'Whilst my relationship with alcohol is much better, it is still something I work on'

[The views and opinions of authors expressed herein do not necessarily state or reflect those of SMART Recovery Australia.]

I can’t remember exactly when I first made contact with SMART Recovery but it was a few years ago. I heard about it through my psychologist who was a SMART facilitator. I got that feeling you get when someone tells you about something they really believe in so I wanted to find out more.

Backing up a little … I guess I have always had a problematic relationship with alcohol. From my late teens I identified as someone who liked a drink but I also realised that my drinking had negative consequences that I didn’t like.

Many years before I reached out to SMART, my life had taken on an inverse relationship to alcohol. It seemed the more I drank, the smaller my life became. This was one of the realisations that helped me the most because I knew I wanted more from life.

I really want to give a little bit of context …

Up to this point in my life, I didn’t know that any alternatives to the 12 step model existed and I was excited to see there was an alternative to being ‘powerless’ and being ‘in recovery’ for the rest of my life.

I feel very passionate that people need to be given choices about how they see their relationship with substances or behaviours that they would like to change. It is naive and potentially very damaging to say that all people can be helped by one dominant model like AA and, thankfully, SMART has successfully offered an alternative for myself and many others.

I had an interesting experience with the 12 step model … After attending meetings I felt compelled to drink more and more. As I internalised the alcoholic self image, I believed I was powerless and then, instead of thinking I would like to drink less or stop for a while, I considered myself an alcoholic who would never be able to choose to stop drinking using my own free will, and could certainly never moderate. Something I found out much later was that my story was not an anomaly but a very common response to AA.

Now, this is a story about me and SMART, not an activist piece about the dangers of 12 step models but I think people need to be informed about other options. If one dominant model prevails in the peer support space, choice doesn’t exist for many Australians. Thankfully this is changing and so it must.

Over the years, I explored a few different SMART groups but the one I went to most consistently was in Kirribilli. It was close enough to my home that I could walk there and I got to know the participants and the facilitator, Josette.

When I first started attending I had become very isolated and I remember feeling very anxious being around people again. After a couple of meetings my feelings of anxiety were replaced by a feeling of belonging. I also loved how I was able to contribute my ideas and be heard.

It was only much later when I was reflecting on my experience with SMART during a recent job interview that I had an “Ah-Ha!” moment. It was the social connection that I think helped me the most. It let some light into my world and, for the hour and a half on a Monday evening, in that little library room, I was reminded that there was a bigger life out there for me if I wanted it.

Peer support is incredibly powerful because it not only offers the participant support but it also gives an opportunity to contribute to helping others and yourself. The thing about being able to contribute was that it gave me a feeling of dignity and worth. Not only did I feel valued, I added value.

My life has become a lot bigger since my exposure to SMART. It has not been a straight line and whilst my relationship with alcohol is much better, it is still something I work on. I took a year off alcohol and really liked the perspective that it gave me.

The difference now is that I don’t view my drinking through the lens of a powerless alcoholic. I view my choices as just that … choices.

Choices can be changed.

During the COVID-19 shutdown, I became a certified SMART facilitator and am currently on a new career path in mental health. My new role is in peer support and I believe my experience with SMART will help me a great deal on this path. There are a lot of parallels with my new job and what SMART offers because just as SMART rejects labels like “alcoholic” and “addict”, my job as a peer worker is to see the people I work with as equals. Not mental illness labels.

People just like me.

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