August 22nd, 2016

SMART And AA: One Man’s Recovery Journey

Editor’s Note: As new abstinence-based support groups have begun to appear in the recovery community, competitiveness, and even animosity, is sometimes the first reaction. Over time, however, I have seen this replaced by acceptance and now even an exploration of how to strengthen one’s recovery by capitalizing on the differences between various approaches. This week’s post was written by a Kolmac alumnus who has given this subject much thought.

SMART and AA: One Man’s Recovery Journey

By Ken B.

At first, my goal was to see if SMART was a real alternative to AA. When I found SMART groups where the sharing was unusually good, I gratefully joined. I had no thought of leaving AA, just an appetite for good sharing. Many of my friends were in AA only; it’s enormously more available.

But some differences were major. SMART’s complete avoidance of religious ideas or beliefs was a welcome relief and freed us to focus on thoughts, feelings and behaviors.  In addition, allowing group interaction, which AA largely lacks, greatly strengthens the sharing and everyone’s sense of participation.  Informally trained peer “facilitators” who coordinate the sharing also seem to keep the group process dependable, mostly without dominating or acting as instructors.

I’d never participated in interactive groups other than clinical ones led by professionals, so I was surprised to discover some of the traps they can fall into, such as dominance traps where a few members get all the oxygen, expert traps where some members see themselves as there for their special knowledge, or news traps where the group pursues juicy topics.  Many of the traps arise in part from group interaction.  Even so, dominance and instructing are real problems in AA too, and longer-lasting.  In fact, the lack of interaction makes them harder to correct in AA because people hesitate to address them.

So why still AA? I often ask myself what is the lasting value of AA? Why (is it just the people?) are we still here, and why is AA still stuck in the 1930s and 40s?  Why can’t it adjust and adapt? Some of the ways in which AA is stuck are actually appalling to me. Many groups still read “How It Works” aloud at the start of each meeting, which are actually the first few pages of the chapter of that name that lists the 12 steps.  It offers a program for solving the problem of alcoholism along with condescending disparagement towards any who doubt it.  Here are some lines from the first paragraph:

“Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path. Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves.” 

This was written in 1939 when no one had more than three years of sobriety, but it demands complete commitment and seems to speak for the ages.  Its subject may be honesty, but it’s a gross example of spinning.  The talk of failure reinforces the illusion that recovery is an on/off thing like sobriety.  None of the therapists I know agree. They see sobriety as a precondition for recovery, not recovery itself.

As troubling as such paragraphs are, one can take away an insight.  The fact that Bill’s most misleading writing is among his most popular may be no accident.  Perhaps, many need a program with a demand for complete commitment.

Meanwhile, the other reason we still go to AA is that it’s there, offering large numbers of meetings and real live people, some with tremendous investments in their years or decades of recovery, which often yields much fruit.  Even at an average meeting, you can usually hear some pretty good sharing on real life problems.  Overall, there’s much more experience and seniority in AA than in SMART.

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