Michael Walsh was 10 when he had his first taste of alcohol. By 12, the Nanaimo native was smoking marijuana, and at 16 he tried cocaine. He describes himself as being in “full-fledged party mode” at 19, drinking heavily and doing coke. He spent the next decade-and-a-half addicted to booze and drugs.
“I would spiral out of control,” Walsh tells the Georgia Straight on the line from Victoria, where he now lives. “I’d lose jobs, lose relationships, and drain my bank account.”
It wasn’t until he was 35 that he made his first attempt at being sober. For several years, he’d be clean for a few months only to relapse again and again, bouncing around from detox centres to counselling sessions to treatment facilities.
Walsh has been sober for more than seven years. He credits LifeRing, a relatively new recovery group, for helping him stay that way. Distinguishing itself from other alcohol and drug-addiction support groups by its secularity, LifeRing was started in Oakland, California, in 1997 by Marty Nicolaus. Walsh, a LifeRing volunteer, is helping to bring it to Vancouver, a city that he says desperately needs it.
What appealed to Walsh about LifeRing, and what he says makes it so vital in today’s society, is that it’s a secular program.
“It’s separated from religion,” Walsh says. “We’re open to any faith and none: we don’t talk about it.”
Almost half of those who attend LifeRing groups say they attend church, but “they prefer to do that separately,” Walsh notes. Religion isn’t discussed—pro or con—and participants don’t pray. Eliminating any reference to a higher power from the group’s mission, philosophy, and meetings removes a significant barrier for many.
“When they see the word God, a lot of people are out of there,” Walsh says. “They don’t bother coming back.”
Two other features define LifeRing: sobriety and self-help. The group welcomes those wanting to overcome an addiction, regardless of their drug of choice. It could be alcohol; it could be cocaine. The goal is abstinence.
Self-help, meanwhile, entails people taking responsibility for their own recovery and devising a program that aligns with their beliefs, needs, and likes. There are no particular steps involved other than committing to complete abstinence.
“We encourage people to build a personal recovery plan, whether that means going for counselling, doing yoga, meditation, art, music, hobbies,” Walsh says. “The emphasis is focusing on the positive of each individual, their strengths”¦.We encourage people to work on other aspects of their life while being in recovery: school, work, personal relationships, hobbies, whatever.”
A typical meeting is a small, relaxed gathering during which participants each answer this question: how was your week? This gives people a chance to talk about setbacks, successes, lessons, triggers, feelings, and goals. Currently, Vancouver meetings (which are free) are held Saturdays at 4 p.m. at Daytox (377 East 2nd Avenue) and Tuesdays at 4:30 p.m. at North Addiction Services Grandview-Woodland (1669 East Broadway). (LifeRing is not associated with Vancouver Coastal Health.)
The only ground rules are that people must be sober to attend and have a desire to stay sober. People are to avoid sharing “war stories”, giving unsolicited advice, talking politics or religion, or speaking negatively of other recovery approaches. The atmosphere is intended to be like a group of friends gathered in a living room, with laughter and respect being cornerstones.
As with other support groups, being around people who’ve been through addiction and overcome it provides a tremendous source of inspiration for those just starting out.
“People see that they can turn their life around, that they can turn such a negative world into something so positive,” Walsh explains. “People converse respectfully. It’s very interactive.”
Marvin Krank, a UBC Okanagan professor of psychology, says that support groups can be extremely useful in assisting people to make positive lifestyle changes. They can also help bring about the three fundamental components involved in overcoming addiction.
The first, Krank says on the line from his office, is motivation to change. The second is developing a new skill set.
“To live drug-free, people need alternative coping strategies to deal with anger, hurt, neglect, whatever past harms they may be dealing with,” he explains. “Many people cover those up with drugs, which might temporarily provide a little relief but only make things more difficult and stressful, leading people into a negative, self-fulfilling whirlpool of descent.”
Finally, there needs to be a belief in the ability to change.
“Self-help groups help in all of these areas,” Krank says. “You see people around you who have done it. You see the example of the changes they’ve made in their lives”¦.These groups can also help with relapse prevention: how do you anticipate a possible setback and what are the skills needed to prevent it?”
The biggest problem, he notes, is buy-in. He says that the spiritual basis of some support groups has helped countless people. But if people don’t agree with the life philosophy being espoused, they’ll only get so far.
“If they do not accept that philosophy, there’s no buy-in. People end up thinking: ”˜These people aren’t like me, so they won’t help me,’” Krank says.
“There’s a great need for alternatives to those types of groups for those who don’t have those beliefs,” he adds. “We’re an increasingly secular society. There’s a huge need for this, although I don’t see a loss of the need for the other groups. It’s all about what speaks to you and whether you connect with a group of people who are most like you and who can provide the most support in all areas of the addiction process.”
Walsh, who helped get the meetings up and running in Victoria, says that once people learned about LifeRing, his phone was ringing off the hook. He anticipates a similar response here.
“There’s no question that Vancouver would have an even bigger snowball effect,” he says. “This is all about giving people choice and, as LifeRing’s motto goes, empowering the sober self.”