Sophie tells me she’s mastered the art of looking sober, even when she’s anything but. That happens to be most days. Ever since she was 19, the now-22-year-old student has been wrestling with what she describes as an “out of control” drug dependency—alcohol, mainly, but also marijuana, cocaine, and valium.
“I’m not addicted to a specific substance, but I can’t go more than a day or two without using,” she says. “I know the damage I’m doing to myself, yet I can’t stop.”
Over time, she’s gotten better at hiding her addiction. She only uses a small amount when she’s around other people so as not to display any obvious signs of intoxication. She carries mints and perfume if she wants to drink or smoke weed. And she’s always looking in the mirror, any chance she gets, to make sure she doesn’t come across as high.
“The only possible giveaway is my eyes when I’m on downers, specifically how droopy they get,” she tells me. “I sometimes use coke or speed after to try and look more sober, and if that doesn’t work and people still comment on my eyes, I just use the excuse that I’m tired.”
Thousands of people know this about Sophie, but she’s never met any of them in the flesh. Myself included. I first started speaking with her after stumbling upon a relatively popular post on the “confessions” corner of Reddit: a place where people can go to “admit their wrongdoings, acknowledge their guilt, and alleviate their conscience”, according to the page bio.
For Sophie, it represented a unique opportunity to come clean without the day-to-day shame of having to wear the stigma around people she actually knew—people who might judge her for it or, worse still as far as she’s concerned, force her to actually get clean.
“I have been a drug/alcohol addict for the last three years, and I've told no one,” read her post on the confessions subreddit. Two months later, the thread had racked up almost three-and-a-half thousand upvotes.
Like many people, Sophie’s first foray into heavy recreational drug and alcohol use started around the time she first moved out of home at the age of 18. “I wanted to go out all the time,” she tells me via private message. “Nothing that would make me an addict—I just liked the feeling [of drugs and alcohol], only used with friends, and had no problem saying no.”
The “problem” started about a year later, when a bad breakup pitched her into a downward spiral. Sophie remembers being heartbroken, wanting to numb the pain instantly and, on the night of the breakup, drinking alone for the first time in her life. For the next week, she didn’t have a single sober day.
After that she claims she was always looking for an opportunity to use. Sophie started drinking and doing drugs almost every day. She lost friends, turning down invites to social occasions because she didn’t feel like she could hide her habits—or go sober. “Drugs and alcohol always came first,” she says. “Ironically, I then drank and got high because of loneliness.”
After decimating her social life, her habits started spilling over into her profession. While working as a PR assistant Sophie started getting drunk and high on the job, repeatedly ducking into the bathroom to do lines of cocaine off the toilet cistern. The downward spiral continued, widening in its scope and severity until about a year ago, when Sophie tells me she hit rock bottom after being sexually assaulted.
“I completely neglected my studies [after that] because I preferred getting high,” she says. “Drugs killed my motivation and took me to a very dark place mentally. I ended up trying to take my life multiple times.”
Sophie’s living with her mum in the UK right now, but continues to nurse her secret habit. She keeps her drug and alcohol stash concealed at all times, changing the hiding place on a regular basis, and only scores very late at night so as not to run the risk of bumping into people she knows. She still hasn’t told anyone other than the faceless netizens of Reddit that she’s an addict.
“Being able to successfully hide my addiction makes me feel like I’m good at something. There’s a certain thrill of having a secret no one knows about,” she tells me. “On the flip side, having to hide this part of me has made me feel incredibly alienated. It’s harder for me to relate to people now, when having a drug and alcohol dependence is like having a full-time job.”
She admits she's had an increasing urge to tell people about her habit, but always feared she might feel worse about herself once she said the words out loud. “I don’t want to look weak by mentioning it; I don’t want to be known as ‘the girl with a raging drug addiction’,” she says. “Being vulnerable with people scares me.”
It was on a drunken whim that she finally decided to break her silence. Two months ago, Sophie went from passively toying with the idea to opening her laptop, going online, and making her way to the “confessions” subreddit.
“I was drunk and just decided fuck it,” she recalls. “I didn’t think anything would come of telling people, but I felt like I couldn’t hide it in any longer.”
The public-facing Internet isn’t what you might call a safe space—a place where you can share your darkest, innermost thoughts and feelings without the fear of rebuke. Public shamings, Twitter mobs and the increasingly fearsome prospect of trial by social media ought to be enough to deter most people from wearing their hearts on their sleeves. Honesty and candour are rarely rewarded online.
There are certain nooks and crannies within the rabbit warren of Reddit, though, where the opposite is true. Subreddits such as r/confessions and r/offmychest have been operating for years with the express intention of encouraging users to share “deeply emotional things you can't tell people you know”. The general idea, according to the moderators of these groups, is that sharing these secrets with others might offer some relief, sympathy or solidarity.
“After sharing my secret I honestly felt quite relieved,” Sophie says. ”It was nice to be able to reveal something personal without the fear of any repercussions.”
In the time since she confessed to her troubled relationship with drugs and alcohol, others have come out of the woodwork to share their own stories with her. One tells of how they were secretly addicted to opiates from the age of 19 until their early 40s, saying “you’re not alone in this … Please try to get yourself help now.” Another says “I was a meth addict for 10 years … [Until] one day I looked at myself and somehow, magically, found the courage to just stop. Best fucking day of my life. I know you can do this, it's hard at first but every single day gets easier.”
Others have extended their own offers of support, with one user commenting: “if you ever need someone to talk to about this, I've got you. I promise to always reply. You're not alone. I want you to be okay. I want you to be free of all this.”
Beyond the cathartic relief of opening up, Sophie suggests that it was this—the sense of community, the inundation of advice and support—that had the most powerful effect on how she thought about her situation.
“Realising that other people have managed to recover really helped me put things in perspective and made me look at my habits,” she says. “It was also lovely to see so many people wanted to genuinely help me—I didn’t expect to receive such an outpouring of support.”
In the course of our private correspondence, Sophie admits she still has an unhealthy relationship with drugs and alcohol, and uses frequently. She still counts herself as an addict. But dropping the veil, speaking her truth and admitting her secret, even to thousands of faceless strangers on the Internet, ended up being a way for her to gain some small measure of control—to acknowledge the problem, if nothing else, and start thinking about how to fix it.
“I’ve cut down my usage, and I’m also trying to develop better coping strategies,” she says. “Confessing on Reddit has helped me to feel more comfortable with opening up to others. One day I’ll hopefully have enough confidence to open up in real life.”
The road ahead is still uncertain, though. While Sophie’s taken the first step of admitting she has a problem, she also admits she has mixed feelings about kicking the habit completely. For the most part, she’s not even quite sure what she wants her relationship with drugs and alcohol to look like.
“I’m not at a point in my life where I feel able to quit, and I also don’t want help enough to really push myself to quit either,” she tells me, candidly. “Right now I don’t want anyone to know in real life—because then I’d be forced to stop.”