Experts agree that if you're going to kick an addiction, it's important to have the support of others. If you're a Twitch streamer, can some of that support structure come from your audience? A streamer named Pegz hopes so.
A few months ago, Pegz wasn't happy with what he saw when he looked in the mirror. He'd put on 66kg over the last five years, but that wasn't all - what he really saw was someone who regularly blacked out, who raged at his family, who once punched a hole in the ceiling.
He saw an alcoholic. Pegz knew he needed to change, but also that he couldn't do it alone.
So, after taking a hiatus to work on himself, he decided to open up about the situation to his Twitch stream. "I just started to be honest about it," he told Kotaku via phone. He started up a stream on April 19 and even changed his channel's description. "Hey I'm Pegz, and I have a problem drinking," the intro to his channel now reads.
"In the past, I have let that ruin streaming and stuff IRL. I'm ready for a difference. I'm done drinking. I'm going to use Twitch as a way to stay accountable. I am ready to be happy again."
Nearly a month later, he's still checking in almost every day, letting his viewers know that he's still sober. And his viewers are helping him along.
"People come into chat just to talk about that and encourage me," he said. "I missed one day of streaming so far since I started streaming sober, and everyone showed genuine concern about me missing that one day. It's been very encouraging."
Illustration: Sam Woolley
Pegz, 25, said that while he started drinking as a teenager, he didn't drink heavily until he turned 20. He called it a "vicious cycle": When he messed up at work or couldn't handle family life, drinking made him feel better.
But before long, drinking became a Band-Aid over a series of increasingly self-inflicted wounds. It caused him to lose friends, so he drank about that. As a result of that, he didn't have anybody to talk to about his growing stack of problems. He drank to remedy that, too.
Drinking "always made me feel like a better person," he said. "When I start drinking, this idea gets in my head that I just continue and continue to be a better person, to the point that I black out."
For a while, those brief, half-conscious respites were enough to keep him going, but in his personal life, things kept getting worse. He panicked in situations where he didn't feel like there was enough alcohol on hand. He lied to his family about money to buy more.
"I think he's had a drinking problem for quite some time, and I didn't really think it was that bad, because he wasn't, like, a bad kind of drunk," said Pegz' wife Kayci via phone. "He'd be a little silly and stuff."
But recently, Kayci said, his behaviour while intoxicated took a bad turn. Pegz would grow aggressive when he drank, and started verbally fighting with Kayci on a regular basis.
During one altercation, he got so upset that he punched a hole in the ceiling. "At that point," said Kayci, "I was afraid that he might put his hands on me or something. But he didn't. He punched the ceiling. There was just a lot of yelling and fighting."
"I didn't hurt my wife, but I was freaking out at her and screaming and shit," Pegz said. "It scared me. I was afraid what would happen if I continued to do it."
His Twitch viewers could see him hit rock bottom, too. Over time, he'd built up a small but consistent following, a regular viewership of around 30 to 50 people at once.
But now he was drinking while streaming - blacking out and embarrassing himself for laughs by dancing like an idiot and making a fool of himself while placing food orders over the phone.
That, too, reached a breaking point. "I got blackout drunk and fell asleep on a stream," Pegz said, referring to a stream a few months ago. "I left it going for like 13 hours, only to have myself crawl out while people were having a blast in my chat."
There's an audience for drunken shenanigans on Twitch, and a large one at that. "Drunk streaming" is its own genre full of ill-advised admissions, physical stunts, and wince-inducing face-plants; you can search "drunk" on Twitch at pretty much any time of day and find yourself buried in options.
After he fell asleep on stream, though, Pegz began to feel ashamed of the direction his life had taken. The aggression, the depression, the weight gain, the embarrassment - it was all too much. So Pegz decided to stop streaming for a few months and focus on getting his life in order.
One day last month, while Pegz was still struggling with alcohol, he started browsing Twitch. He'd had a long day and badly wanted to drink. As he clicked around on Twitch, the urge grew.
"I was teetering on the edge, and I went to watch one of my favourite streamers, who was just getting wasted," he said. "I sat there and went, 'Fuck, this is making me want to drink more.' Then I just put 'sober' in the search bar to see if there was anything or anybody. Honestly, when I typed it in, it was literally people celebrating not being sober."
