Claire Saenz is a SMART Recovery Facilitator for SMART Recovery. It is an addiction recovery service without a necessary reference to a higher power or incorporation of a faith, or some faith-based system into it – by necessity. Those can be used it, but they are not necessities. The system is about options. In this series, we look at her story, views, and expertise regarding addiction, having been an addict herself. This is session 1.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: When it comes to the experience of addiction, what were your addiction and particular substance of choice?
Claire Saenz: My substance of choice was alcohol, which was coupled with an eating disorder and an anxiety disorder.
Jacobsen: What were the thoughts that ran through your mind as you were working to combat the addiction, to stop using the substance(s)?
Saenz: I was highly motivated when I decided to stop drinking, so my primary thought, initially, was that I was going to quit or die trying. I felt determined, but also extremely vulnerable because giving up alcohol meant that in many essential ways, I was giving up my sole coping mechanism.
Jacobsen: How did SMART Recovery compare to other services?
Saenz: Other services I used in my recovery were AA, individual therapy, and pharmaceutical treatment of my anxiety. I found SMART similar to AA in that it is also a peer support group. I found the social support aspect of both programs helpful. SMART was drastically different from AA in almost all other respects, however, and much more like the individual therapy I received.
SMART’s philosophy is one of personal empowerment rather than reliance on a “higher power”. The use of stigmatizing labels such as “alcoholic” or “addict” is discouraged. Direct discussion (“cross-talk”) among group participants is encouraged. Sponsorship is not part of the program. Group facilitators are not professionals, but they are trained in the SMART tools and meeting facilitation skills, and they are expected to adhere to a code of ethics.
Finally, SMART recognizes that recovery, while a process, is not necessarily a permanent one. While participants are encouraged to attend meetings for a significant time period and to become facilitators to pay it forward, we do not view recovery as being a permanent state. Instead, we achieve a new normal.
Jacobsen: What were some of the more drastic stories that you have heard of in your time as an addict, as a recovering addict, and now as a SMART Recovery facilitator?
Saenz: For the reasons mentioned above, I don’t refer to myself as an addict or alcoholic, “recovering” or otherwise. If a label must be applied to my state, call me a person who has recovered from an addiction to alcohol.
As far as drastic stories, they fall into two categories: the carnage of addiction itself, and the carnage of one-size-fits-all addiction treatment where the “one size” is the twelve- step approach.
The carnage of addiction is simply limitless. I have lost dozens of friends and acquaintances to addiction-related causes, from organ failure to overdose, to suicide.
At one of my first AA meetings, I spent a few minutes talking to a nice young man who went home that night and hung himself. I know multiple people who have lost spouses and children to addiction. It is a dreadful condition that takes the lives of fine people, and the solutions we currently offer, as a society, are breathtakingly inadequate.
In terms of the consequences of one-size-fits-all treatment, it should come as no surprise that in a world of individuals, there will never be an approach to any physical or mental condition that will work the same way, or as well, for everyone. And yet for years, we have prescribed the exact same treatment to everyone with an addictive disorder.
Worse, what passes for treatment is often nothing more than expensive indoctrination into a free support group (12 step programs, themselves, are free)—and if the patient fails to improve, the prescription is…more 12 step. Of course, this isn’t working. The shocking thing is that we would ever expect it to work.
Jacobsen: How has religion infiltrated the recovery and addiction services world? Is this good or bad? How so?
Saenz: Twelve-step programs, which form the basis of most “traditional” treatment, are religious in nature. Adherents sometimes claim otherwise, but courts in the U.S. have nearly universally disagreed on that point.
As one jurist put it, “”The emphasis placed on God, spirituality, and faith in a ‘higher power’ by twelve-step programs such as A.A. or N.A. clearly supports a determination that the underlying basis of these programs is religious and that participation in such programs constitutes a religious exercise. It is an inescapable conclusion that coerced attendance at such programs, therefore, violates the Establishment Clause.” Warburton v. Underwood, 2 F.Supp.2d 306, 318 (W.D.N.Y.1998).
Because they are religious in nature, such programs may not be the best choice for, and certainly should not the only option given to, atheists or individuals with an internal locus of control.
Beyond that, the religious atmosphere of the programs can, and sometimes does breed an environment where seasoned members of the program become almost like “gurus”, given an almost clergy-like status and an inordinate amount of power over newer and more vulnerable members. Sometimes this power is used to exploit. The classic exploitation is sexual—“13th stepping” is a common euphemism used to describe the practice of veteran members manipulating newcomers into engaging in sexual relationships—but emotional and financial exploitation can happen as well.
But the most tragic consequence of the infiltration of religion into addiction treatment is not, in my view, the “religious” aspect per se but the fact that the focus on that approach excludes all others. The real tragedy is that people are dying because they are never even told of other approaches that might help them.
In my own experience, 19 years ago when I sought treatment for my addiction to alcohol, I was told that the only option for survival was to become an active AA member. Being the rule follower I am, I did exactly that. I spent the next nine years of my life going to AA meetings and attempting to fit my fundamentally humanist worldview within the confines of that program.
I eventually found this impossible and left the program. In the aftermath of that, I had to re-examine every thought and belief I had developed in the time I had been abstinent to determine whether those thoughts and beliefs were my own or had been implanted during my AA years. I found this an extraordinarily painful process, in many ways as painful as quitting in the first place.
When I found SMART Recovery and realized that it had been possible, all along, for me to have received social support in a manner that honored who I was a person, I cried. I thought not only of myself and all the pain I’d gone through because I wasn’t told of other options besides AA but of all the others who had experienced the same thing.
This would be equally true regardless of the specifics of the treatment being offered because there is no one approach that is right for everyone. The real tragedy is the pain that has been caused, and the lives that have been lost, because one approach has become too dominant.
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