May 27, 2020

A SMART option

By Dylan Barmmer

It was a gala affair, held in an historic location.

At the end of September, a conference unfolded in Washington, D.C. at the headquarters of National Geographic. The conference included a message from President Barack Obama, delivered in person by U.S. “Drug Czar” Michael Botticelli, and was held to coincide with the 25th annual National Recovery Month.

The overarching purpose of the conference? To celebrate the 20th anniversary of another vital entity in America’s burgeoning and ever-shifting addiction recovery landscape:

SMART Recovery.

What is SMART Recovery?

Though not nearly as well known or established as the deeply ingrained 12-step movement, SMART Recovery has managed to gradually build a strong foundation across America (and more recently, internationally) over its first two decades of existence and expansion.

Today, there are more than 1,300 SMART Recovery meetings held all across the world – including a variety of daily virtual meetings held online

But just what is SMART Recovery?

SMART Recovery promotes itself as an international non-profit organization that provides science-based, self-empowering and entirely free mutual help groups for abstaining from any addiction – be it a substance, such as alcohol; or a behavior, such as gambling.

In contrast to the 12-step recovery modality, SMART Recovery does not view addiction as anything like a “disease” – incurable or otherwise.

Instead, it takes a much more cognitive-behavioral view on addiction and addictive behavior, labeling it as a “maladaptive coping mechanism” and espousing that people are not anything like “powerless” – but on the contrary, entirely capable of empowering themselves to achieve changes in their lives and the behaviors that influence their identities. There is a strong emphasis on monitoring word choice and thinking patterns within SMART Recovery, and most participants don’t refer to themselves as “alcoholics” or “addicts” – although they are free to consider themselves as having a disease if they so choose.

“Participants in SMART are free to think about addiction and recovery in the terms that make most sense to them,” said A. Thomas Horvath, Ph.D., the San Diego, California-based psychologist who has long served as the volunteer president of SMART Recovery. “Most do not use terms typically associated with 12-step groups, such as ‘disease,’ ‘addict,’ ‘alcoholic,’ ‘powerlessness,’ ‘alcoholism,’ ‘higher power’…”

In fact, the program’s name reflects this self-directed, mindful and empowering approach to addiction recovery. The acronym SMART stands for Self-Management And Recovery Training, and its official slogan is “Discover the Power of Choice.” SMART has also established and currently shares a philosophy on recovery that is efficiently and effectively expressed by what it calls its 4-Point Program®:

1.     Building and maintaining motivation

2.     Coping with urges

3.     Managing thoughts, feelings and behaviors

4.     Living a balanced life

Just like 12-step group members and participants, SMART Recovery meeting attendees and program participants hail from all walks of life and encompass a wide range of backgrounds. Unlike 12-step group participants, however, they are not told that they have a “disease” or are “powerless” against the allure and effect of alcohol or drugs. Also unlike 12-step meetings, participants are allowed and encouraged to engage in “cross talk” at SMART Recovery meetings, which are all overseen by trained volunteer facilitators.

A different approach

This focus on a balanced, empowering and personalized approach to recovery resonates with many people who discover SMART Recovery.

“What I like about SMART is that the focus is on self-empowerment, not powerlessness,” said a New York City-based IT professional who has maintained more than a year of abstinence from alcohol with the help of SMART Recovery, and wished to remain anonymous for this story. “It’s about self-reflection and realizing you have the power within you – the will to choose and to make your own decisions and have control over your own behavior.

“Also, labels such as ‘alcoholic’ aren’t used. For me, it’s about making the decision to not drink, rather than blindly accepting that I ‘can’t drink’ because I’m an ‘alcoholic’ who is ‘powerless’ to alcohol. I have the power to choose not to drink. Working in a group setting through some of the SMART tools such as the ‘cost/benefit analysis’ or the ‘language replacement’ exercise is really valuable for me to maintain perspective on my abstinence. SMART helps me identify the reasons and underlying root causes for the choices I’ve made in the past compared to the choices I make now.”

