Beyond Borders: Exploring Virtual Support Groups

Connecting with a support-group was such a daunting concept for me that I resisted it for almost 20 years of my illness; only to wonder why when I finally gave a few a try and found that connecting with people in recovery is actually one of the most important contributors to my recovery. Below I will share with you my initial concerns before joining and how I found the right questions to ask before deciding on a group. I will then the different types of groups available to us. There is so much at our fingertips, I hope you find these resources as helpful as I have. Please note, I have done my best to exclude links to non-profit organizations which state explicitly that they cater for those in their country or region only. There is plenty of choice below so even if you come across a milestone like this, just try other groups that may help.

Asking the right questions

Photo by Emily Morter on Unsplash
Photo by Emily Morter on Unsplash

It is natural to have some concerns before joining any group. I know I did. I had many reasons why I should NOT join a group.

  • I don’t need to talk to strangers about my problems, I just need to have more willpower.
  • What can they teach me? I know what I SHOULD be doing, I just can’t do it.
  • Everyone will be talking about their problems, I have enough of my own?
  • Who are these people anyway? Is it safe to share so much with these people? Is this some type of cult?
  • What if my partner/friends/colleagues look at my browsing history and discovers I have a problem?
  • Do I even qualify for this group?

Sound familiar? Don’t worry, these are normal thoughts. I encourage you to read on and keep an open mind. Try some of my more practical questions instead.

  1. Does the time work for me? Many groups are hosted in US or EU timezones so I suggest calculating what time this means for you in your location. A great resource I found for this is https://www.timeanddate.com/worldclock/converter.html.
  2. Do I need to pay to be a member of this group? In my experience, the best groups are free to join and any donations are completely voluntary. This is particularly true of those organized by charities, non-profit organizations and 12-step fellowships (you can read more on fellowships under 12 step programs below). If there is a charge it may very well be that the group is moderated by a professional therapist and the cost is just covering his/her time. I would consider these groups if I have an existing relationship with the therapist and trust them and their motives for hosting the group.
  3. What information do I need to provide to join this group? Overly personal details should not be necessary. For example your mothers maiden name, address, work address, phone number or credit card information would all be suspect to me. You may be asked for some basics so you can be given a login (user name, password, email) or some more intrusive personal if there is a moderator who needs to decide whether the group is the best fit for you (age, location, eating disorder type for example). Real-time meetings are often open without registration. Use your common sense and if in doubt as someone else.

A note about 12-step groups for eating disorders and food addictions

You will notice that many of the resources below are marked as *12-step groups. Most 12 step programs are adaptations of the process and principles used for Alcoholic Anonymous and tackle addictions to a range of substances or behaviors. There are some food and eating disorder related fellowships below which may be of interest to you. All of these programs are applicable to a large range of eating-disorders. In some cases the goal is abstinence from certain foods or disordered behaviors and in others it is the pursuit of balance and purpose.
Even though the name ‘Overeaters Anonymous’ may seem irrelevant for those with Anerexia-Nervosa and other restricting disorders, rest assured there are many members who have suffered these types of eating disorder. Like-wise, the ‘Anorexics and Bulimics Anonymous’ name seems to exclude those with binge-eating disorders yet it states it has been successfully used by overeaters. I recommend reading some of the literature each fellowship has online and just give a few meetings a try. You have nothing to lose.
Of the groups below ‘Overeaters Anonymous’ has by far the greatest presence in central and east-Asia but you should be able to find a meeting at a suitable time online for all of these.

 

Pros

  • 12 step programs have high success rates for those battling addictions and have been around for a long time.
  • The program extends beyond the meetings. By attending meetings you can connect with others in recovery. There are many members who offer support for newcomers. This is because there is a step which encourages those who have worked the steps to take on sponsees and help them through the steps. This means you gain a recovery friend to explain the process and help you use it as they did to recover themselves.
  • The community in these fellowships is growing. You may not have a meeting available in a time of distress but you are likely to be able to connect to another member you have connected with via the meetings.
  • These groups are anonymous. First names only. If you are worried about your phone number or skype ID being seen you can use another account especially for recovery.  Whatever you share in the group remains in the group.
  • The steps aim to support emotional, mental and spiritual recovery and many report recovery beyond their wildest dreams including new attitudes to life they didn’t expect and a new found purpose to life.

Cons

  • 12 step programs require you to do some work. It may be misunderstood as a free therapy service but the recovery comes from the work you put in.
  • The spiritual aspect of the program may cause some concern for newcomers. The fellowships encourage an open mind to spirituality and assure us on their websites that spirituality is not the same as religion. I for one believe it is worth keeping an open mind and seeing what the process has to offer.
  • The groups are run entirely by those in recovery. Where there is often longstanding and even new members who have great recovery; it is worth remembering that a lot of members are also sick and seeking help. There is moderation in meetings but connecting to others offline may be triggering in some cases. I encourage you to trust your gut on what relationships help or hinder your recovery. You have the opportunity to connect with some really great resources but don’t feel the need to accept all connections you make too soon.

