Empowering addicts

A local secular alternative to 12 steps supports people taking recovery into their own hands

By Justin Chapman Pasadena Weekly, 1/2/2014

There is certainly no shortage of recovery programs and rehab centers in Pasadena and the rest of the San Gabriel Valley. 
Las Encinas Hospital is one. Impact House and the Pasadena Recovery Center are two other popular facilities. When demand is heavy, apparently the supply is there. With so many to choose from, one can be selective and pick the right philosophy that fits their needs.
The most prevalent recovery philosophy is the 12-step program. Nearly any time of the day or night a drunk or an addict can find an Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meeting somewhere nearby. Most in-house outpatient programs follow the 12-step model. But not everyone agrees with the programs’ most basic philosophy: Admitting powerlessness and turning one’s self over to a higher power.
The 12-step method works very well for a lot of people, but not everyone. For those who want to take their recovery into their own hands, there are local secular alternatives to AA and other 12 step-based programs here in Pasadena.
Eric Harlacher is a survivor of both alcohol dependence and cancer. He’s a certified substance abuse counselor with an office in Pasadena. He utilizes a non-12-step treatment modality and leads SMART Recovery (Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy, or REBT) classes. SMART is a self-empowering addiction recovery group. It is evidence-based and upholds the idea that addiction can be overcome by disputing irrational thinking.
Harlacher said that his cancer and his alcohol dependence were “two very similar disease models that are seen so differently in contemporary society: the first deserving of compassion, the latter a moral failing that can only be driven out by systematic public shaming in a 12-step meeting. When I was a survivor, I was applauded for taking individual action. I was not told I was powerless, I was not told to sit down and make a list of my character defects.”
All of the qualities that served him so well as a cancer survivor — self-advocacy, seeking alternative medicine, researching the latest medical data — were undesirable and unwelcome in AA meetings, he said. That’s when he started looking for a different way to approach overcoming his addiction.
Another thing that bothered him about AA was the requirement to give oneself up to a higher power. He didn’t like being told that he couldn’t conquer his addiction on his own. As a counselor now, he personally witnesses people who do just that.
“We don’t hear about those people because if you look at substance abuse as this pyramid, say 10 or 20 percent of people at the bottom have no problem,” said Harlacher. “Whether for environmental or religious reasons they’ve never even tried alcohol. You have a big section in the middle that kind of use something or stopped or cut back. And if you work in the recovery community you see the very top of the pyramid, you see the people who seek out treatment and frequently you’re seeing the most difficult of the most difficult.”
Harlacher tailors his substance abuse counseling to each individual. Everyone is at a different stage of their recovery; therefore a one-size-fits-all model doesn’t always work.
“I don’t work harder than anyone sitting in front of me,” he said. “When you’re ready you’re ready. You meet somebody where they’re at. If someone is still holding on to alcohol as a substance, for a while at least you meet them there. Is this working out for you? You’re drinking for pleasure and you say you don’t have a DUI and yet you don’t see your kids, you’re filled with shame, your business partner doesn’t want to work with you. Is it possible any of these symptoms could be alleviated if you stop taking this magical liquid you say you’re so attached to? Then you get people who are very, very ready. They want to know the factual, ‘How do I do this?’” As far as a philosophy goes, he tries to keep that open, somewhere between a medical and academic model. 
“When I treat people, I try to leave it open because the word ‘disease’ has been tainted by a lot of people in AA. Whatever addiction is, everyone seems to agree that it’s progressive. Once you cross a certain line, it is incurable, but it can be treatable.”
And for him it starts with empowering and motivating people to overcome their addiction, not telling them they’re powerless. 

For more information, contact counselor Eric Harlacher, 65 N. Madison Ave., Ste. 302, Pasadena. Call (818) 639-4975 or visit helpmequitdrinking.com.