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An Inside Look at What Addiction Support Groups Offer

There are a lot of reasons to want to escape right now and it sometimes feels like we are playing whack-a-mole just trying to manage our day-to-day life. Alcohol and other drug use have been on the rise lately and many people are attributing it to the stress and isolation that we have all been experiencing over the past year.

Unfortunately, with increased substance use comes the increased likelihood of unpleasant and tragic experiences including death. In fact, a recent study found that opiate overdoses have spiked since the beginning of the pandemic.

For some, alcohol and other drug use can be a coping skill. For example, a person might relax at the end of the day with a little wine or marijuana. There is nothing inherently wrong with that; however, if we turn the corner into more “problematic” use we may need to reexamine our situation. What do I mean by “problematic” use of alcohol and other drugs? Well, there are many quizzes that you can take such as the CAGE questionnaire that mental health professionals use to determine if a person meets criteria for a substance use disorder. A quick search on the internet will also help you find online self-assessments like the ones found here. In general, when trying to determine if one has an addiction problem there are often many red flags. The following are some scenarios that may make a person want to reflect on their use:

  • Telling yourself that you are only going to drink on the weekends, but only being able to make it until Wednesday.
  • Getting so intoxicated that you are not able to get to work the following day.
  • Waking up sick because your body has become physically hooked to alcohol or other drugs.
  • Doing dangerous things like driving or swimming while drunk or high.
  • Having to drink five glasses of wine instead of two in order to get the same effect.
  • Blacking out or losing memory of what happened while using.
  • No longer meeting with your buddies you have played basketball with every Sunday since high school, because getting high is more important now.

There are many more examples that can play out, and you may even experience some of these things and not become addicted to anything. Everyone has their own threshold, but you can check yourself by asking yourself whether or not your use of alcohol or other drugs is interfering with you living the life you want to live. It is also important to remember that you are not a bad person if you are experiencing these things and your value as a human does not go up or down if you stop, slow down or continue to get high or drunk. But, if you are at the point where you would like assistance regarding use, there are several options.

Before I go into detail about support options, it should be noted that it is extremely hard to stop using alcohol and other drugs. Period. That’s it. There is no easy way of doing this, otherwise we would all be holding hands, skipping down the yellow brick road headed for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow with our non-alcoholic mimosas (aka orange juice) and virgin piña coladas (delicious, btw). No one wants to do this shit. No one wants to become addicted to alcohol or other drugs. No one wants to wake up physically sick every day. No one wants to be ostracized or tucked away into a little corner. No one wants to feel like they are disappointing family and friends. No one wants to be mentioned only in a hushed voice. No one wants to be living a life where your every step forward is a matter of choosing between what sucks less. But shit happens. People, regular people, become addicted to alcohol and other drugs (and much more). The more we shun that truth, the harder we make it for each other.

Alright, so, what are the options? While Twelve Step programs have been the more “traditional” way people go about stopping alcohol or drug use, more and more programs are becoming available to the public including SMART RecoveryRefuge Recovery, and more. While addiction is a vast societal problem in need of a large-scale fix, there are a lot of ways we can hold ourselves accountable for things that happened in active addiction and in our path forward. Let’s examine things a bit further.

Let’s take a look at 12 step programs first because they have the biggest reach. There are many theories on why or how people become addicted, but 12 step groups follow the disease theory of addiction and use the 12 steps to overcome the disease of addiction. The first 12 step group was Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) which began about 85 years ago when a man name Bill Wilson (often referred to as Bill W.) and Dr. Bob Smith (Dr. Bob) serendipitously found each other in Akron, Ohio and helped each other remain free from alcohol. They found that by providing mutual peer support to other alcoholics they could help themselves, as well.

Over the years, AA groups have expanded around the world and many offshoots have developed to assist people with their recovery from other substances or issues. Groups such as Narcotics Anonymous (NA) and Al-Anon may sound familiar, but some lesser-known groups include Emotions Anonymous (EA) for people with mental illness and Medication-Assisted Recovery Anonymous (MARA) for individuals who choose Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT).

If you are going or thinking about going to a 12 step meeting (or any support group), first, congratulations. Second, I know you are probably nervous, but you will be fine.

