I’m rather sick today. Lungs full of gravel again. That’s twice now over the past few months… grrr. I didn’t get sick at all last year while I was all super unemployed and idle, but now that I have a (fake) job and (fake) responsibilities, it’s all WHOOO! VIRUS PARTY IN NATALIE’S MUCOSAE! BRING YR FRIENDZ!
So I’m afraid I’m going to just take it easy and initiate lazy weekend mode a day early.
Anyway, I’d like to revisit the theme of dealing with addiction from a secular standpoint, mostly to remind you all that I am totally keeping this as one of the recurring topics here, and didn’t suddenly change my mind and decide this blog will be exclusively about trans-feminism and ponies. So I just wanted to quickly assemble a little list of alternatives to 12-step for atheist and secular addicts in recovery.
But first I’d like to point out an interesting new blog I found yesterday via a pingback. Foster Disbelief. It’s written by another atheist who has recovered from heroin addiction. I have no idea at all why I find the existence of another ex-junkie atheist blogger so much more surprising than I did the existence of other transsexual atheist bloggers. Assessment of probability is one of the things human brains aren’t all that good with.
Percentage of people in North America who are transgender: <0.03%
Percentage of people in North America who have been heroin users at some point in their lives: 2% (ish)
But probability is a funny thing. You know that there are, in addition to myself, two other trans people who are regulars in the Vancouver skeptic scene? And, as far as I know, almost nobody who is openly gay or lesbian? In a mathematically perfect world that functioned only in accordance with the most salient variables, statistically there should be 150 or so gay/lesbian people for every 3 trans people! It makes things much more interesting, however, that we don’t live in a mathematically perfect world that functions only in accordance with the most salient variables. Makes for interesting questions. Like WHY the overlap between the trans community and the skeptic/atheist community? It is there.
Anyway, the blog I found by another former heroin addict is called Foster Disbelief. He does seem interested in delving into the drug war and related issues, which I think is great. There DEFINITELY needs to be more attention paid to this by the skeptic community, IMHO. For a very long time the scientific evidence has strongly favoured harm reduction approaches to drug policy, yet world governments have repeatedly gone for enforcement / deterrence approaches, which have been soundly proven ineffective. What we have here is a spectacular example of scientific evidence and consensus being undermined, suppressed and ignored in favour of the more “intuitive” approaches, “common sense”, bigotry (along associated lines of race, class, various socio-economic positions common to addicts, the stigma of addiction itself, sexuality, etc.), and good old fashioned politics. An intersection of the value of skepticism, science and knowledge and the pursuit of social justice if ever there was one. Yet we don’t seem to talk about it much.
I’d love to help remedy that silence.
When I’m feeling better! In the meantime, go ahead and check out Foster Disbelief!
Now, I think I had some kind of topic here…? oh yeah! Alternatives to 12 step!
At some point soon, I’d like to do a nice, thorough debunking of everything fucked up about 12 Step organizations like Alcholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Al-Anon, etc. But in the meantime, it’s probably enough to just know that they have a very strongly religious tilt, and most atheists and secularly-minded folk aren’t going to feel too comfortable with how they approach things. PLEASE don’t let them convince you that they’re the only option, or that they’re more effective than the alternatives. Those are lies, plain and simple. There definitely are alternatives.
-SMART (Self-Management And Recovery Training)
This was one I mentioned in my first post on this subject. I mentioned it first because of all the secular-oriented addiction recovery organizations, it’s the largest, and the one most likely to be operating in any given city where someone reading this may live.
SMART is modeled after cognitive behavioural therapy. Cognitive behavioural therapy is a very simple, pragmatic form of therapy, geared not so much towards dealing with underlying psychological issues or traumas but rather addressing the actual symptoms, thoughts and behaviours. Basically, the idea is that by changing your cognitive approaches to certain situations or triggers you can change your behavioural response, while also by gradually adapting how you behave in certain situations you can change your cognitive response. This approach is very well suited for addiction in that it addresses the sort of feedback loop of how addictive behaviour leads directly to reinforcement of the cognitive structures that create that behaviour, and works by breaking that loop and providing an opposing one.
In SMART you’re provided with literature that provides a number of cognitive and behavioural tools. Things like tips on avoiding your triggers, little cognitive processes to go through when experiencing cravings or addictive “need”, ways to develop coping strategies, relaxation techniques, advice on finding healthy replacement behaviours, and tips on things you can do to non-medically improve your mental health (like exercise, meditation, etc.). That kind of thing. It’s surprisingly useful.
SMART also usually provides support groups. These are structured mostly around discussing specific “tools” contained within the literature, rather than on sharing of experiences and the usual kind of support group stuff. More of a workshop, really.
Personally, I didn’t get too much out of the support groups, in that I felt very alienated from the other people attending them, like my own experiences and mentality didn’t relate very strongly, and also I felt… well, scared, to be honest. The other attendees were all men, all straight/cis, and all older than me. It was very intimidating, and I didn’t feel safe discussing anything about myself or what I was going through.
Dealing with addiction is hard. Dealing with addiction when you’re also dealing with another highly stigmatized, terrifying and emotionally draining personal issue is really fucking hard.
Needless to say, I found a great deal of value in the literature and tool SMART provides, and every individual, and every support group, are unique. Just because the actual group setting didn’t work for me (and my very specific situation and needs) doesn’t mean it won’t work for you.
A few other similarly secular addiction resources include:
Addiction Alternatives – A pretty cool, useful website covering a variety of “science based solutions” to addiction. Offers a wonderful overview of resources.
