“And you are…?” asked the intense, gorgeous guy who greeted everyone at the start of the meeting. I recognized him from a small-time TV show where he played a love interest.
I had already said my name, but I knew what he was after. He wanted me to say what everyone else said, before me.
He stared at me, unwavering.
“…an alcoholic,” I said, wanting to please him, wanting to fit in.
But I didn’t feel good about saying it. It was all wrong. That’s because I wasn’t even sure I was an alcoholic—I was just in the meeting to check things out. I wanted to go somewhere safe to maybe talk about how I drank too much, and Alcoholics Anonymous was a thing I knew about from the movies.
Now, having said it, I was officially an alcoholic, so I guess I belonged. It didn’t feel as if I did. But soon, my newfound community turned out to be just the place to be, now that I could no longer go to bars.
A dirty little secret
I won’t lie, back then, in my late 20s, I was still boy-crazy. I would sometimes go to particular 12-step meetings because they were populated with cute guys my age who were also sober and flirtatious. Flirting was hard without the aid of booze. Still, in those 12-step meetings, we spoke similar recovery lingo, had inside jokes, and were all equally freaked out about having to be social and sober, so we made do with that, and romance flourished.
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That’s actually a lie—there wasn’t that much romance, there was a lot of heartbreak because people with addiction aren’t the most emotionally regulated individuals—at least in the beginning. And although I made great friendships with women, it was true that for me, AA was at one point, one more wrong place to look for validation and attention. Although I got it, not all of it was good; some was, in fact, damaging.
Twelve-step programs are notorious for attracting predators, men who prey on young women early in recovery; it’s a proverbial dirty little secret that addicts just know about. But this is not about AA being dangerous. The truth is AA is no more dangerous than any other therapeutic circle, but for many women it’s impossible to truly open up and heal with men around. This is partly because men are frequently the cause of trauma. And trauma is at the root of all addictions and other maladaptive behaviours.
The good news is: There are places where women can recover safely, surrounded by other women and one of those places is the Canadian-based and fast-growing She Recovers, which is “an international movement of women in or seeking healing from substance use disorders, other behavioural health issues, and a myriad of life experiences.”
Co-founded in 2011 by Dr. Dawn Nickel, a women’s studies professor based in Victoria, BC, the movement came about after her own recovery from cancer and workaholism. “I thought, what do I really want to do with the rest of my life? I didn’t like what I was looking at. So I decided I wanted to do something closer to my heart, rather than work myself to death.” (Her daughter, Taryn Strong, who’s in recovery from drug addiction and self-harm, is the other co-founder, and a developer of the organization’s therapeutic yoga program, which integrates yoga and meditation with spirituality and recovery principles.)
I attended a She Recovers meetup one wintery Monday night in Toronto. There were five of us in the room, all women, all in our 30s or early 40s. The details of the room didn’t quite register—I was nervous, and on recall it’s a blur of colourful walls, bookshelves, a table…and tupperware containers? Maybe. On the table, there was also a stack of small cardboard placards with She Recovers’s Intentions and Guiding Principles. Three of the women were talking about a movie that just came out about someone who was a pre-Me Too era assistant; the fourth woman was quiet, nervously bending a placard.
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I spoke with Nickel before attending the session, and she told me that She Recovers didn’t limit the application of its principles to any specific problem. “It can be recovery from overeating, a co-dependency, from love addiction. It can be from anxiety, from depression. Many of us are recovering from trauma. I’m recovering from divorce, cancer, grief,” she says.
A growing movement
Those are a lot of different things to recover from, and I didn’t quite get how, on that Monday night, we would find a common language, but we did. After our facilitator read out the Intentions placard, we started sharing and instantly fell into that self-deprecating-but-vulnerable intimacy that women often tend to find when together in small groups. And it turned out whatever demon brought us to a She Recovers Toronto meetup wasn’t that important—the commonality was how we were dealing with our demons.
“The substances that we were using weren’t even really the problem. It was what we were covering up. So we all have much more in common,” Nickel says. “It’s just how we cope with things in these unhealthy behaviours is different, perhaps. But the underlying issues are generally the same: Lack of self-worth, lack of self-esteem.”
She Recovers provides “trauma-informed” spaces with trained facilitators, less-official meetups, retreats, conferences, an online community and yoga. At the core of the movement are the Sharing Circles, which are topic-based (focusing on issues such as healthy relationships, boundaries or anger,) meetings where a trained specialist—who additionally receives a She Recovers designation—leads the discussion and sharing. Sharing Circles are popping up all over the place—currently, they’re in Canada, the U.S., Europe (Paris and London) and Australia.
There are also retreats—on the West Coast of Canada, in Mexico and Bali. About 500 women so far have participated in the retreats, and there’s a motion to sponsor some of the members who aren’t able to afford them—She Recovers is currently waiting for their charitable status and does a lot of fundraising within their own community. As for the community, the organization has 300,000 followers worldwide, 2,800 official members online, 60 trained coaches, and their events (such as conferences on recovery) fill with up to 600 women.
Having been a part of their first Toronto conference in 2016, I’ve watched them—by following online—gain the momentum and become a powerful movement that it’s sure to keep growing.
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Women-only connection and catharsis
The founder She Does the City Jennifer McNeely, who organized the first Toronto event—a panel on addiction, followed by a meetup—says, “We were just experimenting with the idea of a support group open to women recovering from all things. But we weren’t a She Recovers official group because I don’t think those even really existed then.” That hasn’t stopped her from starting the Monday meetups, which have been going strong for almost four years. She estimates the group has up to 200 members. Unlike Sharing Circles, the meetups are less structured but are still based on sharing and discussion, and there’s a 10-minute question period at the end. “I will always be able to go on Mondays and sit and purge my feelings or connect with other women and be extremely raw or verbal and real. It’s very cathartic and therapeutic,” McNeely says.
In all incarnations of She Recovers, the theme is the same: “Connection—that’s the main thing,” Nickel says. “And what does success look like? It’s women feeling connected to other women. I always say at least one woman can be there for another, and you know, be an accountability partner or be somebody to do something with socially.”
Besides its women-only spaces, I have noticed one more thing that makes She Recovers unique. Unlike other groups (AA included), there isn’t a lot of focus on what is wrong with you—instead, you’re encouraged to build yourself up and talk about what’s good, including what are your small, daily “wins.” (“I got out of bed” is as big of a win as any, one member of She Recovers told me.)
McNeely says the fact that it’s an all-women space is crucial, “There’s this immediate comfort level, and certainly I would say almost half the group if not more, has had sexual trauma, or abuse in their history. Almost everybody in the group has vocalized at one point or another that this is a safer space. They’re not being hit on, it’s just easier to be very forthcoming with all the feelings, the history, and we all get it. A lot of amazing friendships have been formed.”
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On the night of the meeting, I couldn’t come up with a “win,” but it occurred to me that going to the meeting was it. After all, I could’ve stayed home and watched a dumb show on Netflix. Instead, I met a few lovely women, shared some laughs and some pain, too. During the question period, we gave each other advice on what to do when sugar-cravings strike, so common in early sobriety. The next week, one of the women I met posted on the She Recovers page that she had hit a new milestone of recovery and I felt proud of her, I felt connected and inspired, and I wanted to go back. Going back felt safe.