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!