LifeRing Secular Recovery – Much more centrally structured around the support-group model than SMART, and a bit more similar to 12 Step in their overall approach, but nonetheless they’re specifically secular in nature.
Rational Recovery – This one is a bit woo-ish, seem to make some very grand, “too good to be true” statements, and set off a lot of my skeptic warning klaxons, but are probably worth mentioning anyway. They’re based around something called the “Addictive Voice Recognition Technique”, which is probably just a trumped up version of one of the basic skills offered in SMART and typical drug counseling: the ability to recognize when your thoughts aren’t really your own but rather just the addiction “talking”.
Secular Organizations For Sobriety (SOS) – A smaller network of group meetings. They maintain a 24 hour online chat meeting, though, which is kind of interesting.
Like SMART, finding a good therapist or counselor can provide a lot of benefit just in terms of developing coping strategies and new cognitive approaches to the problem. One-on-one drug counseling also has the benefit of being able to structure it around your specific, particular needs.
Any urban area of any significant size at all should have plenty of counselors and therapists who have specifically studied, specialize in, or have experience working with, addiction. Many will also have other areas of specialization, too, allowing you to seek out someone who can meet the intersection of specific needs rather than presenting a “one size fits all” answer like 12 step. For instance, a counselor who is trained in addiction may also be trained in LGBTQ issues, pain management, disability, concurrent mental health disorders or unemployment and poverty. ALL of those things have a tendency to overlap with addiction, and any good therapist / counselor will understand those intersections.
If money is a problem, it’s not uncommon for such practitioners to charge on a sliding scale, or even work for socialized programs that don’t charge at all.
One-on-one counseling can also be used alongside other methods, like support groups or medications, and can even be an excellent means of finding and pursuing the programs that work for you, and you’ll have the opportunity to specify your needs and requirements (for instance, that any programs or treatment you participate in be secular and evidence-based).
The one bit of advice I’d caution in finding a counselor or therapist is to do your research. Shop around a bit. Find out about a given practitioner before committing to an appointment… compare them against others. It’s important to find someone who’s a good fit for you, whom you’re able to trust and open up to, and with whom you’re able to work in a meaningful way. If, after a few sessions, you find that no real progress has been made and you’re not getting much out of it, it might be wise to ask for a referral elsewhere. Remember: you are their employer. Their job is to meet your needs, and you’re in charge of the relationship.
Addiction is a medical problem. It is not a moral failing, or a personal flaw, or a sin, or a spiritual emptiness, and it probably has nothing at all to do with that time your mom threw your stuffed porcupine in the lake. There are very literal chemical pathways and structures in your brain that have wired you to instinctively pursue the object of your addiction as though it were a physiological need. It is maladaption of the human body, like an auto-immune disorder.
It is not a failure or weakness to treat it from a medical perspective, or to pursue medical help.
In fact, having a doctor involved is an extremely wise choice in any recovery. There are significant medical risks associated with withdrawal from most addictive substances. At the very least, a doctor can ensure that you detox safely and aren’t risking your health. But beyond that, they can also help make that process a lot less uncomfortable.
There are lots of medications that can ease the unpleasant side effects, and health risks, of alcohol withdrawal. Nicotine patches, gum and inhalers, e-cigarettes and Champix can all drastically improve your chances in quitting smoking. Anti-depressants or anti-anxiety meds can help provide a regulated, controllable approach to managing whatever mental health issues may have led to self-medication through drugs.
And then there’s methadone. Methadone not only completely sidesteps the issue of opiate withdrawal (a very, very, VERY unpleasant thing to deal with), it also has the additional benefit of blocking the opiate receptors in the brain, making it effectively almost impossible to get high if you do “slip” and use again. It does a very good job. There’s also the new opiate-replacement drug suboxone which can provide similar effects.
There is an enormous difference between an addiction and a dependency. Many people have dependencies. Caffeine, anti-depressants, chocolate, marijuana, xanax, etc. It’s okay. There’s nothing at all wrong with that. Being human is tough, we don’t all have brains that work the same way, we don’t all function the same way, and sometimes we need things to help us get through life. You don’t point to a man with a broken leg and say “that’s just a crutch”!
Even an addiction doesn’t carry anything intrinsically horrible about it. Where the problem comes in is the consequences. How it effects your day-to-day life, and the people around you. That’s what matters, not what chemicals are or aren’t in your body. Chemicals don’t have ethical implications. Actions do. If a dependency allows you to live a functional and happy life, reduces or eliminates the harm of the addiction (to self and others), and returns you to agency over your actions, well… mission accomplished. That’s a win. And a dependency is far easier to negotiate escaping than is an addiction.
Finally, it’s often worth a shot to just ask around and see what’s going on in your area. Sometimes there are addiction groups set up as extentions of non-profits set up addressing other social issues. For instance, women’s health centres, gay and lesbian non-profits, or even trans health programs can run small addiction recovery groups. For a short while I was actually attending a group specifically for trans people dealing with addiction (it didn’t go very well for me, though, sadly… got a couple really funny stories out of it though, which I’ll tell some day).
Point being, there’s lots of people out there who have dealt with addiction and want to help others. There are all kinds of little groups going on all over the place, and not ALL of them are religious in nature. You never know… a little poking around could find you exactly the group of people you need to meet in order to make it through this.
Anyway, I hope this little post is helpful in some way. I’ll come back to this topic again soon, hopefully when I’m feeling a little better and can put a little more energy into it.
Sorry this hasn’t been my best week, guys.