Recovering Addicts Are Going Cold Turkey on YouTube

Influencers have shot to fame by sharing experiences with addiction, but their success is fraught

Photo Illustration. Photo Source: Getty / Fizkes / Yulia Reznikov

TThroughout most of his twenties, Jason Ortega only once used drugs — a “minor mushroom trip,” he says. But after his first edible, he was hooked. Soon, he was using work credit cards to buy supplies from his local dispensary in Colorado. Edibles gave way to smoking marijuana, a daily habit that affected his everyday life.

“I hated leaving my apartment, and I became very antisocial,” Ortega says. “I acknowledged it was a terrible habit, but I was very content.”

Eventually, for the sake of his three children, he decided to quit. That’s when he turned to YouTube star CG Kid, a former addict who shares his experiences with drugs and recovery to over 270,000 subscribers.

CG Kid, whose real name is Philip Markoff, created his YouTube channel in 2016 after three years of sobriety and uses it to help his audience recover from addiction. The platform is home to a dedicated handful of former addicts like him and casual users who detail their experiences using, and recovering from, all manner of illegal substances in thousands of videos. If it gets you high, viewers want to know how it feels — and how to quit.

Making these videos can be lucrative. But success, whether measured in YouTube ad revenue or influence, isn’t without its responsibilities.

CG Kid isn’t unlike your typical YouTuber. Since 2015, he’s posted polished, high-definition videos to his channel, and, having once worked as a content strategist, he knows how to attract maximum views. In his videos, he tackles subjects like “What’s Cocaine Like?” and discusses not only the effects of taking these drugs but also the process of quitting them. He has amassed more than 33 million views and now earns a living from his videos.

The channel grew from his own personal history with substance abuse. “[In the beginning,] I wanted to make videos about drugs with a recovery component to it, letting people know that I’m sober and allowing them to reach out to me for support,” CG Kid tells OneZero from his Dallas home.

His motivations haven’t changed much since he started, but now, in addition to offering recovery support, his channel also offers a place for addicts to find advice without fear of repercussions or stigma. “Addicts tell me there are moments when they question their addiction, but nobody would know,” he says.

“Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the time nobody could say anything to help, but for the 0.01% who are questioning their life, they have somebody to talk to. That’s why I created the channel.”

TThirty-year-old Jessica Kent was an addict and a dealer, weaving in and out of prison for nearly a decade. Her last charges included delivery and possession of methamphetamine and possession of drugs and a firearm. She was released from prison in 2017 after serving two years, then quickly became a successful YouTuber by recounting her stories of drug use and incarceration. She amassed a following of more than 230,000 subscribers in roughly 18 months and now makes a living from ad revenue and merchandise sold through the platform.

Like CG Kid, Kent felt that her story needed to be heard. Soon after she was released from prison, Kent created short, informational videos about using drugs while volunteering in a prison re-entry class designed to help soon-to-be-released inmates readjust to life outside. “I was told to share my story in four minutes, no cuts, just as real as I can get it,” says Kent from her Chicago home. “But I’m the queen of real, so I was born for this.”

Finding she had more left to say after her volunteer work ended, she uploaded seven videos to YouTube in which she shared unfiltered tales of incarceration, relapse, and recovery, littered with jokes and anecdotes from her time inside. If she weren’t casually recounting the experience of trading pens for nachos in prison, she’d be no different from your typical, media-friendly YouTube personality, but she says becoming one was not her goal.

“I was hesitant because, [I thought], ‘Am I really going to open myself up to all of the trolls on the internet about really tough things?’” she says. They called her a “junkie” and a “crackhead,” and some accused her of lying about her addiction. To silence them, she “had to show mug shots or paperwork from prison.”

Kent has become settled as an alternative sort of influencer, even if she’s averse to the term. “I think we see influencers as these idealistic beings who walk on clouds, but I’m not going to relate to that,” she says. “I think more people need to be sharing moments of triumph. Those are the people I want to hear about.”

“So there is a temptation to create content that might go viral.”

TThough these YouTubers have great potential to help others, they face a unique ethical dilemma while doing so: Addiction is also their most valuable asset.

Just over four years ago, Derek Lambert uploaded a video titled “Heroin withdrawal day 7,” in which he sat on his front porch reeling from the effects of giving up the drug. The video has more than 1 million views. Lambert, now 31, has remained clean since then, documenting his recovery on YouTube to around 17,000 subscribers. He discovered that his views began to dwindle as his health improved. “When my videos are more dramatic or something bad happens, everyone wants to watch it,” says Lambert. “So there is a temptation to create content that might go viral.”

Kent’s predicament is that she profits from those seeking help with addiction. Mugs, T-shirts, and $45 hoodies emblazoned with her face and mottos like “Unfuckwithable” are for sale on her channel.

Meanwhile, CG Kid’s videos, especially those where he recounts the highs he felt from cocaine or heroin, have been criticized by some commenters for glamorizing certain aspects of drug use or for being triggering to former addicts.

Criticisms like these are perhaps to be expected. For CG Kid, the greater burden comes from the close nature of his relationship with his audience, which is integral to his brand. “You see dark things when you help people,” he says. “I see graphic images, and I’ve seen people who watch my channel die. You can’t really have too much of a personal connection with your audience.”

By his own admission, CG Kid struggles to heed his own advice. In January, he released a video titled “I relapsed on drugs and I’m not ok,” a 21-minute glimpse into the life of “the man behind the screen,” as he describes it. After posting the video, he received over 8,000 comments, most of which were from supportive fans.

“As your audience grows, so does your responsibility,” he says. “The reward is when you get a text and you realize that somebody’s son or daughter has reached out for the first time in their life. Playing a role in that is rewarding.”

InIn traditional rehabilitation processes, people can go cold turkey, opt for a 12-step program, or, for those who can afford it, check into glitzy rehab centers on Malibu beaches. But successful recovery has many barriers, and access to health care and money are two major ones. For some, YouTube represents an alternative route to recovery that’s mostly free.

Chris Fleming, an associate professor at Western Sydney University and the author of On Drugs, believes recovery YouTube can supplement but not replace traditional treatments. “If someone is detailing their recovery, you might get a good sense of how long it takes to get your life together,” he says. “There can be something quite intimate in helping people feel less alone.”

He stresses, however, that any advice from YouTube channels should be considered in collaboration with professionals. “If these channels end up being a substitute for talking to people in recovery groups, then there’s a danger,” he explains. “But I don’t see any reason why it should be like that.”

For people who lack access to support groups, videos from YouTubers like CG Kid, Kent, and Lambert can be a lifeline. “For years you’ve supported addicts in the community and helped them stay sober,” reads one comment in response to his relapse video that has been liked almost 3,000 times. “I’m a kid, 15 years old. Hearing your story has helped me cope with my 30-year-old brothers’ addiction,” says another.

Sometimes, the videos help the YouTubers themselves. “When I look back at my day seven, I think to myself, holy crap, how did I get to that point?” Lambert says. “Those videos remind me to never go back there.”

The same is true for Ortega, the YouTube viewer from Colorado, who traces his journey toward marijuana sobriety to a single video by CG Kid. “I was lying in bed one night, and I watched a video [of CG Kid] doing a Q and A about weed,” Ortega says. “It really lit a fire under my ass.”

That same night, he flushed his stash down the toilet.

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