Online Communities Offer Effective Support for Drinkers Overcoming Alcohol Dependence

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Roberta Jewell’s “My Way Out” website is a leader in online support for those suffering with alcohol addiction. Research has demonstrated this new virtual therapy is an effective means of providing information, mentoring, and fellowship, especially for those who want to quit drinking or moderate their excessive use of alcohol. It is particularly attractive to individuals who are working on overcoming their alcoholism, but are uncomfortable attending AA or other traditional, face-to-face meetings

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Online support is an effective option for drinkers who want to communicate with people in their situation but won't go near a 12-step group for all kinds of reasons

New research confirms the Internet has become an increasingly attractive option for recovering addicts who seek support but are unwilling to attend traditional 12-step meetings.

Leading the trend is a website associated with the book “My Way Out” written by Roberta Jewell and Dr. Linda Garcia, MD]. It describes a cutting-edge alcohol recovery program that blends self-administered hypnotherapy, medication, nutritional supplements and light exercise. Therapy is typically undertaken with the help of a prescribing clinician but done in the privacy of one’s home. Program support is found in a virtual community linked from the authors’ website.

“It’s been pretty phenomenal”, says Jewell, who administers the web support site. “We’ve just moved our original site to a more robust system so we can provide our growing number of members with some rich new features like live chat, private email, and multiple discussion forums. It’s all free, anonymous, and available to anyone 24 hours a day.” Her program was also recently featured in a television campaign, which brought additional attention to the program in the US.

To date, Jewell said her combined message boards have had over 1.3 million hits and nearly a thousands registered users since launching it in October, 2004. She says the vast majority of visitors don’t necessarily register, but benefit nonetheless from the support and motivation found in hundreds of messages posted each day.

"Online support is an effective option for drinkers who want to communicate with people in their situation but won't go near a 12-step group for all kinds of reasons," says Temma Ehrenfeld, a reporter at Newsweek, whose story about online therapy was published in January, 2006. "They might be too shy, or worried about their privacy, or maybe they don't like the religious aspect of AA and don't have other community groups in their area."

“It’s true,” says Jewell. “Even though the community is ‘virtual’, it allows people from all over the world to connect with one another in the most meaningful and powerful way. I think we need to respect the fact that a huge number of drinkers will simply not attend face-to-face meetings. Some of our members do, and that’s great—the program is highly customizable.”

Jewell, who wrote her book under a pen name to preserve her family’s privacy, overcame her own drinking problem after developing an integrative therapy based on twenty years of research and groundbreaking work by addiction specialists first published in a 2003 Lancet article. The program has now been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek Magazine and wired.com and has been adopted by thousands of people seeking help for their alcohol dependence. Health care providers from all over the world have increasingly embraced the program, as well.

My Way Out allows moderated, or controlled, drinking as a goal for some who do not wish to become completely abstinent. For that reason, it is considered controversial by many within the traditional recovery movement.

“That’s okay,” says Jewell, who is no longer fazed by her critics. “Simply read the hundreds of messages on our board from individuals who have reduced their drinking dramatically—say, from 30 drinks a week to three or four. It has completely transformed their lives and improved their health. It’s clear to me there’s a lot of value in a harm reduction approach.”

But moderation isn’t for everyone, she insists. “It's really important for people to do a serious assessment about their relationship with alcohol—it’s part of the process—and many times, it means saying good-bye to it forever. However, this program, along with the online support and mentoring people receive, gives them an excellent starting point. They often ‘buddy up’ with someone across the globe as they begin. It’s all very exciting because we see them evolve right before our eyes."

Jewell says visitors to the site are often struck by how closely their own personal situation mirrors others, who, like them, have been reluctant to share a secret drinking problem.

“Many of our members are highly functional problem drinkers. Incredibly, there are four problem drinkers for every hard core alcoholic. The sense of relief and hope they feel when establishing those relationships with others is absolutely palpable.”

My Way Out incorporates anti-craving medication such as Topamax, Campral, or Naltrexone, although some patients forgo medicine and focus on other aspects of the program. A specific blend of nutritional supplements address withdrawal and craving, and include vitamins, minerals, amino acids and herbs. Customized hypnotherapy is delivered on CD recordings, and a three-day-a-week exercise program is also recommended.

Medical Director Linda Garcia, MD, an internist who specializes in addiction treatment, says My Way Out finally offers effective tools to help patients tackle an addiction they’ve otherwise felt powerless to control.

“Finally, we can treat alcohol dependence like we do diabetes or hypertension,” she says, “with medication, lifestyle changes and nutritional support. The entire program can be done from home. There’s no need for someone to leave their family. I also counsel my patients to seek counseling and support, but many are uncomfortable with fellowship-based meetings. I think that’s why My Way Out’s online forum has been so beneficial. It really seems to help people on their road to recovery.”

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Kellie Hyder
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