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Recovering From Addiction Is Hard — This App Hopes to Help

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Jason Thomas is sober. As a part of his recovery, the 36-year-old from Royal Oak, MI, has been searching for ways to help continue his sobriety by looking beyond programs like Alcoholics Anonymous. At the recommendation of a friend, he turned to the internet for help. That's where he found a home on Sober Grid.

Sober Grid is a free, location-based social network and tool for people in recovery. Thomas tells POPSUGAR the app has aided him in a couple of ways: "It has helped by allowing me to integrate both my love of social media and of helping deal with [and] sharing my alcoholic disease and recovery."

In addition to a morning prayer, reading, and reflection, Thomas also checks Sober Grid daily as a part of his recovery. The free app offers connectivity to others in recovery via a sober newsfeed of posts by users, along with access to recovery center alumni groups. There's also the unique "Burning Desire" button, which amplifies posts by people who are hoping for direct help and support from peers on the app. Thomas says the app helps keep him accountable. He uses the daily check-in feature to let others know he's still sober and the app's counter function to track the length of his sobriety. (The counter also has a tool that helps him calculate how much money he's saved by not drinking.) He'll also use the "What's Going On" section to share an inspirational photo or GIF to remind himself and others they're not alone in dealing with this disease.

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Thomas uses Sober Grid every day as a means of seeing how his friends are doing in their recoveries and to keep an honest dialogue about the issues they face. This comes in handy when facing social events that can be hard on recovering addicts, like weddings and barbecues. Thomas will often pose a question about how others handled the situation, inspiring people to publicly share stories in the comments or to start private dialogues with him to check in and see how he fared.

Sober Grid is very much focused on the two-way street of recovery. Thomas says he finds himself helping others just as often as they help him. He recalls another member of the app messaging him privately to admit they were feeling down about their wedding getting canceled. Thomas urged the friend to share their thoughts publicly, as he does, to start a conversation. "I explained that the people out there on the app would be supportive," Thomas said. "After a few hours of not hearing from him, I was feeling curious. I checked his page. He had received a ton of support from just that one post."

These interactions, in Thomas's opinion, have been an invaluable supplement in the three months he's used the app. He says Sober Grid expanded his sobriety "tool bag" by furthering the feeling of community in a world in which social activities so often revolve around drinking alcohol.

Sober Grid's creator, Beau Mann, says this is exactly what the app is designed for. Mann, an entrepreneur who worked in ecommerce and is in long-term recovery himself, came up with the idea five years ago while attending the Sundance Film Festival alone. "I wanted to connect with other sober people, men or women, to go to a screening of one of the films or to grab a cup of coffee or to do something socially," Mann tells POPSUGAR. "That was the genesis."

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Sober Grid has received generally positive feedback on the Apple App store. So how do online communities and apps factor into recovery in general? Omar Manejwala, MD, an expert on addiction and author of Craving: Why We Can't Seem To Get Enough, sees apps as a wonderful tool when used in conjunction with others.

"There is no question that social connectedness is key to recovery. We cannot recover in a vacuum," Manejwala tells POPSUGAR. "The bottom line is that the research suggests that expanding quality social contacts enhances recovery and increases the duration and quality of sobriety." He says apps are a great start, but that the recovery process shouldn't be limited to strictly online recovery tools. Beyond that, he also shares a concern with online and tech-based tools like these regarding how well they can protect users' privacy. (Mann says Sober Grid "allows for full anonymity," letting users opt-in when it comes to sharing their name or a photo.)

The potential impact of Sober Grid is notable, considering that 21.5 million Americans aged 12 or older have a substance-abuse disorder and 40 to 60 percent of those who seek treatment will relapse. To Dr. Howard C. Samuels, CEO and founder of The Hills Treatment Center, tools like these can help people avoid becoming a statistic.

"The recovery community is becoming a huge community in this country," Samuels tells POPSUGAR. He believes Sober Grid can be especially valuable for sober persons who are traveling and spending time away from their support groups back home by helping reduce their feelings of isolation.

Dr. Samuels adds that most people who get treatment are often cut off from their communities and return to their "highly problematic" original places of living: among people and situations where they abused substances before. "They have to change everything in their lives, primarily their friendships and people they hang out with," Dr. Samuels says. "This app can be very useful to find new people — to find where the AA and NA meetings are — in order for them to reintroduce themselves to a whole new way of life in their home place."

One concern that could arise for Sober Grid users? How to navigate potential romantic connections with other people in recovery, which is sometimes frowned upon by addiction experts. Manejwala says it can be complicated. "It seems to depend on the mental health, emotional maturity, and active commitment to recovery of both partners," he explains, noting that some have attributed relapses early in their recovery to dating too soon.

Dr. Samuels, too, is leery of newly sober people who are "simply too fragile" to date, but he has an overall positive view of the potential function. "I think it's a great idea for people to find a romantic partner on a sober app," he says. "I'd certainly prefer that a sober person date another sober person, rather than someone who is using drugs or alcohol on a regular basis."

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Mann says he never meant Sober Grid to be used for dating in the first place. "Our app was designed as a social network and not as a dating app," he says. "We designed the features and implemented brand messaging with an effort to avoid the app becoming a dating site."

While Mann notes that a dating spinoff site could be possible, for now he is content to focus on the 80,000 people who have signed up for Sober Grid since the app launched two years ago. Still, he has some lofty goals: Mann hopes to figure out a way to identify when someone might relapse by way of machine learning.

"We want to look at behaviors leading up to relapse, using anonymous data, to predict if there will be a relapse and let the person know that they're at risk," Mann explains. Mann believes this can be accomplished by studying behavior and posts that have led up to a user's previous relapse, but he says it will likely take years to develop a tool to gather and analyze that data.

Even without an advanced, predictive feature as such, Sober Grid remains a vital tool for many of its users in helping find others in recovery and normalizing the experience of sobriety.

"It's such a difficult thing, to get sober," Mann says. "Having someone cheering you on makes such a difference."

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