I can’t get sober in AA… what am I gonna do?

I believe in the disease of addiction.

I’ve battled it unsuccessfully for decades. I’ve tried church, temples, yoga, faith healers, marijuana maintenance, Jesus, Buddha, nature and sex. Every time I ventured out alone I fell flat on my face. What was I doing wrong that millions of others were doing right? I hated those damn AA meetings and all that happy alcoholic crap… but I knew if I kept going I wouldn’t use or drink. So I went and I didn’t use or drink… it was misery.

What I didn’t understand was that there are tools available to help me … “help me”. The god of my understanding is always there for me… but he has never put me on a magic carpet to carry me away from my addictive behavior. That’s not his job. So through countless trips to rehab … (I’m talking double digits here!) and endless relapses… someone explained there was another way…

I heard of SMART Recovery several years ago, and lately I’ve been hearing more and more about the program. Based on what I’ve learned about their philosophy, I have mentioned it to some people who have inquired about non-12-step options, but I figured I ought to go check out a meeting so I can give a less ambiguous recommendation. So here’s my review of a SMART meeting, and a bit of info about their philosophy.

For those who don’t know, SMART is an alternative support group to AA – and it is a real alternative to treatment programs which operate on the disease model of addiction. When I stepped into the meeting I was given a handout with anti-disease messages appearing twice on the first page:
What you believe about addiction is important, and there are many ideas being tossed around about addiction and recovery. You may believe for example, that you have an incurable disease, that you have a genetic defect, that you are powerless, or that after the first drink or use or act you have to lose all control. These beliefs may actually be damaging you.

That right there was a great sign to me. It falls exactly in line with what I believe about addiction … the belief that you have an incurable disease which causes you to be addicted… actually causes you to behave like an addict.

There’s more:
We’re not trying to cure an imaginary disease. We’re concerned with changing human behavior.

That’s what it’s all about. The disease stuff sends you on a wild goose chase, when you should be focusing on changing your behavior. This is why people freak out in treatment and 12-step programs. Reading this first page while waiting for the meeting to start truly was a breath of fresh air for me. Beyond that, the facilitator of the meeting mentioned several times that they do not view addiction as a disease, and that they see people as responsible for their own choices and behavior.
There is no illusion in SMART that you need to wait for god to change your behavior, and the facilitator made clear that spirituality of any kind is an outside issue on which SMART doesn’t really take a stance. The focus is clearly on beliefs, motivation, emotions, and behavior – and how we can modify these to end our substance use problems. Mysticism is “avoided like the plague”, and instead, SMART seems to get you focused on the here and now with things you can directly do to change. I didn’t hear one mention of god in the discussions at the meeting – this is something which would also be a breath of fresh air for someone looking for an alternative to the conventional recovery culture.

What appeals to me about the SMART program is that it’s based on the current thinking and research in addiction and cognitive/behavior strategies – something that Alcoholics Anonymous has failed to fully embrace. Overall, the meeting was very similar to my counselor-led group sessions at Betty Ford which I got a lot out of. My guess is it is also similar to most out-patient group sessions led by addiction counselors.

The meeting was held at an air-conditioned conference room at a local hospital. Definitely more comfortable than a stuffy, hot church basement. The meeting was led by a trained facilitator. He was an alcoholic, and I assume that he went through some type of SMART training to be certified as the group facilitator. Very nice guy and managed the meeting very well.
The first part of the meeting was a “check-in.” Everyone at the meeting had the opportunity to introduce themselves and speak for about 2 minutes or so about why you were at the meeting or how your week was (or anything bothering you for that matter). Unlike AA, there is no requirement that you have to identify yourself as an alcoholic, addict or any type of label.

There seems to be quite a few folks very new to recovery, so I’m sure they didn’t necessarily feel comfortable labeling themselves an alcoholic or drug addict right from the start. I’m so used to AA that I introduced myself in the usual “Hi I’m Rob and I’m an alcoholic.” SMART meetings are open to any type of addict so there were folks there struggling with drugs, alcoholic, over-eating and some just dealing with severe depression or anxiety. It was an interesting mix of people struggling with addiction and related issues.

