SMART Recovery bolsters those who often feel powerless, says local outreach counselor

I work at a homeless drop-in center in Pittsburgh’s Uptown neighborhood. I spend my days interacting with people who embody our society’s suffering and trying to think of new ways to help them through this suffering. Acute mental illness, severe addiction issues and debilitating physical ailments are everyday realities for a homeless person.

I find that the clinical psychology cliché of “not carrying the full weight of others” is supremely tested. As an empathetic human being, it’s hard not to try and share the burden when faced with such suffering. Having been in the homeless outreach field for almost a year now, I understand that even if I were able to carry that weight, it would do no good.

After my day job, I attend classes working towards my Masters in Clinical-Community Psychology. The focus of my thesis research is alternative theories and treatments for addiction. This area of study intrigued me because of my own experiences: for the best part of twelve years, I suffered with addiction and mental health issues. In the end, I recognized that my best chance for exiting that existence was to fully accept that I was not a permanently disabled being who was fundamentally different from the rest of humanity. Rather, that I am human, full of flaws and strengths, and so are all the people that I work with.

I believe that being human entails both a conscious awareness of the external world and the acceptance and understanding of a self which is separate from that world. Our conscious existence within the world helps to shape and mold our surroundings. And our selves make us capable of creativity and expression.  Within each self is the internal capability for maintenance and repair. To hope that an external force alone can mend or rehabilitate this inner self is folly. A self can–and must–manage its own self.

This is why I am now a meeting facilitator for SMART Recovery. SMART stands for Self-Management and Recovery Training. Those first two words stand in stark contrast to Twelve Step philosophy. “Unmanageability” becomes management. A “power greater than ourselves” becomes ourselves.

Feelings of worthlessness and powerlessness go hand-in-hand with living on the streets.

SMART is built as a support group that helps teach people who are suffering how to take care of and “fix” themselves. It uses evidence-based techniques, such as Rational-Emotive Behavioral Therapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, Motivational Interviewing, Values Therapy, Solution-Focused Brief Therapy, and is currently incorporating Mindfulness approaches. These techniques are not overseen by a therapist or other authority within SMART Recovery; they are offered as tools that any suffering person can use in his or her everyday existence.

In this way, SMART builds on the creativity inherent within each person. SMART believes first in the person and then in the treatment. In contrast, paradigms where the strengths of the treatment are more important than the strengths of the person (e.g., “It works if you work it”) can work against a vital aspect of the self: self-worth.

In our society, we’re often guided by consumerism when evaluating our own worth or that of others. What type of “stuff” do you have? What kind of titles and degrees? How expensive does your appearance seem, even if it is not very costly at all? Feelings of worthlessness and powerlessness go hand-in-hand with living on the streets. I feel that walking into a homeless community and announcing that these feelings are an inherent part of their being does a disservice…even if it were true! People with nothing left to lose need to be told about their abilities and strengths, not their faults and weaknesses.

SMART may not be perfect for everyone… But it expands the range of choices for consumers of all walks of life.

Some people believe that the homeless are fundamentally incapable of helping themselves. At times, this belief manifests itself as antipathy. The emotional effect of seeing their suffering turns into anger directed towards the sufferer. In other cases, it manifests as “carrying the weight,” i.e., when we do for others what they can do themselves. Carrying the weight only reinforces the idea that the homeless community is powerless and inherently broken. But when we understand the person as a capable individual while holding onto our sense of empathy, we can foster Self-Management.

SMART may not be perfect for everyone, as no singular approach is. But it expands the range of choices for consumers of all walks of life. It also expands the options and theories available to providers. I can attest to the fact that our addiction treatments and policies, as they are currently constructed, need a breath of new life. We providers  seem to fall into a holding pattern of doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Of course, that is the definition of insanity.

Kevin Gallagher is a homeless outreach counselor and graduate student in Clinical-Community Psychology at Point Park University. He runs an open meeting of SMART Recovery every Wednesday at the Wellspring Drop-In Center in Uptown Pittsburgh. Wellspring Drop-In Center is part of Mercy Community Health, Pittsburgh Mercy Health System, and CHE Trinity Health, serving in the tradition of the Sisters of Mercy. Local SMART Recovery meetings are listed online here:

Recommended Resources

Styles of Secular Recovery (2005), William White

The Alcohol Concern SMART Recovery Pilot Project Final Evaluation Report (2010)

How Smart is SMART Recovery? (2012), by Joe Schrank on The Fix

[VIDEO] Cardboard Stories (2014), by Rethink Homelessness