Looking for AA Alternatives
SMART Recovery Online, the online arm of SMART Recovery recently announced it was closing its virtual doors. Now, that doesn't mean that SMART or the website is shutting things down -- just their online community. It just happens to be the area that made all the difference for me, so I am feeling nostalgic.
When I first stumbled across SMART Recovery online back in 2004, it felt like I was breaking apart. I hated my life, and it was shattering around me. I had struggled off and on with drinking since my children were born (and off and on in years past, though I didn't really believe I had a problem). I was practicing some sort of moderation when it all blew up. My partner left and there was a huge custody battle, and my job laid thousands of people off, house went into foreclosure … Pretty much everything that was my worst nightmare was happening.
I had just downloaded the AA meeting schedule, knowing I had to do something. I had such limited time with my children already that I couldn’t see how I could work and go to AA meetings and still have any time with them, and they were little. I knew I couldn’t keep going the way I was, half-drunk all the time, and be able to cope with all that was going on. I needed to be able to think clearly and be sharp.
My Experience with AA Meetings
I was familiar with all the tenets of AA and NA. I had been to treatment, and I believed what people told me, that AA was the only way, and I attended meetings. This was in NYC, so the meetings were big and anonymous (and those were the ones I gravitated to). I never found sponsors. I must have just given off huge, “Don’t talk to me,” vibes, and I wasn’t really interested in making friends or chilling out and having coffee. Plus it was New York. People were busy; not super-friendly.
It was not particularly social for me. What I liked was that it felt like a safe space. In a city where every bar called out to me from every corner, and I had a whole persona built around partying and being a bar fly, these were spaces where I was safe. I could relax or cry and listen to stories that felt familiar -- the pain, the struggles, the crazy situations that seemed like fun at the time, the embarrassment, and then the promise of redemption. I would pretty much scurry in and scurry out.
I wasn’t crazy about the 12 Steps. I already had shelves full of self-help books whose exercises I never did. Those steps were very preachy, to me. I didn’t have much religious background, and the pathway wasn’t one I fully acknowledged. I didn’t overtly question much, and I tried. It just felt like I might be hopeless if this were the answer. I felt jealous of the people whose faith was strong enough that they could let God touch them and intervene in their lives directly. But I just couldn’t see how that would work for me.
I never understood the idea that I had to relinquish all personal power in order to be freed from my burdens. I didn’t know how to do that, and it didn’t make sense to me, even in a religious context. It seemed to me that a God of my understanding would want me to do the things I could on my own behalf, not just expect him to step in all the time.
Now I have a slightly different understanding, currently. I get that if we surrender our determination to do things our own way, based on our desires for things like power, material things, petty, “earthly/worldly,” desires, that then we are opening ourselves to another, more expansive way of looking at the world, one grounded in things like our deepest values, love, giving, caring for others and ourselves.
But it was hard to have an actual discussion about things like that if you had questions. There was such a leap of faith involved, and I didn’t really trust what they were saying. It felt a little like a bait and switch to me -- I sought help for my drinking through treatment, and suddenly everyone wanted to indoctrinate me into religion. And a type of religion that I had been exposed to and had some difficulties with. It felt very Bible-belt, old-fashioned, coercive, judgmental and heavy.
I lived in New York City, so there were all kinds of 12-step groups with wildly different atmospheres in various parts of the city, from the Hells’ Angels NA meetings to the Wall Street AA ones early in the morning to the Village folks who are artists and poets, and everything in between. I felt a little like the looser ones were trying to contort themselves into a fairly rigid structure, while surreptitiously rejecting certain elements so that it just didn’t quite fit any which way. It didn’t feel authentic to me somehow, or at least I didn't see how I could be authentic in that framing.
Anyway, I didn’t particularly have bad feelings about it. I just felt like I was sort of an AA failure. It had been a long time since I’d been, and I was a little wary about them in the midwest, because it was all so much smaller and more personal. I felt much more visible, and as I said, the amount of time away from home and children, finding childcare.
SMART Recovery Online
And then I googled something like “alternatives to AA,” and there it was, SMART Recovery. And I found a whole online community that was talking about all the things that were going on in my life. Not the specifics, but these were people who were struggling to understand how alcohol or drugs had invaded their lives and why they couldn’t just stop. How to cope now, with difficult, real-life problems. And the site volunteers explained, gently, over and over again, how SMART thinking, based on Albert Ellis’s brand of CBT, could help.
That we had worth and could accept ourselves just because we were alive, thinking beings on this earth.
That we had agency and could make choices about what we were doing.
That it was our own minds that were tripping us up, and that we could learn how to think more logically, rationally about what we were doing and what we wanted.
That we didn’t have to believe one particular ethos or submit to a God we didn’t necessarily believe in, in order to be sober, fulfilled, happy human beings.
That we were not powerless in our own lives.
I started reading. I jumped right into the message boards and read and read for about a month, I guess. I looked every day for new posts, and then I explored back. I found people who wrote beautifully and clearly and who all tried to express principles that made sense to me, and they explained how they applied them in their lives.
The people participating seemed sometimes in terrible trouble but also hopeful, kind, and just full of life, even as they slipped and slid around and tried again -- the opposite of how I felt. I wanted the courage of the participants. I wanted what the volunteers had! (That’s an AA thing, but it was true, and I’d never really felt that in 12-step groups or anywhere else, for that matter.)
I was terribly shy and unsure of myself. I really felt more beaten down than I ever had before, and I suspected I was hopeless. So I read and composed posts in my head, and I longed to be part of the sort of loose, friendly camaraderie I found around the SMART Message Boards. SMART Online was still very small, but there were steady voices and an overall sense of personal support. I tried to work up my courage to do something to join in.
