SMART Recovery or AA: What’s The Difference?

Being part of a recovery program greatly increases your odds of success in staying clean and sober. When most people hear the phrase “recovery program” they automatically think of AA or NA, or Alcoholics/ Narcotics Anonymous. This program has certainly been around for the longest time, and claims a history of success. But it’s not the only game in town, and it may not be the best option for you, especially if you practice a faith other than Christianity.

AA/ NA claim to be open to people of all faiths. While the program does focus on a “higher power,” it’s supposed to be any higher power you choose. Even the Flying Spaghetti monster if that’s your thing. It’s supposed to be, anyway.

In reality (especially here in the Southern US) individual groups can be a whole different ballgame. For people who’ve never considered the possibility that other deities exist outside of the Christian god, it’s entirely too easy to make it all about their idea of “God.” That may be OK, and not an issue for many folks who follow other spiritual paths. For me, with my prior religious trauma, it’s a big problem.

Powerlessness Required

Choice of deity aside, the core tenet of AA/NA is that addicts have a disease for which there is no cure. The very first step in the program is to admit that you have a problem and are powerless to overcome it. You then surrender your will to that of a higher power, who does the heavy lifting for you and gives you the strength you need to abstain. Again, this is a real problem for me. Overall it makes the program feel very shame-based and disempowering. It’s also a major trigger for my church-related trauma.

One thing I’ve promised myself is that I will never again surrender my will to anyone – higher power or not. I’ve come too far, and fought too many battles reclaiming the sense of self that the United Pentecostal Church took from me. After all of that, and the help I’ve gotten from The Mòrrigan, it would be letting both of us down.

Most of the pagans I’ve known have a similar relationship with the gods. We tend to work with them, not make ourselves slaves to their whims.

Science Based Behavioral Change

SMART Recovery, fortunately, comes at addiction from a completely different angle. This program uses the science of Cognitive Behavior Therapy to help you change. It works for ANY habit or behavior you wish to change. There’s no discussion of a “higher power” of any kind, and no labels are given. Instead of introducing yourself as an addict, in SMART meetings you introduce yourself as a “person in recovery.” The focus is on tools and strategies that empower YOU to make changes.

As stated on the SMART website: “In SMART we focus on learning coping skills that work well short- and long-term. We base our ideas on what addiction science has shown to be effective. We have adapted these ideas into SMART’s tools for change. We are not much concerned with the past, except to learn from it. We focus on present-day events and the causes of self-destructive behaviors. We concentrate on what to do about them to achieve a positive lifestyle change, especially in the areas of our lives that are related to harmful addictive behavior.”

The SMART program utilizes a range of scientifically based tools to empower you to change your behavior. It focuses on 4 key areas: (1) Building and maintaining the motivation to change. (2) Coping with urges to use. (3) Managing thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in an effective way without addictive behaviors. (4) Living a balanced, positive, and healthy life.

There are dozens of different tools available, many for free once you register on the website. The one that has helped me the most so far is the Cost Benefit Analysis.

How To Do A Cost Benefit Analysis

Take a sheet of paper, and divide it into 4 sections. The top half of the paper is going to be costs and benefits of your substance or behavior of choice. The bottom half is for the costs and benefits of abstaining from it.

One of the things that I love about this exercise is that it’s REAL. You get to admit that there ARE benefits to engaging in your addiction. What are they? Well, for me a big one is how it contributes to my rebellious self-image. But also (and this may apply to you as well), drinking does calm my anxiety. It numbs the pain I feel. It also makes me more outgoing and less of an introvert.

Downsides to drinking include it makes me feel worse long term. It’s damaging to my health, and in fact could kill me. I get TOO uninhibited and do and say things I later regret. It costs money.

Benefits of NOT drinking include feeling better and being healthier. Not waking up and being ashamed of what I did or said last night. Having more spending money.

Downsides of NOT drinking would be having to deal with depression and anxiety sober. Feeling left out when with friends who drink.

Once you have filled in your four squares, go back and look at each item, and ask yourself: Is this a short- or long- term effect? This helps begin to weigh the importance of each item. For example, you get a short-term avoidance of pain or anxiety, but long-term bad health from using.

Most people are pretty surprised when they see what the costs and benefits of using really are. Seeing it before you in black and white like that definitely keeps you motivated – especially if you revisit this exercise every few months as your answers may change.

Your Recovery, Your Choice

One of the best things my counselor at rehab said to me was, “you get to decide what your recovery looks like.”

I know people who’ve been through both types of programs. Some swear by AA as being the best shadow work they’ve ever done. And it’s true, the 12 steps are great for knowing thyself. But no two people are alike, so the more choices you have the better.

What matters is being in control of our habits, and living fully in this lifetime. Either program is capable of helping achieve that goal – or even a combination of the two. Whatever works for you, work it!

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