LEXINGTON, Ky. – Often when one is in recovery for addiction, they turn to a 12-step mutual support group, but there are also other options. One of those is called Self-Management and Recovery Training (SMART Recovery).
At the start of a meeting, participants only introduce themselves by name.
“I’m just Craig. So sometimes I’ll say I’m in recovery or I’m in long-term recovery, but typically, I just introduce myself as Craig,” said Craig Wilkie, who was initially introduced to SMART Recovery when he was in treatment in 2018.
That’s because SMART Recovery doesn’t use labels.
“It’s refreshing to not introduce myself as an alcoholic,” Wilkie said.
Bill Greer, the President of SMART Recovery USA, said the non-profit offers a no blame, no shame approach to recovery.
“We regard addiction as a medical condition. It’s a problem with how you behave. It’s not who you are,” Greer explained over a Skype interview.
After everyone checks-in on how they are doing, participants work on SMART Recovery’s 4-Point Program through discussion and a workbook, which focuses on: building and maintaining motivation; coping with urges; managing thoughts, feelings, and behaviors; and living a balanced life.
SMART Recovery uses evidence-based techniques, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, to help participants look at their behaviors and decide what they need to change.
“Like making sure I put myself in situations that are beneficial to me. So maybe not going to an event at a brewery because that could lead me to a very easy way to have another drink. Instead, maybe I’ll just go to the movies,” Wilkie told Spectrum News 1.
SMART Recovery is not a therapy or treatment program, but the free meetings are led by trained facilitators.
“If someone brings something up they are dealing with, we point out maybe skills they could use to cope better,” said volunteer facilitator Cassie Stephens, who has been sober for over two years.
During meetings, participants do exercises in SMART Recovery’s handbook and share what they wrote, such as writing their top five values. For Wilkie, these worksheets have been the most beneficial aspect of SMART.
“And the ‘AHA!’ moments you can have,” Wilkie added. “When you put it down on paper, again, if you list everything that’s important to you, and you realize that you didn’t list alcohol or your substance of choice.”
One reason Wilkie was drawn to SMART Recovery is because it doesn’t use or mention a higher power in its meetings or program.
“We focus on self-empowerment, helping people find the power within themselves to recover as opposed to surrendering to a higher power,” Greer said.
In 2017, a systematic review on SMART Recovery looked at literature and twelve studies on the program. It concluded that although positive effects were found, the modest sample and diversity of methods prevented conclusive remarks about SMART Recovery’s effectiveness as a viable recovery support option and further research was needed.
“We do know that it has staying power, and it’s expanding. So that is one kind of evidence that it works at least for some people,” said Founder and Director of the Recovery Research Institute of Massachusetts General Hospital, Dr. John Kelly. In 2019, SMART Recovery celebrated its 25th Anniversary and currently offers over 3,000 meetings in the United States.
Dr. Kelly was on the team that conducted the 2017 systematic review of SMART Recovery. Now, he is leading a rigorous five-year study funded by the National Institutes of Health. In part, the study will look at SMART Recovery’s effectiveness compared to 12-step programs.
“My guess would be…I put my money on the fact that SMART Recovery will be as effective as other groups like AA, NA, and other 12-step groups. That would be where I put my money,” Dr. Kelly told Spectrum News 1 during a Skype interview.
Dr. Kelly explained the basis for that reasoning is because of hundreds of rigorous studies on clinical treatments and interventions that all have shown roughly the same outcomes.
“It matters less about the specific content or technical aspects of what is done, but the most important thing is that in groups like SMART Recovery and 12-step, is that they do it over the long-term,” Dr. Kelly explained.
He added that it’s important when treating a chronic illness, which is susceptible to relapse like substance use disorder, to have ongoing support over the long-term.
“Not just for 30 days or 60 days or 90 days. Treatment does a good job at stabilization, and providing that initial support, and skills building, but it really just points people in a direction. And what's important when people go back to the communities in which they live, is that they have something that can support their recovery over the long-term,” Dr. Kelly said. “And groups like SMART Recovery are there around the corner form where people live.”
For Wilkie, SMART Recovery has already proven to help his recovery journey.
“I’m able to make choices that benefit me in recovery, but also people that have to live with me be happy,” Wilkie said. “Ultimately, it’s my life, and I am enjoying living in recovery now.”
SMART Meetings are free and offered in Lexington, Louisville, Northern Kentucky, and a few other places in the Commonwealth. You can search for a local meeting here. If you don’t live in those areas, there are also free online meetings. In addition, SMART Recovery also offers free meetings to help family and friends of someone struggling with addiction.