This phenomenon caught me by surprise. My original awareness of it occurred over 10 years ago. I conducted an initial session with a client who had never sought help for addiction. As part of his homework I encouraged him to attend a SMART Recovery and an AA meeting. “Let me know which one you prefer, or perhaps neither.”
At the next session he reported that he didn’t experience any significant differences between the groups! I put an exclamation point at the end of that sentence because I was stunned. “They both want to help people overcome addiction, right?” Of course I agreed with him. However, after nearly two decades of effort helping to establish the legitimacy of a self-empowering approach to recovery, it was hard to believe what he said. Nevertheless, I believe he was sincerely reporting his experience.
AA has a powerlessness approach to recovery (as clearly stated in steps 1, 2 and 3). If you have never read these steps it is remarkable how clear they are:
- We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.
- Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
- Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
In a self-empowering approach the participant also does not have sufficient willpower and other capacities to recover, at first. However, we assume that over time these abilities can be sufficiently developed (and that they are never entirely absent). The goal is not continued reliance on a sponsor, group and higher power, but self-reliance after sufficient training and development.
How could someone attend a powerlessness based approach, and a self-empowering approach, and not find them radically different? I do not yet have a good answer to this question, but I’m reporting what I have learned in the years since I first experienced what I am terming “dual citizenship.”
1. A significant number of SMART Recovery participants also attend AA or other 12-step meetings.
2. Typically these dual citizens report that “I attend AA for the fellowship and community, and SMART Recovery for the tools.” These individuals, I suspect, would not attend AA if SMART Recovery were as large and had the same depth of community.
3. In the last year I have also identified individuals who seem equally committed to both organizations and both approaches. I have no reason to doubt their loyalty to either approach. Even if SMART Recovery were as large they would still attend 12-step meetings. These individuals are the true dual citizens.
4. In the last year also, at least in the SMART Recovery meetings that I facilitate or attend (to mentor a new facilitator), there is a greater acceptance of the 12-step approach. At least in SMART Recovery San Diego, the intense anger at the 12-step approach that is sometimes expressed by participants (and quickly re-directed by a competent facilitator) seems to be diminishing. I suspect this anger reduction occurs in part because there are so many dual citizens in SMART Recovery meetings now.
These observations about dual citizens are consistent with a principle we have endorsed from the beginning of SMART Recovery, that there are as many pathways to recovery as there are individuals. Faces and Voices of Recovery, the leading recovery advocacy organization, agrees. It’s Recovery Bill of Rights states this perspective twice!
I intend to keep investigating this phenomenon of dual citizenship. We need to acknowledge all approaches to recovery. Rather than focusing on what someone thinks cannot work (as I once would have said of dual citizenship), we need to support what might work. Even if dual citizenship turns out not to be helpful to someone ultimately, it may be helpful for a time, and part of a process of discovering what works long-term.
I do not withdraw the relevant concerns I have stated in other places. Why do 12-step organizations permit bashing of other approaches in their meetings? When the “group conscience” of a specific meeting does not recognize that it is behaving inconsistently with the principles of the larger organization, it is time for higher authority to step in. Why do some individuals continue to suggest that “12-step is the only thing that works?” Why does the federal government so insistently state that “addiction is a brain disease” when that perspective for many may be harmful? Openness to individual pathways to recovery needs to be present in everyone.
As to that original client, he quickly moved on. He seemed to “get recovery” quickly and have no further need for individual sessions or mutual help groups. Just another approach to recovery.