[The views and opinions of authors expressed herein do not necessarily state or reflect those of SMART Recovery Australia.]
You know that feeling when you wake up after yet another ‘slip-up’, smothered in guilt and anxiety, swearing that you will never do it again? Then, a week later you’re at it again…?
Or, that feeling when you are presented with the two narrowest of options: give up everything you care about forever, or continue down the path you’re currently on – neither of which seem remotely sustainable…?
I’ve been there.
To hell and back.
To the same place you might be in now, and may have been many times.
Luckily, there is another way.
This story is for anyone who has ever tried to either quit alcohol and/or other drugs, give it a rest for a while, or just cut back, and has found that willpower alone doesn’t cut it.
It’s for anyone who has thought the idea of signing up to abstinence for rest of their life just didn’t sound realistic. It’s for anyone who might have achieved some traction, had some wins and, right when they feel like they’re on top of things, a curveball sends them right back to where they started.
This is for anyone who didn’t feel comfortable with baring their soul to a 12-step program, giving it all up to a ‘higher power’, or felt like a failure for having to start counting the days from scratch all over again. It’s for anyone who has ever taken a good, hard look in the mirror, at some point in their life, and realised that what they were doing was just not working.
A few years ago, I walked into a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. I sat down and heard stories of people who had been off absolutely everything, some for a rather impressive amount of time. They were counting, too. Right down to the day.
“Ten years, four months, eight days”, someone might say.
I thought “Wow, man. These guys are nailing it!”. I stood up, refused to label myself as an “addict”, and shared my goal. I wanted to quit cocaine. Just cocaine. That was it.
I did not envision a life without alcohol – I enjoyed having a few beers, and I was confident that I could do so without everything else turning sour. Eyes were rolled, phones were pulled out, and the other attendees’ attention went elsewhere. “Another one”, they must have thought. Mr “I’ve-got-this-under-control.”
This guy swans on into a Narcotics Anonymous meeting like he knows more than everyone else, chooses his poison, or rather, the one poison he’d rather see the back of, and wants to keep the rest. It must happen often. This is someone who either does not know or does not fully appreciate the undisputed rule of this particular model of addiction – when you are an “addict”, you cannot touch another substance for the rest of your days. Otherwise, your entire life will spiral out of control, and you will end up in the gutter. Or so the story goes…
I never went back.
Research shows that the vast majority of people struggling with addiction are not suited to 12-step meetings. Also that most people who try to overcome their addictions relapse multiple times, and that willpower alone is woefully inadequate.
All of this is normal, and none of it needs to be labelled as anything other than a learning experience. To be fair, one of those predictions from the Narcotics Anonymous meeting did come true.
My life hit the skids, hard.
After pushing my mind, body and soul, and particularly my partner, to the brink, I lost everything I valued.
I had ruined every good thing in my life up until that point through my addictions, and the last thing I had left that was worth anything, walked away. In hindsight, the only real shock was that she stuck around as long as she did. At the time, I was in shock. Through my own hand, I had created and entered my own personal hell. Loss and grief are enough on their own, but then you add in the crippling guilt for having caused it all, plus the burden of shame for feeling all of this in the first place.
I was dying on the inside, in a culture where the measure of a man is pretty much the exact opposite of whatever ‘mourning the loss of a romantic partner’ might look like, and it was crushing.
I couldn’t function.
I seriously considered suicide.
Then, I thought of my family, thought better of it, and called them up instead.
I was sleeping on my friend’s lounge at the time and working with a new employer in a vain attempt to salvage the relationship. I thanked the former for their hospitality, thanked the latter for the opportunity, and moved back in with my parents at the age of 34. Considering it took me 30 years to move out in the first place, this was embarrassing to say the least.
At first, I tried meditating for hours on end, every day, but there’s only so far that can take me until I would get stuck in my own head, which isn’t very far at all, nor is it a healthy place to be even at the best of times.
So, at the beginning, I actually started to get worse. I spoke to a psychologist, who referred me to an addiction recovery group called SMART Recovery. I thought “Whoa, wait a minute. Are you even listening? I need grief counselling, not drug and alcohol counselling. I’m done with all of that”.
Well, it turns out I wasn’t.
Recovery is weird like that. It usually takes a few goes to get it right. Regardless, I went along to this meeting, determined to turn the worst thing that ever happened to me into the best thing that ever happened to me.
I met a facilitator named Paul, who somehow convinced me that I didn’t actually have to waste the rest of my life being depressed. Considering I was bedridden at the time with no end in sight, this was a welcome relief.
“Feel your pain”, he said.
“Feel your grief. But don’t live there, dude. You can do something about it”.
So I did.