Participating at SMART Online
At that time, in the early 2000s, chat rooms were sort of suspect, in general. My impression of them was of an AOL-style chat room atmosphere of random topics, unpleasant people, and often, unwelcome sexual inanity. They had a sort of sleazy, distasteful connotation for me. But I was curious about what a chat or a meeting would look like in this context.
I was afraid to try them out, but I was really determined that I had to do something, so one day, I finally got up enough nerve to check out the chat, and I joined …
And I found myself in the middle of an online meeting! (They were held in the same room back in the day.) And the facilitator started immediately directly addressing me! I felt kind of panicked, but my politeness kicked in, and so I responded.
And then he wanted to engage me in conversation!! It was completely nerve-wracking, but it also felt nice to be spoken to in a welcoming way, to be “seen” directly (this was all in text chat, but it felt that way). The host was straight-forward without being pushy. And after I got over the shock of being “forced” to respond, I found him to be kind, thoughtful, smart, thought-provoking, and funny -- and very direct. I was terribly uncomfortable, but there was a good feeling in this weird virtual space.
In the meetings and chat, the people at SMART Recovery Online (SROL) encouraged me to think and do the exercises that were around the site, and I started to read some of the more serious articles and fool around with the tools a little bit. From there, that whole way of thinking really took off for me. It was familiar from all those self-help books I had, based pretty much on psychology. It brought to mind David Burns’s teachings from his wonderful book, Feeling Good, which gave me hope back in college.
I had never really applied tools like these, practically or consistently. But SMART’s focus, directly on the issue of addiction, without platitudes, slogans or scare tactices, made so much sense to me and was unbelievably helpful. The invitation to discuss and puzzle things out appealed to me. And it was so encouraging!
I made a couple of small commitments to myself early on. First, that I would actually try to do the exercises and things that people suggested to me. If someone told me to write a list, I could actually do that, whether I thought it would be helpful or not. I didn’t have to dismiss it out of hand without even trying it or put it off until some “later” date that never came around. Second, that I would write, daily, on the message boards in one of the check-in groups, no matter how short the message.
The SMART Online Message Boards
I really longed to participate on those message boards. And that was so scary to me! It would be in writing, out there! How personal should I be? How self-focused? What if people hated me? What if someone I knew read it (like my ex’s lawyers)? What if people thought my writing was terrible and contrived? What if I wasn’t good enough? What if people laughed at me? What if they rejected me somehow?
At that time, SMART had a Welcome, a Discussion area and a Check-in area, primarily. I agonized, but somehow managed to write a very short introduction in their welcome area and cried with relief at the kind words I received back. In the Check-in area, they had a bunch of groups organized by color. No particular meaning attached, but they all kind of had their own atmosphere and personality, and people got to know each other a little bit within and between the groups. They were almost like little workgroups. I’d say there were usually about a dozen or so people that would stop by and write regularly about what they were going through and what they were trying.
I found one of those that spoke to me, and I determined that I would write once a day, just to say hello, if nothing else. And somehow, to my own surprise, I did that! I wasn’t sure at that time that I could commit to anything, so it was a real victory for me. That one small commitment that I was able to keep, made a surprisingly huge difference to me. And somehow, I ended up writing over 23,000 posts over the years on those message boards!
The chat room was highly important to me at various times, and I would hang out there, especially at night, when I was trying to kill (er, fill) time, or in the mornings, to get a little courage in starting my day. I went there when something challenging was coming up to gain a little strength and support. I celebrated little victories, and I cried over my bad days to the people in there, too.
Ah, the meetings. I worked away, and at one point I attended every meeting I possibly could. I immersed myself in studying SMART and its tools, and I brought things to the meetings that I was working on to get help. I had breakthroughs. I remember a few clearly, in working through the ABC exercises in with a group. After a while, I started being able to help others, too, which was very fulfilling. I was embraced into the volunteer and participant communities.
I was shocked when it was suggested that I become a facilitator. It felt completely wrong for me. But turned out, I loved it! Over time I became a volunteer in pretty much every way it was possible to at SMART and worked extensively with the national folks on various projects, but those Message Boards were always my heart.
Thank you, SMART Online!
So, it is with a sense of wistfulness that I note the closing of SMART Recovery Online. But much more, it is with a deep sense of gratitude and appreciation. The SMART Online community helped me save my life. It welcomed me and gave me hope in myself, and in the world.
I felt at home, and I felt like I could be myself. I felt useful and supported, both. I talked directly with tons of amazing, talented, fascinating people filled with passion and hope, from all over the world, trying to encourage each other in this loose-knit boundary-less virtual community that lived and changed and grew before my eyes. I saw people find hope and was honored to witness hundreds find moments of clarity, that aha! moment when something elusive suddenly makes sense.
I met, literally, thousands of people at SMART Recovery Online, and some of them I was lucky enough to meet in person. I cherish the connections I found there. Some were momentary, and some still continue. The bonds with many will be there, always, whether we speak again or not.
It was a vibrant community and sort of a noble endeavor, with many, many imperfections. It was a great privilege to be a big part of it for a long time.
To me, SMART Recovery Online, was a community filled with friends. It is a significant piece of my past, and it gave me a solid framework I was able to use to climb out of despair. SMART Recovery Online will live forever in my heart and as a model in my mind.
SMART Recovery is a growing and vibrant organization, even as they’ve shed this, to me, special piece. Please do visit them at:
… to locate their meetings and find links to materials, tools, books, their blog … and much more.
And if you’d like to chat, please, get in touch with me! Send me a text, an email, or leave me a message … I’ll get right back to you!!