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How Sobriety Apps Fill the Recovery-Treatment Gap

Until we have affordable, persistent treatment for addiction, we’ll have to make do with phone apps

Every day I wake up and tap my apps: Instagram, Twitter, Gmail, Slack, and finally, I Am Sober, a sobriety counter that also serves as a forum for people recovering from substance use. I press a button to report that I miraculously abstained from booze for yet another day. I make a note of anything significant — e.g., the line of coke I didn’t snort last night despite a friend kindly offering it. Then, I get out of bed and do it all over again.

It’s a procedure that anyone who’s sober or even vaguely attempting sobriety is familiar with. Millions of people press the same button in the same app every morning, and there are many other recovery apps out there that offer much of the same.

The whole thing may seem disingenuous — how can a measly app help treat something as complex and challenging as addiction?

Paradoxically, that same thinking was the very catalyst for recovery apps like these. Yes, addiction is complicated and can be incredibly expensive to address, so how do we help the almost 21 million Americans who have at least one substance use disorder? Well, 85 percent of adults in the U.S. own a smartphone and can download a free app.

In fact, recovery apps are a direct response to a massive gap in our health-care system. Of those 21 million Americans who have an addiction, only 10 percent receive treatment, mostly because of inadequate health insurance coverage or other monetary limitations. Worse yet, nearly three in 10 Americans lost their health insurance in 2020, and more than half remain uncovered. Meanwhile, the average 30-day rehab stay costs anywhere from $14,000 to $27,000, and outpatient treatment has a price tag of up to $500 per session. It’s numbers like these that help explain why, statistically speaking, people in lower socioeconomic classes are far less likely to kick their addictions.

But even people who have money struggle to stay sober, because pricey treatments don’t guarantee much of anything. Rehabs are widely unregulated, and while patients have modest success rates during care, those successes diminish over time. We’ve seen it happen: Ben Affleck, who has all the money in the world to throw at his alcoholism, went to rehab in 2001, 2007 and again in 2018. It shows just how easy it is to fall back into addiction even after the best conventional treatment.

That’s not to say rehab doesn’t help with addiction. It’s just that we don’t have a guaranteed cure for it, so if you expect to come out the other side, you may need to try everything. If you can afford rehab, great. If you can afford therapy, nice. If you can’t afford either, a recovery app is a good place to start.

It’s not necessarily a new concept. Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) have long served as free support systems for people suffering from addiction, and recovery apps are basically a digital extension of those programs. They reach people who AA and NA don’t, like that single mom in rural Alaska who doesn’t have time to drive three hours to the nearest in-person meeting. “It’s human connection in your pocket,” Daniela Tudor, CEO of WEconnect, a recovery app that offers one-on-one peer support and larger online meetings (among other things), tells me.

For many people, it’s that connection that makes all the difference. “Sobriety apps provide community and accountability, which are two of the most important things in recovery,” says 29-year-old San Franciscan Alex, a recovering alcoholic who’s training to become a software engineer. “Even just lurking on r/StopDrinking helped me relate to people and realize how bad my drinking really was.”

However, recovery apps do fall short in multiple areas. Psychologist Kelly Green, author of Relationships in Recovery, doubts their usefulness as a standalone treatment and says some are better than others (anything that tracks the quality of your sober days, not just the quantity, is a good bet). There are also those who argue that nothing beats in-person treatment. “There’s something about a client and therapist being face-to-face in a room,” says Evan Haines, co-founder of Oro House Recovery Centers. He calls that “something” limbic resonance, a deep emotional state shared between two people. That state can be shared between people on an app, of course, but it may be even more useful in a therapeutic setting.

Still, recovery apps can be helpful in moments of trouble, like when you’re at a booze-filled party and need a reminder of why you stopped drinking. They can also be a useful starting point, as many offer information about other forms of treatment. Not to mention, they’re a good way to dip your toes in the water. “Sobriety counters helped me string together three months here and there when I was first dabbling in recovery,” says Alex, who’s chosen sobriety app is also I Am Sober. He now has 405 consecutive days of sobriety and says the “time saved” feature, which calculates and displays how much time he spends not hammered compared to before he quit, is especially motivating: “I’ve saved six months of time where I’d have otherwise been either drunk or hungover. That’s 365 hours a month.”

As for me, well, my march through sobriety has been a lonely one. My passion for chemicals bloomed in a group of fellow substance misusers, so when I gave them up, I lost almost everyone. And while shyness kept me away from AA-style meetings, I Am Sober served as my journal. It gave me a place to document my triggers. It reminded me of how somber my drunken life was. It showed me how many people are walking the same path.

Now, I’m well into sobriety and more confident than ever, but the I Am Sober community still serves as a potent reminder of what life beyond alcohol and drugs can be. A mom celebrates being able to pick up her son without risking a DUI. A bride commemorates a wedding she’ll actually remember. A dude shares the hobbies he’s returned to.

In short, the lesson here is that recovery apps are only one piece of the puzzle, but a crucial one. When you’re dealing with a complex ailment like addiction, you’re not just stitching a cut or stabilizing a broken bone. You’re healing your whole person. And while rehabs are great if you can afford to go, as Tudor wisely points out, “They’re just a blip in your lifetime journey of recovery.”

So until we have a health-care system that accounts for recurring therapy, recovery apps will have to do.