Shari Allwood has been Executive Director of SMART Recovery for over 23 years, and recently announced that she will be leaving the organization in February 2018. We are honored to have her as our first-ever Voices From the Field interview as she reflects on her time at SMART.

SMART Recovery is a global community of mutual support groups that use science and self-empowerment to help people overcome substance use disorders. Led by volunteer facilitators, more than 2,600 groups meet weekly in 24 countries, including over 1,500 in the U.S. alone.

SMART stands for Self-Management and Recovery Training. It uses principles and tools from disciplines with proven effectiveness in treating problematic addictive behavior, such as Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy and Motivational Interviewing.

Can you tell us about some of the highlights of your tenure at SMART Recovery? What has been the greatest challenge, and what has rendered the greatest reward?

So many highlights and so many challenges! When I first joined SMART Recovery, I was employed full-time and was assisting SMART on evenings and weekends. At the time, we averaged 8-10 letters or calls per week. We now receive that many emails, calls, and letters every hour – a major challenge for our staff of five and a half to keep up with!

On top of these communications, our active message boards average of over 7,250 posts each month or about 240 a day, ably answered by a cadre of online volunteers, who also facilitate daily online meetings and oversee our 24/7 chat room.

As you might imagine, that level of growth has often required creative ways to maintain and continue to offer our meetings and other products and services within a limited budget. We’ve managed, but this has required lots of flexibility and daily prioritizing.

As far as the greatest reward, that has remained the same over all 23+ years of service: witnessing recovered – in some cases, saved – lives each and every day. That’s an amazing benefit and bonus of having been involved with SMART Recovery.

What has changed the most in the years you have served SMART?

So much has changed, but I’d likely focus on acceptance of our program. Because AA had a half-century head start and was well established in the treatment industry, initially it was truly a struggle to get people to understand or see a need for any other mutual-support meeting. There has been a major change in the recovery landscape in that regard. More and more government agencies and organizations are recognizing the value in multiple pathways to recovery (including a now annual conference on Multiple Pathways to Recovery in which SMART participates). We have a ways to go before SMART Recovery is a household name, but we have gained extraordinary ground with acceptance and referrals from treatment professionals and government agencies.

Because of this, we have grown from fewer than 50 U.S. meetings in 1994 to the SMART program and tools now being accepted and implemented around the world. We have offices in Australia and the UK, and the program is growing extensively in Canada, Denmark, and the Republic of Ireland. It genuinely amazes me when I pause to think about that – from a little office in Mentor, Ohio, to providing recovery mutual support to individuals and families throughout the world’s six major continents.

What does SMART Recovery offer that makes it different from other mutual help groups? What kind of person is a good fit for SMART?

SMART offers self-empowerment, helping people find the power within themselves to change. In addition, our 4-Point Program® covers the essential steps people must take to recover: get motivated; learn to cope with urges; manage thoughts, feelings and behavior effectively; and lead a balanced life. This is reflected in the SMART mission statement, which we updated in developing a new five-year strategic plan last year:

“SMART’s mission is to empower people to achieve independence from addiction problems with our science-based 4-Point Program.”

I should add that SMART appreciates all pathways to recovery – 12-step, Women for Sobriety, LifeRing, etc. It’s highly important that people are aware of their recovery options and are free to choose the program or combination of programs that are most helpful to them.

For instance, SMART emphasizes self-empowerment while others suggest people rely on a higher power. Addiction research and experience have established that mutual support works best when the program matches an individual’s life orientation. People who value self-empowerment may find it difficult to turn their life or recovery over to a higher power and benefit most from SMART. (This does not mean that SMART is anti-religion; when it comes to SMART’s Point 4, participants may find spirituality part of a fulfilling, addiction-free life.)

Psychologists make the distinction between people who have internal or external locus of control. Those with an internal locus – believing they can influence events and their outcomes – often latch onto the SMART Recovery program. People with an external locus of control often seek outside forces for assistance and might benefit more from a 12-step or other faith-based program.

