What It's Like to Go to SMART Recovery After Eight Years in AA
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What It’s Like to Go to SMART Recovery After Eight Years in AA


This post was originally published on August 19, 2015.

I never wanted to go to AA, even when I needed it. After doing a bit of research when a private doc suggested it eight years ago, I decided it wasn’t for me. The steps upset me, the prayers upset me, and the group itself was a bit too smothering at first. But I had no idea that other recovery programs existed. Not one medical professional or therapist knew of any other means to get sober outside of AA.

But I knew I had to get sober, so I became a member, and, after relapsing for over two years, I now have nearly six years of sobriety. Many AA meetings in LA are just fantastic, full of intelligent, fun, hip, successful people who wear the program like a loose garment. I managed to sort of make it fit for me for a very long time, even though I still had many philosophical conflicts with the 12 steps, even though I’m an atheist, even though I felt slightly like a square peg in a round hole.

But after studying up on the addiction conversation while writing for this very site, reading news articles and researching various rehabs and learning about different treatment modalities, I came across a free addiction program called SMART Recovery (Self-Management and Recovery Training). Actually, I came across many free 12-step alternatives, but SMART seemed to be the most popular alternative to AA.

So, I looked it up, and the more I read, the more I really wanted to try it, but I was slightly scared to try it.

I’d been convinced by everyone on the planet that AA was the only thing that could protect me from drinking. I was also convinced that if I left AA, I’d relapse. If this SMART thing was legit, it may shatter all my previously-held beliefs. But I’m the kind of person who thinks if you can’t challenge your beliefs you shouldn’t have them in the first place, so I carted myself off to a meeting in downtown Los Angeles.

It was in a place called SHARE, a hub for people in all sorts of recovery, including the homeless who need resources to get back up on their feet. When I got to the “Friendship Room” where the meeting was supposed to be happening five minutes before start time, no one was inside.

“See,” I told myself. “The meetings don’t exist. No wonder AA has a monopoly on recovery. I guess it’s the only place I can go.”

But then the facilitator showed up, a guy I’ll call Andrew, and he must have been in his late 20’s or early 30’s. When he opened his mouth it was apparent that he was super bright. I know it sounds snobby, but that goes a long way for me in terms of listening to what someone’s got to say. A few others trickled into the room, but the meeting remained small—there were just five of us.

Andrew greeted me, and I think he could tell I was green.

“This is my first time at a SMART meeting,” I said. He seemed happy that I was there, and then he started the meeting with an explanation of what SMART is—an abstinence-based recovery program based on self-management and self-reliance, one that uses mostly Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and some Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT) and Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT), all proven through scientific research to help with addiction. He told us we were encouraged to participate in meetings as long as they were helpful and discontinue if we felt we had adequately achieved our goals. He told us some people attend other recovery programs like LifeRing, SOS, or AA, and others just did SMART alone.

He also said SMART is an evidence-based program that updates itself as the science of addiction medicine changes, and he mentioned SMART emphasizes the importance of taking medication necessary for mental health issues or addiction issues.

He concluded that SMART does not encourage negative labels, like addict or alcoholic.

And with that, he asked us to “check in,” which included a brief introduction about our problem substance, how much time sober or abstinent we have (SMART also helps those with behavioral addictions like gambling, sex and shopping) and what our week was like.

As a facilitator, Andrew has been trained in the SMART program, which means he knows a lot about the therapeutic models, but he’s also there to keep us on track and from droning on and on and on in a negative way. When we talk about certain issues or problems, he’ll interject and ask us things like “So, what tool do you think might work in a similar situation in the future?” Or, he’ll, pull out the SMART workbook and give a little lesson on a particular tool.

It is night-and-day from AA, and I absolutely loved it.

To break down further what we were doing there, let me explain that CBT focuses on the interplay between thoughts, emotions and behavior. It’s a symbiotic loop: A thought creates an emotion, an emotion creates a behavior, the behavior creates another thought, that thought creates a new emotion, and then there’s yet another behavior. If the thoughts are negative, you can spiral downwards into destructive compulsive patterns like shooting up cocaine or polishing off a bottle of Jack.

So it’s the thoughts that are the problem, not the character of the individual, not their childhood trauma (though that can amp up negative thoughts and irrational belief systems and might need to be addressed), not their alcoholic “disease.” Once you can slash through these “automatic thoughts,” you can really get well.

And fast.

After just one week of reading the workbook and practicing the tools, I saw a big difference in my attitudes and reactions to things.

REBT focuses on irrational core beliefs. These beliefs can be things like “I should never feel uncomfortable” to “I always should be perfect” to “No one should ever cut me off on the road” to “I have to drink and use.” By challenging these beliefs, suddenly, there’s relief.

To do this, you get out a pen and dispute your irrational thought or belief on paper.  Let’s say you’re a music writer, and you pitch something to an editor at Rolling Stone, and it gets rejected. Your automatic thought and irrational belief might be “I’m not a good enough writer to get into Rolling Stone.” If you don’t tell that thought to fuck off, you might start to feel depressed, worthless and then you might even chase these emotions by sucking down vodka, because why not? You’re a shitty writer and your life sucks.

So what you do (before feeling like shit and drinking) is ask yourself, “Is it true that I’m not a good enough writer to get into Rolling Stone?” Then you create a new and more rational thought:

“I may need to work on my pitches or read more articles in Rolling Stone to hone my ideas and improve my voice, but the truth is they get hundreds of submissions and it’s tough for anyone to get something published in the magazine. There’s zero evidence that I’m ‘not good enough.'”

Believe it or not, this shit works. And what I’ve written above is only the tip of the iceberg. SMART’s Four-Point Program consists of the following:

1. Building and Maintaining Motivation
2. Coping with Urges
3. Managing Thoughts, Behaviors and Emotions
4. Living a Balanced Life.

Needless to say, I’ll keep coming back.

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About Author

Tracy Chabala is a freelance writer for many publications including the LA Times, LA Weekly, Smashd, VICE and Salon. She writes mostly about food, technology and culture, in addition to addiction and mental health. She holds a Master's in Professional Writing from USC and is finishing up her novel.