That's when Pegz decided to resume streaming - grinding day-in and day-out on games like Path of Exile, Destiny 2, and Overwatch. There's be a key difference to his streams this time: he'd do them sober. He'd write the number of days he'd been sober in his stream title each day.
The title for a stream about Escape from Tarkov is "Never played before! any tips would be awesome. 6 days sober." His stream of the same game the next day is titled "2nd time playing, 7th day sober. any help would be awesome."
While Pegz said he has lost some viewers, first due to the period of inactivity and now to the sudden change in tone of his channel, others have embraced it.
Shortly after starting his sober stream, Pegz heard from a fan about their own struggles with alcoholism and their dawning discovery that they, too, might have a serious problem.
"To that person, some of their real-life situations resembled some of mine, and I don't think it came across to them that they might have a problem at first," said Pegz.
"That was a great talk. Made me feel really good about myself. I'm not going to lie."
His wife has been supportive of the streams, even if they're an unconventional way to stay sober. "I don't really know much about what Twitch is," said Kayci. "I know you play video games with people, so I just thought he was playing games online with friends."
Now that she knows more about what's going on, she says she thinks it's a better fit for Pegz than a program like Alcoholics Anonymous. "I don't think AA meetings are his deal," she said.
"I just don't think that kind of support group would help him. But if going online and having a certain support group of people - and having a distraction, something to keep him busy and not thinking about drinking - if that helps him, I'll let him do it. I'm happy for him."
Using Twitch to help maintain sobriety is an approach that Stacey Weber, a Seattle-based therapist who's counseled people through chemical dependence and addiction, finds compelling - with some caveats.
"When someone is struggling with addiction and in recovery from substance abuse, it is extremely important for them to not be or feel isolated," she said via email.
"More than accountability to others, it's about supportive, authentic connection to others. It's about acceptance and inclusion."
As long as someone is forging real connections with members of their community, Twitch could be a good supplement to recovery, Weber said. "Studies are validating that community and connection are essential to treating substance abuse issues," she said.
"So I love that here's someone who isn't hiding and isolating. In fact, he's doing the opposite and is reaching out for connection and support."
But on Twitch, emotional support goes both ways, as many popular streamers have found out: Fans don't just support you, they look to you to support them. They want you to stream as much as you can and interact with them. In other words, in building up a Twitch community, Pegz now has the responsibility on his shoulders to maintain it.
Weber said that if anybody decides to do something similar, they need to be careful not to accidentally bring down an avalanche of outside pressure on themselves.
"A relational dynamic that can cause a ton of stress and negative impact is when we try to take more than our share of responsibility for others," she said.
"While he might be the one who built the structure for the community, he can't be entirely responsible for the community and every individual within it."
Weber also cautioned that addiction is often a symptom of a larger set of issues, and if the underlying problems remain unresolved, then even the best, most accepting community will have trouble keeping their friend on the straight and narrow.
"For long term, sustainable support and recovery, it's best to dig deeper into what's at the core and fuelling those harmful coping behaviours," Weber said, recommending therapy programs that focus on mindfulness — increasing the patient's "awareness of habitual and reactive patterns" that might perpetuate the behaviour.
Kayci says this is the longest she's seen her husband go without drinking, and hopes that this is the time sobriety sticks. "He does struggle, but I don't think he's constantly thinking about drinking anymore," she said.
"This time around, I have faith that he's gonna follow through with it. I hope he does. I'm here to support him."
Pegz said his family situation, too, has improved. "I've been a pretty shitty person towards my family, but my second weekend sober, I really spent a lot of time with my kids, and I really played with them," he said, audibly tearing up.
"Man, I felt so good about that. It was wonderful, because I was in a world where I didn't feel terrible from the night before, and I wasn't just waiting for the day to end. I could really appreciate the time I got with them."
Challenges remain, and Pegz faces temptation daily.
"About four or five days ago, I had a drink in my hand, and I really wanted to drink it," he said. "I had a really bad day at work, and I really felt shitty. I sat there and realised that I couldn't, because if I did, I wouldn't stream anymore."
"I wouldn't talk to those people. I wouldn't have anymore encouragement, and if I drank it, that would just kill everything. So I didn't."