Interestingly, we do find that those who participate in SMART Recovery also attend meetings based on other programs, including AA, WFS and LifeRing. They derive different benefits from each.

SMART has sometimes been called “the David to AA’s Goliath.” Is this metaphor still fitting?

That might have seemed the case years ago, but SMART is fast becoming a mainstream recovery resource that is widely used and recognized by professionals. The fact is we are not competing with 12-step programs.

This metaphor might apply in an altogether different way with Goliath being the addiction and overdose epidemic that is taking so many lives – more than 60,000 a year from drug overdoses and another 90,000 from alcohol use disorders. Many of these people can be saved, but still a very small percentage of people with substance use disorders are receiving any treatment or recovery support at all – only 1 in 10, according to the Surgeon General’s 2016 report Facing Addiction.

The number of SMART meetings has more than tripled over the past five years because we have an extremely serious addiction problem and millions of people need help. We need more treatment and recovery support programs of all kinds to address this healthcare crisis.

SMART’s greatest challenges today include keeping up with the demand for new meetings, getting enough facilitators trained, finding affordable meeting space and providing handbooks for people who can’t afford them. We need more staff in our headquarters office and resources in the field to support our meeting growth.

While I wish we would all go out of business and there wouldn’t be a need for mutual-support meetings, I’m afraid that’s not likely to happen in my lifetime; and until then, more access to more programs is critical to those suffering from addictions.

SMART has a separate handbook for teens as well as a network of groups focused on the needs of loved ones of substance-addicted people. What led to the development of these unique programs?

A day hasn’t gone by when we haven’t received calls or emails from family members desperately seeking help for a loved one. The calls are heartbreaking. Over time, it became clear that the program known as CRAFT (Community Reinforcement Approach and Family Training) and the SMART Recovery program and tools would be a great benefit to those trying to maintain sanity and be helpful to their struggling loved ones. Our Family & Friends program focuses on the family member setting healthy boundaries, effective communication methods, and so much more. We have three weekly F&F online meetings and a growing number of community meetings. Again, watching people learn how to help themselves while dealing with a loved one with an addiction has been so rewarding.

The same program and tools used in SMART Recovery meetings apply to teens, but we created a separate Handbook (more graphics, fewer words) to have more appeal to teens. I’ll never forget many years ago meeting with a teacher and a dozen students aged 14-16 during their Friday lunch break. Each had experienced arrest/legal issues. Each had been mandated to 12-step programs, and the kids weren’t finding it a comfortable fit. They loved the idea of self-empowerment, the fact they wouldn’t have to refer to themselves as druggies, addicts or alcoholics; and they liked the idea that they can implement the program and tools and move on in life (no lifelong meetings). All these features made SMART incredibly appealing to them. We have a growing number of teen meetings and provide a google group for our teen facilitators to share specific challenges that face teens.

What do you see for the future of the organization?

I anticipate continued worldwide growth, which is fabulous as well as challenging. SMART Recovery is in the midst of creating a new SMART Recovery International organization, which will soon relieve some of the pressure of supporting the growth of the organization worldwide and allow us to focus on growing SMART Recovery in the US.

Knowledge about the program will continue to expand, treatment professionals will continue to refer clients, and I genuinely see many good things on the horizon for SMART as we continue to serve those in need.

What would you say to someone thinking of attending their first SMART Recovery meeting?

Even if you’re just beginning to consider whether to stop drinking, drugging or other destructive behavior, do please stop by a meeting. You’ll be welcomed and encouraged by interacting with others and seeing the positive impact SMART Recovery has had to help them overcome the hold addiction had on their lives. There’s tons of research on the benefits of mutual support, and SMART exists to help you and others overcome addictions, so join in!

Thank you for the opportunity to share a bit about my time with SMART Recovery. I feel immensely fortunate to have been able to be a part of this amazing organization.