The second part of the meeting was more unstructured. Unlike AA, at SMART meetings, cross-talk and a healthy back-and-forth is actually encouraged. The facilitator actually started asking me questions about my recent struggles. Whoa, I was a little taken off-guard, but it was a good thing. Some other folks chimed in with comments and questions – which were good and got me thinking about some things I wasn’t doing in my own recovery. One or two questions/comments were a bit off-target, but that’s the nature of the beast. Actually, there was this very annoying know-it-all guy who kept interrupting me and others with inane comments.

That doesn’t happen in AA, obviously. The discussion then took on an organic flavor with participants discussing such topics as dealing with drinking events, relapse, trying to stop cigarette smoking, and the benefits of psycho-therapy and anti-depressant medications.
I would say that SMART’S allowing of cross-talk was the most negative part of the meeting. If the facilitator isn’t strong, the meeting could get hijacked by an individual and that would be unfortunate.

The next part of the meeting was an exercise led by the facilitator. Using a white board, we did a Cost-Benefit Analysis of drinking/using versus not. We all threw out reasons why drinking was a “good thing” and benefited us – dulls pain, makes us feel good, increases sociability, its fun, we like it, etc. Then we brainstormed all the costs and downsides of drinking – unhealthy, financial ruin, harms loved ones, affects career, legal consequences, it’s a depressant, shame/guilt, makes us act irresponsibly, etc. Seeing all the reasons on the white board, it was, of course, a no-brainier that drinking/using provided far more in “cost” than “benefit.” This may be a “duh” moment for any “normie” but for us alcoholics, it was helpful to see it in writing in front of us.

The last part of the meeting was similar to the first, kind of like a recap. We went around and shared what we got out of the meeting and what we were looking forward to or what we intended to work on for the following week.

There is something about all support groups which can be dangerous, and that is that people may use the group as a means to ride the fence and feel like they’re doing something to change, when they really aren’t. People may use the groups as a dose of medicine, or to diffuse responsibility for change on others. This potential exists no matter the philosophical content of the support group. So beware that if you choose to use SMART, you don’t do it in this way.

SMART, seems to want people to come get what they need and move on. They’re not looking for lifetime members, and the last thing they want is for people to be dependent on the group. It looks like there may be some safe-walls in place in order to prevent this though. For example, when we did the decisional balance exercise the facilitator was sure to let us know by the end, that we couldn’t rely only on the content of the exercise we did together in the meeting, and reminded us that we have to do our own decisional balance which reflects our own thoughts, beliefs, feelings, and values. This is smart, because it reminds us that we’re individuals making our own choices, and that we can’t depend on the group to make our choices for us. Small touches like this, will go a long way towards effecting individual work to change rather than dependence on the group or attendance at the meetings while spinning your wheels.

All in all, it was a positive experience, but I can already tell that for me, just using SMART alone, won’t cut it. I still need the AA fellowship and diversity of meetings, and I still need private therapy and the online recovery community as part of my own recovery program.

The beauty of any program is it will work if you work it … Take what you need and leave the rest. There is no reason to recreate the wheel … the one we have works really well, so if I can put four wheels on the car I call Rob… all the better… I’ve got a better chance of getting somewhere.

You can find SMART programs in every city… if you or someone you know is living with addictions get help. Nothing in your life will change until you do!

This is my journey… this is my life!

Rob Cantrell

Hey, Mom… thanks!

This is my “Thank You” card to the world…

I started this blog a few months ago outlining my journey towards a sober life… I’m amazed that it’s found followers in 27 countries… thank you for reading it!

Much of what I write is about how life was… what happen… and what it’s like now… (love gone wrong is another favorite topic).

Every funeral I’ve ever attended follows a universal theme. The script goes like this…

I want to tell you about (insert name here):

  1. He was loving

  2. He did so much for so many

  3. I remember the time we …..

  4. Something sad about not having him here

  5. Something about heaven

  6. Something about thanking him on the banks of a river once everyone gets to heaven.

I wonder why it takes death to let the world know someone is appreciated? I don’t want to waste an opportunity to say how I feel standing next to a dead body.

