For some of us in recovery, 12-step programs can seem quite daunting. At times 12-step programs can appear to be unquestionably dogmatic, hierarchical, and based off of pre-scientific understanding. It can be off-putting and discouraging to be, yet again “counting days” because you aren’t “getting it.”
Of course 12-step programs have been the gold standard in recovery for decades, but some of the practices in 12-step groups raise concerns for some people new or returning to recovery. These concerns can prevent people from getting the support and skills they need to cultivate lasting change. Thankfully, there are a number of alternatives to 12-step recovery which promise similar results through less traditional methodology. One such alternative is known as SMART Recovery, which originated in the early 1990’s. SMART Recovery, a more recently-developed, empirically-based mode of recovery, can serve as an alternative to 12-step-based recovery models.
What is SMART Recovery?
SMART Recovery (short for Self Management and Recovery Training) is a group-based, self-empowering program that provides mutual-help and support for people who are seeking to achieve a healthy, positive and balanced lifestyle. It’s goal is to help people in recovery “Discover the Power of Choice.” In other words, the program is designed to help people create and discover their own recovery by using "tools" and group support.
The goals of SMART are reachable through their 4-Point Program:
Building and maintaining motivation
Coping with urges
Managing thoughts, feelings, and behaviors
Living a balanced life
In many ways SMART is similar to 12-step programs, but there are some major differences. For one, SMART recovery is a program which encourages us to become more comfortable exercising our own agency by holding that recovery is not materialized solely through faith in a “higher power.” The rationale of SMART concedes to the notion that both addiction and recovery are susceptible to rational and irrational thoughts. In other words, somewhere before the act of deciding to use a substance or abstain from it is a thought and an emotion. The upshot to this idea is that it implies that we can change. It provides a direct, empirical and logical challenge to the idea that “we will always be addicts, we will always be alcoholics, and, therefore we will always need treatment.” We may, indeed, always need our tools and skills for navigating tricky situations and contexts that give us those unsettling urges, but that is okay. Best of all, it is possible.
The more easily we envision the possibility of personal change, the more we can actualize that vision. The tools can help us with that. The better we become at identifying how our thoughts and emotions are tethered to our problematic behaviors (i.e., drug and alcohol use, binge eating, food avoidance, risky sexual encounters, etc.), our chances to stop them soar exponentially. The more success we have working through our urges and our behaviors by our own agency –not the “will” of a higher power– the more confidence we will feel within our agency. The better we feel about our agency, the better we will experience our lives. At the very least, our lives can be lived uninterrupted by our own problematic behaviors. This takes some work.
What’s the catch?
So, here’s a program based off of the most recent empirical understanding of human behavior, and it’s free? Hold on a sec, what’s the catch? The catch: I’m not sure! Through and through, this actually seems like it’s an altruistic program! There are no membership dues–only suggested donations–no one is required to participate, and the meetings are confidential. What’s relieving is that there is no “day counting,” no discussions about the nature or absence of a higher power, nor are there discussions as to whether addiction is a disease or not. It’s not that those matters are unimportant –to the contrary, they are, indeed, important for self discovery– it’s just that we can engage with those discussions elsewhere and create more space for more immediate and practical matters. Furthermore, there are no seats in the room for the categorical binaries of “alcoholic,” or “addict.” We are just regular people trying to address our personal issues and problematic behaviors that hold us back from living our lives as our complete, imperfect selves. We also get the crucial experience of sharing a space with others who grapple, or have grappled with, similar struggles.
It is strongly encouraged, however, that we share our true thoughts and feelings while focusing on the tools of SMART recovery. But, of course, we shouldn’t feel pressured into doing things that we are not comfortable doing. If you cannot share with the group, that is okay. If you can find someone who you trust, who respects you and will not judge you, share it with them! For the beginner, as well as the experienced, many of the tools are discussed openly and sometimes the workbooks are consulted by the participants of the group. There are also notebooks for individual use. Each person using the SMART program is strongly encouraged to use the workbooks –they are inexpensive yet invaluable. This "work" aligns very much with "worksheets" used in cognitive-behavioral therapeutic intervention, which have a notable and measurable efficacy.
What to expect from SMART meetings
Meetings are held weekly throughout the greater New York Area. They are always moderated by a trained facilitator. The major appeal to SMART recovery can be summed up in one line: you own your recovery. You and your recovery are respected. There are no day counts; there is no moral "guilting" if a relapse occurs; there is no shaming; and –my favorite– no overtly perceived hierarchy (cross-talking is even encouraged!)
Of course, meetings are regulated by the same kind of mutual respect that enables each person to have their own recovery, just without the judges. At your first meeting, you can expect a cordial greeting (which might catch some New Yorkers off guard), a small information packet about the program, and a meeting size of anywhere between 3-15 people. After the welcomes, there will be a check in where people talk about the successes and/or challenges of their past week, where they "are at," and perhaps, goals and challenges for the week ahead. But you won’t hear anyone refer to themselves or others as “alcoholic” or “addict.” It is important to remind yourself that people may filter into the room at any point during the meeting. If, when that happens, it’s okay to keep talking or listening through these unintended distractions.
