Observing from Different Perspectives

Person ThinkingI’ve written before about the almost constant debates and arguments that take place around addictions. It’s not necessarily the discussions about the impacts or outcomes from addictions that frustrate me, most of us can understand the outcomes… and see the impacts on society and/or individuals. The problem here though is; most of our perceptions tend to be media informed, and mostly incorrect, but that’s another story. No, what rankles me is the (mostly academic) arguments about what ’caused’ the addiction.

That’s fine, in the correct forums, clearly we need to understand the ‘science’ behind the ‘problems’ so we’re better equipped to mitigate against them. However, many of those debates tend to spill over into the daily practicalities of addiction recovery support, often in a manner that can be immensely counterproductive. I would suggest that often, the ‘mechanics’ of how someone came to be impacted by addictions is superfluous and unimportant.

The individual struggling with recovery doesn’t need to be pigeonholed into the belief they have/had a disease or indeed, made poor lifestyle choices (see here). I get a little frustrated that, for all manner of (mainly self-centred or self-promotional) reasoning, too many people who should know better, continually perpetuate the angst (see here). Too much of the argument forgets the value of affording people access to differing recovery pathways.

In my experience, those who can and do make ‘informed’ choices about their own recovery, and are supported in making the choices that support their goals and aspirations, as opposed to being ‘pushed’ by their therapist or treatment service, tend to be more successful than some in realising long-term sustained recovery.

Seeing things differently…

Marc Lewis went to Boston to see some friends, and to sit in on a SMART Recovery meeting facilitated by Matt Robert, who has been a SMART facilitator for over six years. So what?

I spend a lot of time refuting, invalidating, quashing, debunking the disease model of addiction — as I’m sure you know. The question that confronts me now is how am I going about it? Do I really want to change the minds of people steeped in medical thinking, addicts who believe they’re ill, their families, their doctors? Or do I just want to win a debate?

So, I’m watching Matt facilitate a SMART meeting in Boston last night. SMART sometimes construes itself as “the alternative to AA” [particularly in America]. SMART offers psychological tools, such as focusing on one’s own thought patterns and beliefs, and the potential that offers for behaviour change, even by small increments. SMART lends itself to mindfulness practices, it neither shames nor exonerates those who’ve “relapsed.” It is inclusive, it does its best to avoid dogma. And it values honesty and fellowship — as does its sometimes querulous cousin, AA.

But what impressed me more than any of these qualities was the warmth and sensitivity that characterized last night’s meeting. Here were 9 or 10 very vulnerable people, all of whom were “in recovery.” At the start of the meeting they seemed shy and uncertain. Matt’s job was (in part) to encourage them to review and modify their smart thinking habits, to see their substance use more rationally, more comprehensively. But more than that, he was listening carefully to what people said and grasping what they were feeling: their fears, vulnerabilities, and their (often tattered) self-esteem.

The result was a spreading aura of self-acceptance, mutual acceptance, honesty, and empathy. By the end of the meeting, people were smiling and patting each other on the back or hugging and saying, “until next week.”

That’s how to change minds — and hearts. Not to pound them with the superiority of one’s logical arguments, grounded in evidence. Who really has evidence for their claims when it comes to the hard questions, like whether it’s best to define addiction as a disease or not?

I still see things the way I see them. (I still don’t want to call addiction a disease.) But maybe I can do a better job of seeing things the way other people see them. Wouldn’t that be valuable? Either in the case of intellectual argument (as in journal articles) or in sharing emotional concerns in the backseat of the car.


The above is an edited version of Getting SMART in Boston (19th November 2018) which was written by Marc Lewis PhD in the Understanding Addiction blog. The Author, Marc Lewis is a neuroscientist and recently retired full professor of developmental psychology, at the University of Toronto from 1989 to 2010, and at Radboud University in the Netherlands from 2010 to 2016. He is the author or co-author of more than 50 journal publications in psychology, cognitive science, and neuroscience, editor of an academic book on developmental psychology, and co-author of a book for parents. More recently he has written two books on the science and experience of addiction.

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