One of the greatest pleasures in life is to be able to help those we care about, even if it’s a stranger on the street or a stray cat. And conversely, one of the greatest torments is to be unable to help those we care about—we may lack the knowledge, talent, money, or opportunity to step in. It’s an experience common to all.
Many years ago, after I retired and moved to Daytona Beach, Florida, I was very happy to enjoy the sun, sand, and leisure and to travel a bit. But I soon discovered that Daytona Beach—with its auto races, bike weeks, and spring breaks—was a party town, and “party” was defined as getting drunk or high or both. I was also amazed to find that even many of the locals (not just the tourists) believed that the point of life was to party.
Of course, there is a downside to hedonism, and many of these people were in serious trouble—they had lost jobs and families, had been convicted of DUIs and served jail time, and had health problems and suffered emotional vacuums. So to find some purpose for myself, I began working with people with addiction problems.
A few years later, in 1995, local activists Jim Strayer and Mimi Cerniglia and I attended a secular humanist group monthly lunch meeting in Winter Park, Florida. The group was affiliated with the Council for Secular Humanism and led by André Spuhler. We were told about a humanist meeting to be held at Rollins College in Winter Park and decided to go. One of the presentations was about Rational Recovery (RR), and for the first time we realized there was an alternative to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and the other twelve-step religious recovery programs. We were determined to ensure that our community was offered a secular alternative for addiction recovery from alcohol and other drugs.
After that meeting, we established Rational Recovery of Daytona Beach. Our work immediately gained credibility by being associated with an international organization. Later, when the founder of Rational Recovery, Jack Trimpey, decided to eliminate RR groups, we changed our affiliation to SOS (Secular Organizations for Sobriety/Save Our Selves), which was founded by James Christopher and is affiliated with the Council for Secular Humanism. Now, seventeen years later, we still meet weekly—currently at the City Island Library in downtown Daytona Beach.
SOS is a nonprofit network of autonomous, nonprofessional local groups dedicated solely to helping individuals achieve and maintain sobriety. SOS is not a spin-off of any religious group; there is no hidden “higher power” agenda. We are concerned with sobriety, not religiosity.
Most of the “experts” on addiction believe that the most important factor for recovery is motivation. Does the person want to overcome the compulsion? “Want” comes from the emotional part of the brain, not the intellect, and is very powerful. Statistically, most who overcome an addiction are approaching middle age, and although the addictive behavior was fun and exciting in the beginning, it now causes serious problems and pain, and they want to quit. We try to remember that it’s impossible to change someone’s mind—only he or she can do that. The most we can do is to offer some verifiable facts and hope to encourage an “Aha!” moment.
In 2003, we began weekly meetings at the Volusia County Correctional Facility (VCCF), and the results have been phenomenal. Our classroom has only twenty-five chairs, and from the beginning we’ve had to turn people away for lack of space. Unlike other recovery groups where most people are forced to attend (by judges, probation officers, employers, spouses, etc.), all those taking part in our SOS meetings are there by choice.
In both SOS and Rational Recovery, the groups are independent. Program presentation can vary significantly from group to group. The addiction program we present is unique in many respects. It covers all addictive behaviors and is not restricted to just alcohol or drugs. It is not based on old books or “sure-cure” formulas but rather on the latest scientific information. The materials we bring to the jail each week consist of numerous books and periodicals and seven folios of current reports and articles relating to different aspects of addiction, from cigarettes and alcohol to cannabis, meth, and prescription pills. Other resources range from Albert Ellis and his rational-emotive psychology to Ronald A. Ruden, whose 2000 book The Craving Brain details the results of his research with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
DVDs are shown (in part) at meetings. They include Hidden Motives from Scientific American; SOS–Save Our Selves by SOS founder James Christopher; Brains, Rewards and Addiction from the University of California at San Diego; Addiction, a four-hour HBO documentary; a four-hour documentary from A&E, Hooked—Illegal Drugs and How They Got That Way; the Nova episode “Search for a Safe Cigarette”; the ABC News feature “The War on Drugs,” and more.
We begin each session by stating that SOS presenters do not claim to be experts on any subject—especially addiction. Those who write the books and articles we recommend claim to be experts but still should be read skeptically. At each meeting we present a short overview of SOS for the benefit of those who have not attended before. We also tailor the meetings to the needs of those who attend, which currently seem to center on prescription medications, meth, and pot.
We never tell anyone to quit any substance, but if they have reached the point where they wish to overcome an addiction, we offer some suggestions that may be helpful. We stress the biology of addiction and the fact that each individual is unique genetically and in the experiences that he or she has had. Therefore, every individual must craft a unique solution. If one solution fails, he or she is encouraged to try another.
VCCF is a valuable venue for us. Outside of penal settings, many SOS attendees are still using and fear the discomfort of discontinuing their drug of choice. At VCCF all attendees are drug-free and not currently addicted. For them the challenge is to remain that way after release. This takes planning and commitment; we hope they can gain some of the skills they will need while participating in our SOS meetings.
SOS is about achieving and maintaining sobriety through personal responsibility and self-reliance. Those of us who present the SOS program are not experts: we simply attempt to deliver facts about addiction and let the members arrive at their own conclusions. We try to avoid discussing any of our personal views, and we encourage healthy skepticism. We can’t take responsibility for the recovery of others, but SOS is a very satisfying endeavor for me because we give people the facts and help them recognize that only they can craft a meaningful plan and carry it out.
For more information on SOS, please visit www.sossobriety.org. —Eds.