‘Open source sobriety: Getting past chauvinism in early recovery’ by Matt Robert

woman-in-cellHere’s the latest posting on Marc Lewis’s blog, a guest blog from Matt Robert.

‘Here’s another guest post, and it’s a winner. Sincere thanks to Matt Robert, a  SMART Recovery facilitator I met last June in Boston….

I’ve been spending a lot of time these days going in and out of locked detox units. And it’s interesting because, in most important ways, they haven’t changed very much at all. But I’ve changed, and the reason for my going into them has changed as well. Now I go into them because I want to, and I leave because I can.  I go into them now to talk about recovery.

There is a particular flavor of desperation endemic to detoxes.  The atmosphere is rife with anger, self-loathing, guilt, shame and defeat. People seem to bounce around among acceptance, denial and hair-trigger reactivity, along with the emotions that trail behind all three.

The writing is on the wall everywhere: that one is about to lose everything, and that the way to arrest this decline is clear. Yet alongside these realizations is the feeling that one cannot stop, that one must find again the solace the addiction once provided but is now decimating, one day at a time.

Into this mix come representatives from recovery programs, telling the patients definitively that they are powerless and that they have to accept that.  Or that “you are not powerless, you always have a choice.”  Both ideas, either taken together or separately, can pave the way to recovery.

But when they’re presented as diametrically opposed approaches in a marketplace of recovery programs, they may do more harm than good. Especially in early recovery settings.

It’s confusing when someone who is struggling sees all this wrangling about what’s the best method.  And probably most proponents of a particular approach would admit, if pressed: not everything works for everyone. 

In the wake of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death of a heroin overdose, the New York Times convened a panel of experts for an Op-Ed piece entitled “What Is Addiction?” Their views: It’s a disease and needs to be treated as such. It’s a choice and legitimate options need to be made available. It’s a form of learning. It’s a lack of the spiritual development needed to build inner strength. Or…what?

The recovery enterprise is a classic example of humans being human.  “If it worked for me, it has to work for you.”  But it’s those in the early stages, in detoxes and other harsh settings, who will be most negatively affected by the unintentional arrogance of the well-meaning recovery groups whose method is the “only way” that works. And all the rhetoric about powerlessness, choice, and whether or not it’s a disease may be nothing but a distraction that serves to impede recovery, not bolster it.

In every recovery group there are hardliners who argue that their way is the only way.  But there are often others who use their chosen framework to meet people where they are. 

Although some in SMART Recovery emphasize its difference from “non-scientific” methods, most recognize that everyone is an individual with a unique development, and background, and set of needs, and that the recovery that works best is the recovery that works best for ourselves – even if it’s not in SMART.  It will be different for everyone, and the journey to being free of one’s addictive behavior involves discovering the unique combination of things that work. There is no “one size fits all” in recovery.

The beauty of support groups is that they provide a safe place to work on recovery – in fact, many safe places.  There is now a great array of alternatives to choose from. 

But as SMART Recovery founder Joe Gerstein said in a 2010 interview with the The Guardian, “the coercion of people into AA, SMART, or other support groups…is ethically wrong, medically wrong and psychologically wrong.” Not to mention pragmatically wrong.  And it is in early recovery where this coercion is most likely to happen.

If we could stand up on a mountain and look down at all the different recovery groups, we’d see that, although they differ in some obvious ways, they’re all aiming to do the same thing. Their objective is identical.  And that is to achieve and maintain sobriety. Period.

Not to advance some treatment agenda, or get funding for research, or compete ideologically. It’s not that the exigencies of funding shortfalls are unimportant. Or that changing the attitudes of the powers that be is a trivial enterprise. Or that there is no merit in identifying a scientifically grounded road to recovery.

But for the lonely person staring out a window on the locked ward of a detox, this contentious posturing is just a distraction from the dire situation at hand, and from the task of piecing together a recovery that works.’

Check out the interesting discussion on Matt’s blog.