This thank you is long overdue…

There is no reason my mother should have ever been anything other than uneducated and poor. Women of her generation made babies, cookies and cleaned, especially in the south. If you married a poor man … life was a self-fulfilling prophecy.

My mom was raised in a low-rent housing project by a mother who didn’t want her and abandoned by an alcoholic father that did what alcoholics do … they wreck lives and leave. As bad as the beginning sounds it only got worse. Disastrous relationships and teen motherhood became her reality and guaranteed a lifetime of hardship and poverty.

Fortunately, she didn’t have it! She believed there was a better life and she was going to make it. You don’t find a better life … you have to make it! She succeeded.

My mother will be remembered for three things …. she is tough… she is honest… and she is a survivor. She is the type of person you instantly love or hate. I look for those qualities in people I choose to have in my life.

With a husband in college and three small kids to raise, she found herself in Florida with no safety net or extended family… and just as poor as she had ever been. Most people would have accepted life on life’s terms… not her.

Jacksonville, Florida in the 1960s was no pleasure cruise… Women made fine secretaries, teachers or bank tellers… that was about it. Attempts to rise above life’s pay grade was unrealistic and simply didn’t happen. Well, it didn’t until Louise Cantrell changed it.

While working as a secretary in a commercial real estate company her boss told her she was too stupid to pass a real estate exam. It sucked to be him…

She not only got a license… she became very, very rich! Ain’t it funny that if a man succeeds beyond any measures they’re regarded as giants… but if a woman does the same thing she’s a total “bitch”!

In the 1960-70s … Jesus may have loved those red and yellow, black or white children but no one else wanted them in the neighborhood! That was about to change…

My mother did something never done in segregated Jacksonville by a woman before her… she drove a black family to a home and sold it to them. In fact, she sold hundreds of homes to black families and received more than her share of outrage from the white community. She had experienced poverty her entire life and wasn’t going back to it.

Her business philosophy has always been, “Money is green… I don’t care the color of the hand that passes it to me! The winner goes to the bank!”

My father has a master’s degree in education and worked in the classroom for 37 years. He is very well educated but was never paid a living wage for his efforts. My mom was the breadwinner. She said she had to work to support my father’s teaching habit.

Lord, did that woman work! I never remember coming home to anyone there or food on the table or school functions. It wasn’t possible. She was carrying the weight of everything we had on her shoulders. The option to sleep late or lunch with friends wasn’t part of her life.

She made sacrifices I didn’t understand as a kid… I do now.

I’ve enjoyed a privileged lifestyle very few people will ever experience. I’m not saying that to impress you… I’m saying it because it’s a fact! I believe from privilege comes a sense of entitlement and that is wrong. I took everything for granted because I had never known anything but wealth.

In reality, I’d done nothing to earn any of it… it was a gift provided by the generosity of one woman…. my mom. I see that so clearly now. It’s amazing what age and sobriety will do for your perception.

The greatest thing my mother ever gave me was unconditional loyalty. She stood by my side through a lifetime of addiction, depression and insanity.  People that live with chronic depression or other mental health issues often self-medicate to control what’s going on inside them. The self-medicating usually leads to addiction and the cycle becomes impossible to survive. For decades, I was that person. Unless you’ve experienced the desperation of handling an addiction and debilitating depression, you have not walked through the valley of the shadow of death. I didn’t walk… I lived there!

Through every crash and burn… every trip to rehab… every divorce and broken relationship… through every attempt to start over from ground zero… my mother has never left my side.

Every Friday night at my synagogue, I lift her up in prayer and say thanks for not only giving me life … but helping me get through it. I am a blessed man.

I heard a song on the radio that says it best:

“Oh, I think that I’ve found myself a cheerleader… She is always right there when I need her!”

Mom …. thank you!

