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Wednesday, 17 April 2019

SMART Recovery vs AA

This post is discussing my personal experiences with AA and its program of sobriety. It does not reflect the views of Alcoholics Anonymous, nor is it in any way affiliated with the core teachings of the program or any other recovery programs. I have written this simply as a message to other addicts in hope that it may be helpful. Also this is a long post as I had a lot to cover!

I have recently refrained from discussing personal things about myself online, and deleted several of my blog posts including ones where I discuss AA. However, there are ways to discuss personal matters in an objective and impartial way to be helpful to others. As someone who has been in recovery for a while and who sees the enormous impact 12-step programs have on others, I want to contribute to this discussion in a way that is helpful and respectful, as a writer, a thinker, an observer and someone who believes in positive and open dialogue.

In 2015 I reached a horrible state of depression and anxiety, and began to self-medicate with alcohol around my A2 Level exams. I was never a heavy drinker; before that I only drank at social occasions, but those around me could see it had a strong and potentially negative impact on me. As a kid I used to walk around stores and stare at the bottles, feeling like they were talking to me. My drinking escalated fast from a few times a year to me using it several times a week and then every day (this was very deliberate mis-use, me turning to isolated drinking as a desperate resort).

I tried to stop drinking the whole time I was alcoholic-drinking. I briefly attended York University and my flatmates tried to help me; a group of strangers who barely knew me longed to help this broken and deeply troubled girl and for that I will always be grateful. After I left York I returned home to London, determined to quit booze. Three weeks later I was accepted into The Academy of Contemporary Music (ACM) and celebrated with a bottle of rose in my room.

On my 19th birthday in 2016 I decided I was going to stop drinking. I was in the middle of a terrible relationship with another unwell person; even they were concerned about my drinking. I went two months without it and then relapsed. All I could think about was alcohol. I was terrified; being so dependent on this poison made me feel sick, lonely, erratic and exhausted. I'm a rational, level-headed person (most of the time) and I hated being chained to alcohol like a slave.

So when I started my new music uni in September 2016, I decided I wanted to get help. I had been seeing a counselor in the summer and at my request they referred me to a 'controlled-drinking' program in London which I never began because by then I was in Guildford and wanted to go to AA. I was coughing constantly and felt sluggish and gained weight, and was worried that drinking was going to sabotage my musical ambitions. Had I nothing to lose I likely would have carried on, but my music and my writing are the things that give me a purpose and sustain my will to live. If alcohol destroyed that I would be devastated.

Alcoholics Anonymous is something that has changed my life for the better. AA isn't just a program about giving up drinking, it's a program that teaches you how to manage your life and treat others. The main ethos of AA is to be a good person; don't be selfish, do the best you can each day, and be kind to yourself. The world does not revolve around me, or you, or anyone. At the same time, you are not useless or worthless and unloved. AA is about getting 'right-sized emotions' and seeing us as all equal together, not superior/inferior.

There are so many wonderful sayings; 'do the next right and loving thing', 'keep to your side of the street', 'good orderly direction.'  For a long time I struggled with the 'God' element of it, until I realised that 'God' is just a word and as an atheist I can define that which is greater than me as anything. Simply a higher force that I don't personify or think much about; just a greater sense of being in this universe. But while the program doesn't force you to believe in anything you don't want to believe in, surrendering and having a 'personal relationship' with a higher power is deeply encouraged and frequently discussed. For those who don't believe in that, it can be difficult hearing it constantly and seeing it all over the AA Big Book. Posted about my personal spirituality as an agnostic atheist here:

Nothing in this life is perfect, and even the things we love can make us unhappy or confused at times. I love AA, but it doesn't mean that I haven't questioned it and felt at odds with it. The AA Big Book was written in 1939 America by a group of white upper-middle class men who believed strongly in the Judeo-Christian God. These men were severe, chronic drinkers who had lost decades of their lives to the bottle. They put together an incredible program which has saved the lives of millions. In this book is says that if anyone wishes to alternative external help they can, and that AA does not hold a monopoly on recovery or addiction. It advises people with mental illnesses to seek outside professional help.

