’s not everything.”

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