I saw a hungry man today …

Today… MJ & I were at the farmers market enjoying a perfect summer Sunday in Hollywood… farmers were providing samples of the freshest fruits in town… the street musicians were playing… people were discussing important topics with words like … “vegan, raw, cold pressed, unfiltered and gluten-free” while carrying wicker baskets from home to protect the environment. It was a safe place with people who seem to know more than me.

The best part of Sunday is the variety of ethnic foods… anything from Korean to Middle Eastern… it’s there being cooked to perfection. Today, we decided on Middle Eastern… I got a grilled vegetarian platter and MJ got chicken and lamb kabobs. There are no words to describe how good it smelled and tasted. For $20 we got enough food to feed a family of four with enough left over to feed them again! It was a feast!

Anyone that knows us will tell you food is paramount in our lives. The act of eating is almost a religious experience and we worship it several times a day! Say Halleluiah and Amen!

Something important happened after lunch that I don’t want to forget… because it took me back to a life I walked away from in Florida. I want to share it …

Scattered between the food vendors at the market are shared tables and chairs so you can relax while eating everything in sight…  It’s a perfect place … a sax player played the blues and a poet sat at a typewriter banging out poems for a $1.00. Everything about it was safe and welcoming… sorta like hanging out at your grandmother’s place after a family dinner.

Once we had eaten about 1/3 of our food we headed to the trash cans to throw a perfectly good feast away. It was there that I had an epiphany… just as one of the containers hit the trash I looked to my left and there was a homeless couple. The woman looked at me but the man looked away. I asked the man if he was hungry and offered him our lunch. He said nothing and continued to look away. The woman step forward and said he was embarrassed and yes, they were very hungry… so I handed them the food and the one I’d just tossed into the trash. Nothing else was said about it… nothing needed to be said. I did nothing heroic by offering food I was about to toss… but they did something for me.

They reminded me of a day when I was hungry. I’d spent the night in jail for public intoxication after leaving Pete’s Bar in Atlantic Beach, Florida. Once sober, I was allowed to leave with $1.00 to my name. For some reason, the police kept my belt and shoe laces… so I was a ragged messed walking back to my oceanfront condo a few miles down the beach. I remember walking into a McDonald’s filled with surfers and kids enjoying a day at the beach and I remember the humiliation of not being able to order from the Dollar Menu. I was hungry and 6 pennies short of food. I remember holding my belt less pants up with my hand and shuffling in my lace less shoes home. That was low a point in my life. Today, the hungry man reminded me of my own past. I hope the food helped him because he certainly helped me.

This is my journey… this is my life!

Rob Cantrell

Do you really live with those people?

The corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Whitley Avenue is where my life began… I was on the planet long before I got there… but I wasn’t living. I know it lacks the glamour you’ll find  3 blocks away… I don’t care what’s up the street. This is my world and I love it!

On the corner is a building with a historical plaque explaining something important happened there in 1921… I’ve never bothered to read it. Inside is the non-airconditioned convenient store where women in black burkas work behind the counter. I’m never sure if they’re looking or talking to me because I can’t see them. I’ve wondered about a value system that would require me to wear black cloth and look through a ventilated opening at the world.

Do they have hopes and dreams?

What type of sadness is that material hiding?

Could I have enough faith in God to be willing to live my life in exile or could a God love me who required it?

I’ll never know.

Usually, I get my 2 Monster energy drinks and forget about the women until I return later in the day. Maintaining a caffeine addiction is a full-time job. Addictions and I go way back…

Whitley Avenue is unlike any other street in Hollywood. It is home to the grandest apartment buildings in Los Angeles. These were once home to Clark Gable, Ronald Reagan, Ginger Rogers, Elizabeth Taylor and later Johnny Depp and Tom Cruise. They stand as monuments of grandeur. With names like the Fontenoy, Fleur de Lis, Monticedo and Havenworth each demands respect and gets it. The lobbies are unbelievable with carved ceilings, Tiffany lighting and museum quality furniture. These buildings had doormen and elevator operators and a receptionist seated waiting to announce your arrival. Unfortunately, each has suffered at the hands of owners trying to maintain them… the lush lawns have been replaced with artificial turf.. The kind found at miniature golf courses and complex security systems keep them safe.

