LifeRing:  Who, What, Where, When, How, Why

Who: Formal name, LifeRing Secular Recovery.  Main office: LifeRing Service Center in Oakland CA.  In 2010, the organization is a network of about 130 face-to-face support groups and dozens of online communities, with a core membership of several hundred and annual meeting attendance in the low thousands. Membership includes former users of alcohol and/or other addictive drugs, without distinction. Participants come from all walks of life, but typical income and educational levels are somewhat above average. The percentage who attend church is about 40 per cent, perhaps similar to national averages. An annual meeting elects a nine-member Board of Directors. All directors, officers, and meeting leaders are unpaid volunteers. A basket is passed at meetings. Main source of funds is literature sales and contributions from meeting baskets.  [Contact info for LifeRing, meeting list, membership survey, Board of Directors].

LifeRing is a non-religious pathway to abstinence from alcohol and other drugs of abuse. Visitors who prefer moderation, harm reduction, or controlled drinking approaches are referred elsewhere.  LifeRing is secular, meaning that members’ religious beliefs or disbeliefs remain private during the meeting. Religious as well as anti-religious advocacy is absent during meetings. Meetings generally conclude with a mutual round of applause. Other than abstinence, LifeRing avoids recommending any particular recovery program to members, instead encouraging members to build personal recovery programs tailored to their particular needs. A workbook (Recovery By Choice) is available for building personal recovery programs in a structured way.  [Recovery By Choice workbook]

Where:  LifeRing face-to-face meetings meet primarily in treatment programs and community centers, but a significant minority meet in churches. LifeRing online communities use this website (http://lifering.org, a/k/a www.unhooked.com) as the main port of entry. The greatest concentration of LifeRing face-to-face meetings is in Northern California, where at least two meetings are available each day of the week. A worldwide meeting schedule is published online.  [Worldwide meeting schedule]

When:  LifeRing face-to-face meetings typically meet weekly and last an hour.  LifeRing held its founding national Congress in 2001 (Brooksville FL).

How: LifeRing works through the power of positive social reinforcement.  LifeRing posits that there is a healthy, sober self residing alongside the addict self within each addicted person.  Meetings establish supportive connections (synergy) between the sober selves and thereby reinforce them. The long-run goal is a stable dominance of the healthy self within the person, expressed in the slogan, “Empower Your Sober Self.”  The LifeRing approach is eclectic, open-ended, pragmatic, and evolved through recovering people’s experience, but it shares common tenets with Cognitive Behaviorism, Motivational Interviewing, Solution-Focused Therapy, Dialectical Behavior Therapy, Choice Theory, and similar strength-based academic and clinical approaches.  A growing number of treatment professionals are adapting the LifeRing approach to their treatment protocols, but a LifeRing treatment manual per se does not exist. [Short explanation, including video animation, on how it works, introductory brochure, magazine-format publication with article How Our Groups Work, book-length explanation]

Why:  Like other alternatives beginning with Women for Sobriety in the 1970s, LifeRing exists because people in recovery want choices.  Treatment programs that give patients a choice enhance motivation and improve outcomes. A growing number of individuals credit their successful recovery experiences to their LifeRing participation.  [Membership survey, Testimonials]

Common-Sense Media Guidelines

Many LifeRing participants are happy to talk to the press about their recoveries, but please use common sense:

  • If you want to attend a LifeRing recovery meeting as a media observer, please first contact the LifeRing Service Center and/or the meeting contact person listed in the meeting schedule online.  Introduce yourself to the meeting convenor before the session starts, and make sure that participants are OK with your being there.
  • The annual LifeRing Expo/Congress events (annual meetings) usually hold public sessions, and media are invited; some other sessions, e.g. business meetings, board of director meetings, may not admit media.
  • If you quote people, get their permission. Some LifeRing participants only use first names, some use both first and last names — it’s their call, and please respect it.
  • LifeRing does not prohibit running participants’ photos, if you get their permission.
  • LifeRing does not prohibit participants speaking to the press about their own recovery experiences, but individuals’ personal statements obviously do not necessarily reflect the official position of the LifeRing organization.

Here’s a short bulletin from the LifeRing website of December 2004, illustrating a properly conducted media intervention:

Reporter Attends

LifeRing Meeting

In response to a contact from LifeRing convenor Carola Z., reporter Theresa Harrington from the Contra Costa (CA) Times attended the Thursday evening LifeRing meeting at the Unitarian-Universalist Church in Walnut Creek on Dec. 9. The weekly paper, part of the Knight-Ridder chain, is planning a recovery feature in an upcoming edition. Harrington introduced herself as a reporter at the beginning of the meeting and asked permission to sit in. All the participants readily agreed, and also gave her permission to take notes, provided she did not publish names or identifying details. A very good meeting ensued, and Ms. Harrington stayed on afterward to ask questions and interview participants. Carola Z., who initiated the contact, convenes the Monday noon women’s meeting and the Friday noon holiday support group in Walnut Creek, a suburban town east of San Francisco.