For someone new to the rooms, calling another alcoholic to say you feel like drinking and hearing the response 'pray to your higher power' can feel uncomfortable and strange. It wasn't 'praying' that stopped me from taking a drink that night, it was calling you, hearing your empathy, and stopping and pausing. It was putting something between myself and that drink. If for some that is a 'higher power' then good for them; in my experience, the only literal 'higher power' I've seen has been the messages of humility, gratitude, acceptance, forgiveness and letting go prevalent in the steps; the people in the meetings, my amazing sponsor, and the willingness to change my negative patterns of behaviour.

The steps contain practical advice which I think is important for anyone who wants to be a better person. Looking at negative behavioural patterns (described somewhat harshly as 'defects of character') is encouraged in CBT and is key for taking responsibility for your actions and changing toxic thoughts and behaviours. Making amends to those you have harmed is also a great aspect of the program; again it shows stepping outside of yourself and thinking of others. Alcoholism is a selfish illness and showing love and care to others gets you out of yourself.

Having said that, I don't need to be reminded every time I step into a meeting that I am an alcoholic. I have an illness, but I am not my illness. I am a person who had a drinking problem who is now on a path of recovery. And one could say I have recovered. I haven't touched booze in a year and a half and I have no desire to thanks to the program PLUS my personal efforts. We have to acknowledge our parts in things; giving an invisible 'power' all of the credit can be seen as detrimental to a person's growth of character because it removes that level of personal responsibility, and that we all have the power within us to change our lives and become better people. While we are not the centre of the universe and not in control of others, we do have some control of ourselves and we can make informed and healthy decisions for ourselves.

Moreover, a big part of the program is that it is a program for life. An alcoholic is always an alcoholic, and should go to AA forever. If they don't, the chances of relapsing is very high. This 'fatalism' is understandable for someone who drank for decades and lost most of their life to it. But for me, a person for whom drinking was such a fleeting (albeit destructive) passing phase, I probably won't need to go to AA forever. I don't have years of destruction and damage to undo. Depression and anxiety are worse ongoing issues for me that are psychological and physical and require more assistance than simply 'going to more meetings.'

I believe it is dangerous to ascribe one thing as the solution to everything with a one-size-fits-all approach. The 12-step program is wonderful, but it is not without fault. If someone is clinically depressed, being told to pray and go to rooms to talk about their feelings is harmful advice. (Finding a fun, light-hearted social activity or exercising more is probably better advice). I've recently felt that talking constantly about your problems can make things worse; this is a common critique of therapy. Again, while therapy is wonderful, at some point we need to take responsibility for our actions and make peace with our negative past. Therapists also recognise that you don't need therapy 'forever'; you take from it what works for you for as long as you need to, but it's all about doing what works for the individual.
Read a section from this
on my phone every morning.
If I tell myself every time I walk into a meeting: 'I am selfish, egotistical, I don't know what's best for me, only "God" can save me, I am an addict falling prey to obsessive thinking' I am reinforcing unhealthy thought patterns and creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Not everything is 'because I'm an addict'. The world is not divided into 'normal people out in the real world' and addicts. We are all one people with different experiences and personalities. There is no 'Us' against 'Them.' Addicts are not 'the other' or 'different' to everyone else. Ironically, being 'special and different' is something deeply discouraged in AA, as the point is to not see ourselves as better or worse than anyone, but as just another human being on their own life path.

