Why I teach Harm Reduction

One of my students, let's call him Jim, was recently fired by his AA sponsor for taking my Recovery Coach training class. The sponsor felt that Jim wasn't serious about recovery if he was learning about harm reduction and alternatives to AA. Jim was surprised as hell to be fired from a sponsor he had called every day for a year and half; from a man he had worked the steps with. I wasn't too surprised because I have seen some very strong reactions to Recovery Coaching from 12-step members.

I understand how scary it can be to look beyond that which saved us to consider something else. I only looked into harm reduction because I teach how to coach people in recovery. So while it scared me to learn anything beyond 12-step philosophy and it especially scared me to learn about harm reduction, I knew the day would come (and it did) when I would be asked to coach someone who wanted help but did not want to stop entirely.

There was no reason not to coach her, she was funny and smart and hated AA. She wanted help managing her drinking. We worked at if for 18 months and she finally decided she wasn't good at managing her drinking and chose AA. She came to that herself. You see, coaching requires that we follow the client's agenda in all aspects of coaching. Our job is to support clients in reaching goals set by the client. The client not only sets the goals, but also makes choices, takes actions (and lives out the results of their choices). The point is that as a coach I can't tell a client how to recover.

It so happens that only half who recovery from addiction the use the 12-steps. The other half use church, or family, or groups such as SMART or Women for Sobriety. And some people opt for harm reduction. I knew my coaching students (most of whom are 12-steppers) new little about AA alternatives and harm reduction. I decided to investigate the scary world beyond the 12-steps.

I learned that there was more to harm reduction than public safety through needle exchanges and drunk driving laws. There is support for the person who is not interested in quitting. Harm reduction psychotherapy supports a person to change their relationship with drugs so that they experience less suffering. Harm reduction supports any positive change and ask that we look at why we took drugs in the first place so we can find less dangerous or harmful ways to meet our needs and wants.

As a 12-stepper it was very scary to look at what I liked about drinking and smoking pot. It felt scary to admit that there were reasons for why I kept me coming back to those two drugs. Drinking made sex easier, made my feelings calm down; smoking pot meant that I didn't have to respond to my creative urges.

It was also sad to realize that I would have been willing to have a conversation about my drug use and drinking if it didn't mean I had to feel guilty or quit drinking. I might have stopped sooner. I wasn't really a candidate for harm reduction but I would have liked to have tried to control my drinking and to have failed sooner. I would have found 12-step support sooner because harm reductions recognize that abstinence is the least risk and support 12-step recovery for those who need it.

That's why I teach my students a bit about harm reduction and to consider its pros and cons. My hope is that they will have conversations with anyone who wants help with drugs and is ready for coaching whether that person is ready for AA or not.

I'm sorry that Jim was fired by his sponsor for not being serious about AA and I'd like to remind Jim's sponsor of that quote by Herbert Spencer in the back of Alcoholics Anonymous:

There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance - that principle is contempt prior to investigation. Herbert Spencer

I encourage you all to learn more about harm reduction. Check out Pat Denning's books. Or google "harm reduction."