Going to your first 12 step meeting can be scary, but something that is not well known is there is a whole step (actually step 12 of the 12 steps) dedicated specifically to helping people new to the program. That’s right. People who are already in a 12 step program are stoked to meet new people and you will quickly find that you, the newest member of the program, are the “most important person at the meeting” as they say. You will find out what that means later in your journey. If you are having some concerns about whether or not you should try a meeting, AA’s website has a small quiz you can take to see whether AA may be a good fit for you. If you are still unable to decide, know that you have the last say on whether or not you are a member because, as stated in the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions (2017), “the only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking” (p.139). Yep, a desire. No six-month commitment. No membership fees. No routing number to your bank account so that a deposed member of a royal family can share his money with you later. Nope. Not even abstinence. You only have to have the desire to stop drinking to be a member of AA.

You will find 12 step groups and meetings have their own culture and lingo. An individual new to the program is called a “newcomer” and people that have abstained from substances for multiple, consecutive years will be called “old timers.” Each meeting and group will have its own format. For example, a literature meeting is when participants read from books that have been approved because they align with AA principles. A discussion meeting means that the chairperson will facilitate a meeting around a specific AA related topic. A “closed meeting” means that the meeting is only for members of AA, but an “open meeting” means that persons who do not identify as an alcoholic can attend.

At this time, due to the pandemic, most meetings are online. If an individual does not have access to a phone, computer or tablet and Wi-Fi, some treatment facilities have offered significantly smaller, socially distanced meetings, but this option is limited. Another path to recovery from substance use is SMART Recovery. SMART stands for Self-Management And Recovery Training. SMART Recovery views problematic substance use as a coping skill that is no longer effective and helps to develop healthier coping skills. SMART Recovery uses an approach called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and motivational interviewing (MI). CBT works by examining how our negative thoughts and emotions (cognitive) affect our behavior (behavioral) and helps with emotional regulation and to develop coping skills (therapy). Motivational Interviewing is a popular approach to addiction treatment and can be used to help people at different stages of substance use by “meeting a person where they are at,” meaning I am rolling with and providing support to an individual without judgment and without having them fit into a particular, pre-determined mold.

SMART Recovery has regularly scheduled meetings which are free and has trained facilitators who run the meetings. According to their website, SMART Recovery has programs for “individuals, family and friends, treatment professionals, courts and corrections, veterans and first responders, and young adults” and can assist people with “alcohol, eating disorders, marijuana, gambling, prescription drugs, heroin, sex addiction, and smoking.” The SMART Recovery website also has a section with some worksheets from their toolbox and a link to their handbook. At this time, it appears as though most meetings are being held online due to the pandemic. Fortunately, individuals who have access to a computer or phone with an internet connection will not have a hard time finding a meeting online.

Refuge Recovery is a newer support group to help individuals with all types of addictions. According to their website, Refuge Recovery is a, “peer-led movement using Buddhist-inspired practices and principles” and “members practice a daily recovery program that includes meditation and personal inventory, mentorship, retreat and service as integral components.” Individuals familiar with 12 step-style recovery will see some similarities at Refuge Recovery. The book that guides the individual and meetings is “Refuge Recovery: A Buddhist Path to Recovering from Addiction” and the founder of the program, Noah Levine, hosts a Zoom call on the first Thursday of the month. The website has many resources including free podcasts and guided meditations and they even have some swag to stay safe during the pandemic.  It appears as though Refuge Recovery meetings are all online at this time, but an individual with a device and Wi-Fi will definitely be able to find a meeting.

There are more, lesser-known support groups out there including LifeRingWomen for SobrietyBuddhist Recovery Network and more. If you try one group and you don’t like it or it doesn’t seem to be helping, try a different group. It would also be beneficial to try different meetings within a particular group. For example, you may not like a discussion meeting at a 12 step group and you may find that a literature meeting is more your style. The most important thing is to not give up, which is easier said than done.

I am not going to lie; you are going to have to go outside your comfort zone. But many people find that it’s worth the risk. Most of us come into these groups and our hearts are broken and our spirits are gone. No one makes the decision to start attending support groups because their lives are awesome and everything is going great. Luckily, we are going to be with our fellow human beings who are also struggling and not the Queen of England for teatime. So, wherever you go and whenever you decide to go, know that you are right on time and in good company. We are saving you a spot for when you are ready.

*You can find groups in your area by searching the [name of the group] plus your [city]. For example, you could search “Narcotics Anonymous San Diego” or “SMART Recovery Chicago”.

Getty image by Nvard Akopyan

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