Urbana program offering secular alternative for addiction recovery

Urbana program offering secular alternative for addiction recovery

URBANA — Alcohol and opioid drug addictions ravaged decades of Phillip Eichelberger's adult life.

What helped him on the path to his longest recovery to date was learning to think and feel in a whole new way.

The 54-year-old Eichelberger said he has been sober for just over 16 months, and he's running a recovery group in Urbana to pass along the same program that helped him.

It's called SMART Recovery.

One of the secular alternatives to such well-known 12-step programs as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, the nonprofit SMART (Self-Management Addiction Recovery Training) Recovery has been around since the 1990s.

It fosters self-reliance for people with addictions, as opposed to encouraging faith in a higher power, which is part of the 12 steps of AA and NA.

There isn't a 12-step program in SMART Recovery. Nor are there sponsors to help maintain sobriety. The use of such labels as "alcoholic" and "addict" is discouraged. And while the program encourages attendance for months to years, it describes attendance as "probably not" for a lifetime.

The meetings are free and run by volunteers, most of whom are in recovery themselves.

Eichelberger said SMART Recovery helped him learn to accept himself unconditionally and to replace more destructive thoughts and feelings he once had with new ones.

"It freed me up to let myself accomplish things," he said.

Memories of 'the misery'

Eichelberger, who grew up in Urbana, said he started using drugs as a teenager.

Alcohol also began playing a starring role in his life during his service in the Army when he was stationed in Germany.

"Drinking was the order of the day," he recalled. "Drinking is what we did."

Nearly 20 years ago, he started taking the narcotic Vicodin and then branched out to other opioid drugs, with the exception of heroin, he said.

In the past couple decades, Eichelberger said he has worked on and off in the restaurant industry. He has also been periodically homeless during a back-and-forth cycle of recoveries and relapses.

Recoveries for him used to last up to a few months at a time, he said. After the first of the two times he underwent training to be a group facilitator for SMART Recovery in 2016, he was sober for 10 months — the longest period of sobriety he had ever achieved before his longest recovery to date, which he said began July 7, 2017.

He completed group facilitator training with SMART Recovery for a second time last year, he said, and he's eager to share what he has learned.

"I want to help people avoid the misery that I had to go through," he said.

'Not into powerlessness'

While he has his own spirituality, Eichelberger said the faith-based underpinning and concept of powerlessness in AA's 12 steps weren't for him.

AA's step one, for example, involves admitting powerlessness over alcohol and that life has become unmanageable. Step two is coming to believe that a power "greater than ourselves" can restore a life of sanity.

"We recognize that NA and AA and all these anonymous groups help a great number of people," Eichelberger said. "We just offer an alternative."

Dr. Joe Gerstein, an 82-year-old, semi-retired internal medicine physician and SMART Recovery's founding president, recalled the earlier years of his practice in which he would try to get patients with addiction problems into 12-step programs.

But there were those patients who either wouldn't go or wouldn't stick with it, he said.

He started the 13th of what has become nearly 3,000 SMART Recovery self-help groups worldwide, Gerstein said.

The program's concept evolved from psychologists largely trained in cognitive behavioral therapy, according to Gerstein. That's a treatment that aims to manage a wide range of problems by focusing on the link shared by thoughts, feelings and behaviors.

Gerstein described SMART Recovery as a science-based program with tools to help with its four points — building and maintaining motivation; coping with urges; managing thoughts, feelings and behaviors; and living a balanced life.

"We're not into powerlessness," he said. "We call it a self-empowerment program. We say, the good news is it's up to you. The bad news is it's up to you."

'Different strokes'

SMART Recovery is an abstinence-oriented program, though, Gerstein said, it doesn't try to tell people what to do — something he said science has shown to be counter-productive.

Nobody is shamed for relapsing. People who come to meetings off-the-wagon are still welcome to be there — though they must be clear-headed enough to participate in discussions, Gerstein said.

"We want to help people clarify their thinking, so they can make better decisions for themselves," he said.

One thing to note, for those on medications for addictions or mental health conditions, is that SMART Recovery doesn't have an issue with that — when the medications are prescribed and appropriately used, Gerstein said.

This program also emphasizes there are many paths to recovery.

"The important thing is giving people a choice, Gerstein said. "Different strokes for different folks."

Some atheists go to AA and get better, he said. And according to a survey done by SMART Recovery, about 30 percent of people who consider SMART their primary recovery group also go to AA meetings, he said.

But in general, people with an empirical outlook would fare better in SMART Recovery, he said, and people with a religious outlook would do better in AA.

Or, as Eichelberger puts it: "We're not opposed to faith. We just don't do it in our meetings. If spirituality is helpful to you, use that."

Meetings in Urbana

Eichelberger is conducting weekly SMART Recovery meetings at his church, Unitarian Universalist Church of Urbana-Champaign at 309 W. Green St., U, each Wednesday from 6 to 7:30 p.m.

The church is supplying the meeting space free, and anyone interested in learning more and/or joining the group can simply come to a meeting, he said.

The church's minister, the Rev. Florence Caplow, said the church was already hosting an agnostic AA group and considered SMART a potential option for some people with addictions who might not otherwise seek a recovery program.

"When Phillip brought this to us, one of the things I was struck by was he already had connections into the veterans community and even people in the street community," she said.

SMART Recovery also offers a program for friends and family members of people with addictions and one for prison inmates. There are about 250 prisons in the United States and other countries using the program, Gerstein said.

Prepare now to cope with holiday temptations

Temptations and opportunities to drink abound in the holiday season. In fact, a 2014 study concluded drinking peaks on Christmas and New Year's Eve. For those trying to remain abstinent, here are five tips from SMART Recovery to begin preparing right now:

1. Be aware of what feelings, situations and physical conditions trigger the urge to drink.

2. Do some brainstorming about how you can handle each of your triggers.

3. Track your urges to drink to increase your understanding of them.

4. Deal with your urges. Some strategies include distractions, refusing the offer of a drink in a firm voice and with eye contact and avoiding triggers completely. Don't, for example, drive by your favorite bar.

5. Create an action plan and have a support system in place. You can tell family and friends you're taking a break from drinking this holiday season and would appreciate their support.

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