The resulting story is here.  The LifeRing Service Center will be happy to cooperate with your journalistic assignment.

The Best-Kept Lifestyle Secret in America

The most underreported lifestyle story is the fact that the majority of American alcoholics who make successful recoveries — sixty per cent — do it outside of AA. [Source]  If you ask Dear Abby, Dr. Phil, and any other number of other media lifestyle authorities, all you hear is “go to AA.”

Every year, thousands of people who have a problem with alcohol take that advice and try AA.  A huge percentage of them get turned off and drop out.  According to AA’s own membership surveys, out of 100 who start AA, only 5 are still attending a year later.  [Source].

Almost nobody writes about the 95 per cent who dropped out of AA, or about the unknown numbers who never approached AA at all.  The general assumption seems to be that they drink themselves into oblivion.  That can’t be true.  Sixty per cent of alcoholics who reach the five year sobriety level — statistically, a benchmark for stable lifetime recovery — did it without AA.

The majority of people who find long term sobriety stand in the darkness. Only very rarely do their voices find print [Example].  That’s a shame.  Alcoholism is a major killer. Those sixty per cent have found solutions that work for them.  Shouldn’t we try to find out and let the world know what those solutions are?

A Note to Religion Editors

The word “secular” is widely misunderstood in the U.S., occasionally even by journalists. It’s frequently confused with “sectarian.”  It’s also often equated with atheist or agnostic.  LifeRing is neither sectarian nor atheist/agnostic.

Secular, for LifeRing, means that we are neither for nor against religion. Neither religious advocacy nor atheist-agnostic advocacy have a place in our meeting format.  Our meetings are devoted to the topic of staying clean and sober.

A similar organization in this respect is WeightWatchers®.  WeightWatchers meetings are devoted to weight control.  Religious or anti-religious issues don’t come into the picture in WeightWatchers meetings, any more than they do in LifeRing.

About 40 per cent of LifeRing participants attend houses of worship — probably similar to national averages.  [Membership Survey.]  Most religious people feel perfectly comfortable in secular recovery meetings.

People have different models of addiction and recovery.

If a person views addiction as a sin, they will probably view recovery as a quest for salvation, and religious concepts and practices will be central to their program.

LifeRing participants, by contrast, generally view addiction in medical, behavioral, psychological, or cognitive terms — for example, as a disease or condition, a trauma, a physiological rewiring, a bad habit, a compensation mechanism, the result of wrong thinking, or other approaches at a scientific explanation.

Viewed in this way, the recovery project is similar to doing physical therapy after a heart attack or a broken bone, or overcoming a phobia, or job retraining, or taking a class, or any number of other mundane projects such as learning to ride a bicycle, rebuilding an engine, debugging software, or washing a mountain of dirty laundry.

Why You May Not Have Heard of LifeRing

In late 2005 I was a panelist at a conference on addiction recovery.  The panel moderator was a highly placed media figure, whose voice is probably familiar to millions. I had a good day; I spoke often and well, and enjoyed a positive audience response. When it was over, the moderator thanked me.  I suggested that she put me on the air in her program.  She said nothing.  Ten minutes later, in the hubbub of social chitchat on the floor, I happened to overhear the moderator telling a friend, “And then my sponsor told me

It’s no secret that journalists are prone to overindulge in alcohol (and other things), and in the natural course of events some of them will get sober in AA. That’s fine.  But it’s also no secret that AA members have a duty to AA to “carry the message.”  That looks a lot like a conflict with their duty to the public as journalists, to tell the whole story without deliberate bias or filter.

People inclined to paranoia say that there is an AA fifth column in the media, which  systematically promotes recovery stories friendly to AA and filters out stories that point to alternatives. It’s hard to prove that kind of assertion, and it smacks a little of McCarthyism. But I have to wonder.  Everyone knows that tons of people are turned off by their contact with AA.  Everyone knows that relapse is a common outcome of AA-style treatment.  By the law of averages, stories about AA disasters ought to be at least as common in the press as success stories.  How is it possible that this approach enjoys an almost exclusively rose-colored press?   — Marty N.

See also:  Spinning Mel Gibson’s Relapse (blog)