Many people may need to go to AA forever and do need the support of the network there and it is wonderful to have that. But my point of this post is that AA needs to be worked differently for everyone, and may not work for everyone, and it is okay to admit that. It is okay to look at things critically and to question whether or not they are helping you or making things harder for you. AA is not a cult or a religious organization, and it is open to adapting to people's individual needs. (After all, the only requirement is a desire to stop drinking - everything else is a suggestion). If two years from now I am still sober and functioning well, will I still need to go to meetings every week? What about ten years from now? At some point do I not make peace with my past addiction and consider myself 'recovered', able to get on with life with my new state of mind?

This is all why I have started attending SMART Recovery meetings alongside AA. I considered going to SMART a while back, but was getting all I needed from AA. Now that I've got some sobriety under my belt and have been involved in AA for two-and-a-half years, it may be time to try SMART alongside and perhaps as an alternative.

I do love AA meetings (fortunately there are secular ones in London), and I believe one should be encouraged to dip in and out of them as and when they are needed. If I take a drink of alcohol, that is my choice. I am in control of my actions (let's leave the free will/determinism debate outside for the sake of semantics). People who stop going to meetings relapse because they decide to relapse, not purely because they stop going to meetings. Meetings can serve as a reminder that drinking was terrible for us and why one should remain sober, and lack of attendance can cause a person to forget that. But taking that first drink was still your choice. What happened after it was the chemical dependency, the obsession, the illness we don't have power over kicking in.

(I must insist that it's key to remember alcoholism is an illness; a person has a choice up until they take that first drink, however once they take the drink 'choice' and 'willpower' disappear. Addiction is characterized by chemical dependence and our brains remember the effect of certain chemicals. This is why seeing addiction as a 'weakness' is harmful; it is an illness and should be treated as such so people remember why they can't drink. It is also why even after decades of sobriety, an alcoholic who takes a drink of alcohol will be right back to where they started. I'm not a scientist but I know this is very much a scientific fact about how our brain reward systems work).

As always, these are my opinions. I do not speak for AA. I am one twenty-one-year-old woman who has spent some time in AA as an atheist, as an open-hearted loving person, as an intellectual thinker, as someone who wants to change and learn. I love the support of the people in recovery, I love the holistic approach to becoming a better person, I love that there is alternative literature to the Big Book (e.g. A Woman's Way Through the Twelve Steps, Beyond Belief, The Alternative Twelve Steps).
To Thine Own Self Be True: you must do what works for you!
So what do you think, reader? I know this was very long but I wanted to get a lot out there, and have deleted some prior posts about AA. I've tried to keep this objective where necessary and relative to my subjective experiences and point of view. In life, we have to choose our own path, and one should never allow for absolutist ways of viewing the world. There is never one answer to anything or one right way of doing something.
SMART Recovery vs AA articles:

This excellent article reflects my views:

Zarina’s Interpretation of the Twelve Steps:

1. Admit we have an alcohol problem and cannot drink safely, and our lives have become unmanageable.
2. Attend AA meetings, get a sponsor, and reach out to other alkies within the fellowship in order to get rid of feelings of isolation and misery.
3. Let go of the little things that trouble us each day and focus more on the bigger picture of life. Use serenity prayer as a mantra for accepting what we have no control of.
4. Write out incidents that have caused us sadness and misery in our lives, or where we have caused harm to others.
5. Read these incidents out (in the form of prose, bullet points or however we see fit) to our sponsor. Include: resentments, fears and sexual difficulties.
6. With our sponsor, discover the negative behavioral traits that hold us back from being the best we can be.
7. Work on a daily basis on noticing those negative traits, taking a pause and breathing before acting on them, and making them more manageable as opposed to running our lives.
8. Make a list of people we have harmed in any way – physically, emotionally, financially – and become willing to make amends to them all.
9. Make amends to those we have harmed.
10. Continue to live each day on life’s terms; stay sober one day at a time, be in the present and be part of the world rather than alongside it, and remember to be thankful each day for being alive and sober.
11. Seek out meditation, prayer and/or yoga in order to connect to inner self and inner peace.
12. Become at peace with oneself and live a happy, healthy life without drinking.

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