Those helpful “tools” are grounded in the principles of cognitive-behavioral therapy (especially the work of Dr. Albert Ellis), and are a strong component of the SMART Recovery approach. These tools are designed to fit under one or more of the above-outlined 4 Points. For many people, the points themselves provide the overview of the lifestyle change that is needed, and further details about how to accomplish these changes can be provided by the individual.

These tools can all be found on the SMART website, and are often utilized and explored during SMART meetings. In addition to the Cost/Benefit Analysis (commonly known as CBA), SMART tools include Stages of Change, Change Plan Worksheet, DISARM (Destructive Images and Self-Talk Awareness and Refusal Message) and ABC (which stands for Activating Event, Belief, Consequence). Of those tools, the CBA and ABC tend to be the most popular among SMART members and volunteer facilitators, according to Horvath.

Humble beginnings

SMART Recovery has come a long way since its origins 20 years ago. Before there was anything like a 4-Point Program, an official tagline or a carefully crafted set of tools and interactive website, there was the early edition of SMART, then known as Rational Recovery Self-Help Network.

Rational Recovery Self-Help Network served as the non-profit affiliated with Rational Recovery (also known as RR), another recovery alternative to the 12-Step modality. When that affiliation ended in 1994, individual groups chose which organization they wanted to belong to. SMART Recovery was incorporated in 1994, and by 1995, there were around 90 different SMART meetings being held across the country. In 2000, Rational Recovery stopped offering mutual help groups altogether, and there were 319 SMART meetings in place across America.

There have been many developments, advancements and growth spurts for SMART Recovery since the beginning of the 21st century, including expansion of the website, key financial donations and publication of promotional and educational materials in many different languages. This international expansion may be the most notable development, as SMART meetings are now held in many corners of the world.  

Throughout its history, science-minded SMART Recovery has enjoyed an ongoing relationship with scientific researchers, resulting in increasing amounts of published evidence about the organization. Outside organizations have also supported SMART Recovery, lending both recognition and funding. 

Internally, facilitators for SMART meetings have been trained with increasing discipline and rigor. Various online activities have been fully incorporated into SMART Recovery (in addition to online meetings, there is an online message board and a 24/7 chat room) as the online community has continued to rapidly emerge and expand.

More on the horizon…

As the recovery community continues to evolve, expand and embrace alternate treatment modalities, methods and organizations, the stage is set for even more SMART success in the decades to come.

Horvath is certainly bullish on the future of SMART Recovery. And if anyone possesses insight into the program’s past, present and future, it’s the man known more affectionately as “Tom” to the many people whose lives he has enriched over the years.

“The SMART approach is the intersection of what is science-based, what is self-empowering and what works in a mutual help group,” said Horvath. “SMART is perhaps the only mutual help organization that is explicitly a partnership between peers in recovery and professionals.”

A pioneer in helping formulate and establish an alternative to the traditional 12-Step modality in addiction treatment, Horvath also serves as the founder and owner of Practical Recovery, a five-facility, self-empowering addiction treatment system based in San Diego.His book “Sex, Drugs, Gambling & Chocolate: A Workbook for Overcoming Addictions” has also been cited as a “Self-Help Book of Merit” by the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies.

Horvath believes strongly in “the power of choice” when it comes to successful and personal recovery, and one of his favorite sayings is “there is no ‘right way’ to recover from addiction.”

In Horvath’s opinion, this personalized and empowered approach is the wave of the future when it comes to the recovery community. And SMART Recovery is perfectly poised to move even further to the forefront of recovery programs and cultures as a result.

“There are multiple ways to experience any well-developed approach to addiction recovery,” said Horvath. “As the number of individuals who believe that ‘AA is the only way’ continues to diminish, the actual number of SMART meetings will be less important than having access to them and being informed they exist.

“And just as there is no ‘right way’ to recover from addiction, there is no ‘right way’ to do SMART Recovery. There is variability of recovery in SMART, along with a richness of experience.”


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