So what type of virtual meeting should I attend?

Photo by Tirza van Dijk on Unsplash
Photo by Tirza van Dijk on Unsplash

There are many different types of virtual meetings. From message boards and forums (non-real time) to scheduled real-time meetings. Connecting is usually online, phone, skype or zoom. Structure and format differ depending on what meeting or group you choose and the rules or amount of moderation within the meetings can vary from little to no moderation to those meetings which have a specific leader to keep the meeting on topic and free from triggers.

No matter where you are in the world or what your problem is, I highly encourage you to keep an open mind and try different groups before concluding if you could benefit from them. I would also suggest attending a group more than once as first impressions can often not accurately show you if the group could help you.

 

#1 Non-Real Time Meetings

Online message boards (such as the ones below) are places where you can connect with others to post messages and questions. Members can also provide support for each other by answering questions, providing encouragement for those facing challenges and offering messages of support and hope.

Pros

  • All in your own time. These boards are typically available at all hours of the day for a number of days or even continuously. You can connect at a time that suits you.
  • On message boards, you may search the old messages for some hope or solutions and you can post and ask specific questions that may be troubling you.
  • Sometimes you just need to put a thought or emotion out there. The process of writing out your worry and feelings can be therapeutic even without a response so having a forum available on your time is useful.
  • The historical questions and answers on the group remain online for a set period so you can benefit from someone else’s recovery regardless of whether they are still online.

Cons

  • Responses to your messages can be slow. Often months if you get any at all. It all depends on who sees your post. There may be hundreds of other posts on the day you post and yours could be lost in the ether.
  • The moderation on these sites may be minimal or non-existent. So there is nothing much to stop content being triggering or responses being unkind. I haven’t seen much of the unkind responses myself but it is always best to be aware of this risk.
  • Registration is more likely needed. The process may take a short while or a few days. Keep in mind, if the registration process takes a while, it may mean there is better moderation on who attends the group and this may actually be a good thing.

#2 Real Time Phone and Online Meetings

Real-time meetings are schedules at a specified start and end time and typically run for one hour.  Most such virtual meetings are hosted in the US, EU or Australia. The time zones are determined by the location of the host and so you need to calculate whether the time can work for you. Luckily there is such a large amount of meetings there are plenty of options that can work in most time zones. Just use a time-zone convertor to avoid disappointment.

Pros

  • The meetings run in a structured way and guidelines are provided online for sharing and connecting.
  • Allowing yourself the hour to listen as well as share can be a great method of self-care. Hearing others stories and challenges often does more for my recovery than what I share. Hearing someone else articulate what you didn’t know you were feeling is a wonderful experience. You may find your ability to articulate what you are going through improves vastly and helps you communicate this with those around you after meetings.
  • Knowing the others sharing are online at this moment really helps with feelings of loneliness and isolation.

Cons

  • Finding a real-time meeting that fits in with your schedule may be difficult. Especially if you don’t have a regular schedule for work or have children or other responsibilities. It is possible to miss a meeting and you wont have the ability to connect beyond the time. The good news is there will be another one soon.
  • Finding a quiet spot to share and listen to a phone, skype or zoom meeting could be tough with such small spaces in Asia. There may be things you don’t want your room-mate or partner to hear so not having a dedicated space can be tough compared to attending a face to face meeting.
  • You may not get time to share as there may be a large amount of people dialed in. Try a few different groups and you are bound to find one where there is the perfect balance of attendees so you get heard yet hear others speak too.

Relating to others is the anti-dote to loneliness

Photo by Dani Vivanco on Unsplash
Photo by Dani Vivanco on Unsplash

Regardless of whether you click with any of these groups, remember that in recovery you have a huge opportunity to connect to other people in a way many of us have not been able to do throughout our illness. Allowing others into our lives is a huge step in our recovery.

Relating to others is the anti-dote to loneliness. Even if you are surrounded by people, if you feel misunderstood, you can still feel lonely. As I mention above, attending support groups and listening to others share their experience has helped me understand my own feelings more and now I can articulate these feelings to everyone important to me in my life. You will build better relationships at and outside the groups if you give yourself a chance to listen, relate and trust.

Whatever group you choose, remember that settling in is not always quick. Attend a few meetings before you cut yourself off. You may be glad you stayed.

 

Love to you all,

Aunty Pam x

 

 

 

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