Humor is typically the last thing you’ll find in coverage of the opioid epidemic. But for addicts, alcoholics, and their loved ones, there is a corner of the internet that is helping them laugh about their problems.
This comes in the form of “recovery memes,” a niche genre of internet humor that an average reader may call offensive, insensitive, or kind of horrifying. However, for those who have been there, these black comedy memes hit home in a big way.
These meme accounts, like one called “Dank Recovery Memes” with more than 47,000 followers, offer a safe place to laugh and share about the darkness of addiction away from “normies” who can’t relate.
The creator of the account, Timothy Kavanagh, is a former heroin addict who has been clean and sober for 7 years. He now is a certified addiction counselor in Missouri and works as the regional director of an addiction treatment center.
He told BuzzFeed News that while many people just don’t get it, he believes the memes are cathartic for those who have been there.
“I personally had to realize there is a huge difference between being a piece of shit and making jokes about a dark subject,” he said. “I think one thing recovery has taught me is to accept that I have an off-color sense of humor.”
Kavanagh saw his first recovery meme in 2013, soon after he got sober. He doesn’t think that seeing recovery memes while he was actively abusing substances would have helped him to get clean, but he believes they would have helped him realize he wasn’t alone.
He began to make his own recovery memes in early 2015. He started by sharing them in a private Facebook group.
“Through social media I found other people that were sober, had good recovery, but had the same kind of sense of humor,” he said.
By September 2015, he created his Instagram account.
Although his sense of humor hasn’t changed, Kavanagh said he tries to be more careful about what he posts today. He’s had his account deleted in the past, and is often reported for making jokes about such a sensitive topic. He added he doesn’t keep his Instagram a secret at work, but he tries to keep it separate.
Dr. Lipi Roy, board certified in addiction medicine and a clinical assistant professor at NYU, told BuzzFeed News she was hesitant to fully endorse Kavanagh’s account. However, she acknowledged the power of community to bring addicts out of solitude.
“The opposite of addiction isn't sobriety — it’s connection. Right? So many people with substance disorders feel profound isolation, grief, shame, and that just needs to stop,” said Roy.
Roy said jokes about stealing, prostitution, overdoses, and sexual acts are where she thinks it gets a bit tricky. She noted that it is a bit easier for those who are sober to look back, laugh, and be grateful they aren’t there anymore.
“What about the people that are actively doing this?” she asked.
The bottom line, Roy said, is that there needs to be more discussion and resources for those struggling with addiction, period. She noted that according to a 2017 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration survey, only 1 in 10 of those suffering from addiction seek help.
“My overall view is that we need more resources, whether it be social media, in person, whatever, to connect people to each other. That said, there’s good connection and not good connection…I just want to make sure that the messages that people are hearing are positive and evidence-based.”
Though his initial intention was to just make people laugh, Kavanagh said he frequently gets messages about how much the page has helped people.
“Sometimes, people reach out to me first [when seeking help], saying I made them laugh at the hell they were living in. So it’s hard to really say I’m doing something so bad,” he said.