The newcomer will be encouraged to share with the group. It’s typically good for new participants to explain why (s)he is at their first SMART meeting. Of course, there is no need to divulge everything, unless, of course, you feel as if that may help you. It is certainly important to let others hear where you are in your recovery, especially the facilitator and other people who may be able to relate. Someone with a similar experience may be able to help you in your recovery; the same could hold true of someone with a totally different experience. After "check-ins," the facilitator will direct the group into a discussion. Group discussions focus on a variety of topics from “urges” to planning out how to stay sober for a company party or family gathering. One of the positive aspects about discussion during a SMART recovery meeting is that cross-talk and group participation are encouraged. Group problem solving is, no doubt, supremely helpful. It can be especially fun to devise safe exit strategies for obligatory holiday parties.
Thinking about an experience you had during a group problem solving session during the actual event you planned for can help rouse and strengthen your power to make healthy, rational decisions at the event. It makes for a successful and sober departure.
Tools and skills
The "toolkit" that SMART provides are really strategies for identifying and remediating what happens within the web of thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that relate to our problematic behaviors. As noted earlier, there is a great deal of empirical knowledge which suggests their efficacy. It may seem obvious that the use of the term tool suggests that there is some work needed. That word –tool– can seem quite menacing, especially if our definitions only span from “hammer” to “something else that’s loud that I don’t know how to use.” Even with the expanded definition (e.g., fork, pencil, language), it suggests that there is some work to be done. The work is simple, but it requires focus and patience. Like anything else, it will be fun at times. Other times it will feel uncomfortable and all you’ll want to do is get it over with. The good news: tool + time/practice = skill, and skills are superb when mastered. The difference between a good job and a great job might only be 5 minutes!
It may seem unappealing to show up at a meeting because you are trying to abstain from using drugs or alcohol only to learn that there is a workbook and a “toolkit,” but it is most definitely worth it because you are most definitely worth it. Over a span of a few weeks, possibly even days, the efforts of the work will become second nature. Soon you will not only have your autonomy, your unconditional self acceptance, and the absence of urges, but you’ll be able to help others along their recovery as well. You might be surprised to notice how much better you’ll feel about recovery within a matter of a couple weeks.
Measuring your change
It is important for us in recovery to have a good sense of where we stand. What’s great about SMART is its application of the "Stages of Change" (click this link for details). This permits individuals to identify which "stage" of change they are in (e.g., pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, maintenance, and termination) and what experiences they might be able to expect within each stage. Through its application of the Stages of Change, SMART offers us a palpable sense of how we are changing and lets us gauge our readiness to move forward in our recovery.
Typically, people who seek help for problematic behaviors identify with the contemplation stage; they have some awareness about their problem and begin thinking about how to address it. They may start to recognize their own contribution to their problems and are increasingly able to identify negative consequences to their behaviors. Perhaps questions start to sink in such as “what should I do about this?”, “which mode of recovery is right for me?”, or “how much longer can this go on?”
If you’re reading this article, you are most likely already in the contemplation stage, or beyond!. This is the perfect time to take advantage of your recovery! Getting to know how this model works can be supremely helpful for any changes you are making in your life, whether related to your sobriety or just in your journey to live a healthier, fuller life.
In 12-step program, progress is measured by the step a participant is in or the number of steps (s)/he has completed. This may seem arbitrary to some, and perhaps more importantly, it fails to capture the nuance of our personal experience. An important similarity between 12-step program and SMART is that they both view recovery as fluid and ongoing. Much like the completion of the 12-step program’s 12-steps, reaching the termination stage in SMART does not mean that one will never use again. What the termination stage does suggest, however, is that the change has been internalized. We have developed the skills to use the tools well enough to be able to use them to take control of own lives and behaviors –long term change! 12-step program tends to measure progress by pointing to the particular step its member is on or by the number of steps (s)/he has completed. This may seem arbitrary to some, and perhaps more importantly, it may be shortsighted in capturing the nuances of our personal experience.
You can do this
The major perks for SMART recovery offer much hope for people with problematic drug and alcohol use, especially those who are serious about long lasting change. SMART provides people with the thinking tools necessary to identify irrational and rational thoughts embedded within problematic behaviors such as drug and alcohol consumption, sex addiction, gambling, problematic eating habits, and so on…Like any real, significant change that takes place within our lives, a good, honest and accepting look at oneself is critical. Change comes through work, rarely, if ever, does it happen by chance. And just remember: you own your recovery.
SMART Recovery meetings can be a great addition to your recovery plan. If you don't have a recovery plan, or you're curious about adding additional support like an alcohol and drug counselor, Certified Recovery Coach, peer support, or developing your own recovery plan, contact Life Assurance Recovery and ask to hear from one of our recovery support specialists. Remember: recovery is a team effort. You don't have to do it alone.
Kyle Pritz for Life Assurance Recovery, 2017