I kept going to his meetings. I had no idea what I was getting out of it at the time (though I do now). If anything, it offered me that one cornerstone of mental health – social connection. I started putting into practice a few of the suggestions from him, and from the group. Some of it stuck, most of it didn’t, but within a few months, I had myself in a much stronger position than when I walked in.
I was eating better, sleeping better, and feeling better. Then I started getting bored. And lonely. I was in Nelson Bay, NSW. I didn’t know anyone, and I didn’t have much to do. With enough self-awareness to know what boredom and isolation can do to somebody with a history like mine, I decided to move back to Sydney.
I found a similar group in Kirribilli on Monday evenings, and started showing up to that. Most Mondays, at the beginning at least, I would wander in with dark circles under my eyes and a three-day growth, looking like, as my facilitator playfully described it, “Death warmed up”.
This might not sound like much of a success after attending for many months, but I’d like you to consider this … A year prior, I was getting wasted most days of the week, staying up for 36-48 hours at a time, repeating the same story over and over every week in a gigantic whirlwind of ugly that everyone, particularly myself, had grown sick and tired of long ago. Six months after first attending SMART, I was still going a little bit overboard, most weekends of the month. But compared to the old me, this was a phenomenal success. Still, this behaviour was having an unacceptable impact on my life. Mondays were always a struggle, my finances were still shaky, and I never really knew how solid my position was at work. Apparently, calling in sick or showing up late on a Monday is rather frowned upon. I had more work to do.
After a few more months of tug-of-war between myself, stubborn as a mule, insisting “I’ve got this”, and the highly experienced facilitator, Josette, who actually knows what works and what doesn’t, I let go of the rope.
Through much trial-and-error (mostly error), the patience of the group, and my persistence in coming back each week regardless of the outcome, I had found my triggers, my limits, and my favourite alternatives to ‘partying’. Through the power of this group, I had developed effective plans and back-up plans, identified and amplified my motivations, and found ways to respond to life rather than react to it. I had a system that works for me. This is the key difference between 12-step programs and this.
SMART stands for ‘Self Management And Recovery Training’. Emphasis on ‘self’ – your goals, your tools, your measurement of success. It’s yours to own. I set goals each week that I wanted to achieve, and I’m coming back most weeks now with a bigger and more successful story than the week before – not just around my intake, but around my whole life.
I still enjoy having a beer here and there, even a few beers, but I’m at the point where it appeals to me less and less. More importantly, I feel like the decision is now truly my own to make. I can safely have a drink without torturing myself about what it means, or where I might end up, or feeling like I’ve ‘failed’.
Like those in the 12-step programs, I celebrate my success. Unlike them, I measure it not in the number of days since I’ve last touched a substance, but in the impact my behaviours are having on myself and those around me.
So let’s have a look back, shall we? Two years ago, I was staying up for days, on a rollercoaster of uppers and downers that could have (and probably should have) killed me at some point. I was hanging onto my sanity by the edge of my fingertips. Now, I am in the best physical shape of my life, waking up at 5am instead of 5pm, and my relationship with my friends, family, and myself have all improved dramatically.
I’ve just completed a counselling diploma, I’m studying (and acing) psychology at UNSW, and living out my lifelong dream of speaking on stage for a living. I have a story worth sharing and an audience worth helping. I spent a recent Wednesday at St Philip’s Christian College in Salamander Bay, before running wellbeing workshops for their ninth grade students, with youth organisations Jupiter and KYDS.
As fate would have it, one of the people involved on the day was the facilitator I first met at SMART Recovery in Nelson Bay when everything seemed completely hopeless. And, the icing on the cake – in May, I reunited with the love of my life and her wonderful six-year-old son. Finding them, losing them, then earning them back into my life is, without a doubt, the best thing that will ever happen to me in this life, or the next.
I’m telling you this story in order to break apart some myths, and offer you another way.
Firstly, abstinence is not the only way. Some of us find that easier, and some of us truly do need it, and I completely understand that. If not, you need to just find a way that works for you. Whether or not that involves SMART Recovery is entirely up to you.
If you’ve found something completely different, I’d love to hear about it, and if 12-step programs have worked for you, I’d love to hear about that too. I am not trying to knock the entire 12-step program here either – they have done some incredible things for a huge amount of people, and if you have gone through the belly of that beast and come out the other side, I salute you, because I know it is one of the hardest and most powerful things a person can ever do.
But, for most of us, we either don’t want it, we don’t need it, or we simply can’t go through with it. In my world, there is no single path towards recovery, nor any one definition of what ‘recovery’ even means.
Your success is your own, and the right path is the one that works for you.
I am living, breathing proof that the cognitive-behavioural therapy approach to SMART Recovery works, and it works well. I also know I need to keep my guard up, and I will keep coming back until I no longer need to.
After that, I will keep coming back because I want to.