I see the actors that clamor to live on Whitley with loaves of French bread and bottled California wine punching security access codes to get inside their little piece of Hollywood. Considering a 2 bedroom apartment starts at $6,000 a month … a little piece is all anyone is going to get…. including me!

These buildings are only part of Whitley Avenue… the rest is far more interesting… and that is why I stay.

Time waits for no man… especially in Hollywood.

Gone are Whitley’s magnificent mansions owned be silent movie stars… bulldozers and wrecking balls took care of them. In their place are apartment buildings as ugly as anything created in the 1960s. The biggest and the ugliest is my home…. The Hollywood Ardmore. Conceptualized as modern urban living of the future. It’s massive and houses 350 families in a 12 story tower. If the other buildings are golden era stars …. the Hollywood Ardmore is Jane Mansfield. She’s big and flashy and in everyone’s face. Like Jane Mansfield… you want to look at it… be part of what’s happening inside the glitzy lobby. Anything that big must be spectacular and it is indeed. The views from my apartment expand from the Hollywood sign, Capital Record building to the Los Angeles skyline…. unbelievable! Every sunrise is a masterpiece.

The Hollywood Ardmore is where I became friends with a famous adult entertainer. He says entertainer … I say porn star. There is no doubt you’d recognize his face and other features… chances are he’s on the computer hard drive you’re looking at now. We’ve all seen porn on the internet… some are just more honest about it. I’ve learned a lot from him most people don’t know. Such as the average male performer is paid about $150 per scene and stays in the business less than a year. He’s a veteran with over 1,000 “performances” viewed worldwide and has won several international awards for films I won’t mention. $150,000 doesn’t seem like much money considering he’s in a multi-billion dollar industry doing all the work. He’s survived addictions, arrests, ridicule, plastic surgery and life. He’s a survivor. He said… “Rob, love is a piece of cake if making love is all there is to it”. Maybe he’s right …

Two of my favorite buildings on Whitley Avenue are the Motel 6 and the Korean retirement building. These places fill me with wonder and delight!

The Motel 6 is perfect for the European or Asian tourist wanting to experience Hollywood. It’s steps from the Walk of Fame and everything a wandering heart could want. It’s also home to hookers, transvestites, drug addicts and dealers… diversity brings so much to a community. You might as well embrace it!

Motel 6 is where Annie and the Bishop live. The Bishop is a street corner preacher with an angry face. He is so black … he’s purple! Everyday I see him in solid white… white suit… white hat… white shoes holding a white Bible. He looks like Gladys Knight’s runaway Pip. I think he got two years off for good behavior and is hanging on the corner working for the savior.

Annie is a woman in her 80s living on social security… she’s always in a dirty house coat… always sitting on her walker…  always smoking small brown cigars and always cursing the Bishop. She has more hair on her chin than teeth in her mouth. I don’t think she’s buying what the soul winner is selling.

The LAPD never leaves Whitley Avenue… why look for work when it comes to you? Blue lights, hand cuffs and helicopters are so common I don’t really see them anymore. I’ve learned the difference between the cries for help and those of pleasure… and if I miss anything the old ladies in front of the Korean retirement home are there to report every transgression. It’s like TIVO with an accent.

Whitley Avenue turns into Whitley Heights in just two blocks… that is where the Bohemian rich and famous live in $3 million homes overlooking Los Angeles. They have no idea what they’re missing behind those secured walls. It’s sorta sad…

By most people’s standard life on Whitley is an abomination of moral decay. A place where dreamers and telephone screamers spend their lives in chaos… a place of broken dreams… a place to walk away from if you can and never look back… but it isn’t. The porn stars and preachers make it human. Each has sinned differently…. but below the mire life heaps on them is kindness.  Maybe life didn’t turn out as planned … maybe there’s things they’d like to forget… it doesn’t matter. They have survived and they have value.  Like me, everyone has a past and hopes for a better life.

Whitley Avenue is full of sinners who will probably sin again… I think I’m gonna stay a while.

This is my journey … this is my life!

Rob Cantrell