After years of drug and alcohol abuse, along with years of unsuccessful attempts to quit, Matt Ryan, of Catonsville, discovered the power of logical thinking.
Actually, he discovered Rational Emotive Therapy (RET), a psychological system developed 35 years ago by Albert Ellis, Ph.D., which teaches that irrational thinking leads to inappropriate emotions; clear thinking, on the other hand, can interrupt that process.
"You say, 'Why is this event a catastrophe? Where is thevidence that I have to have drugs to get through it? Many people have happy, healthy lives without drugs.' Basically, you talk yourself out of it," said Mr. Ryan, now a leader of a self-help group called Rational Recovery (RR), in which substance abusers learn to talk, or think, themselves out of their dependency with rational therapy.
This intellectual method, with its insistence on the individual's ability to change his or her way of responding, is an alternative to the more spiritual philosophy of Alcoholics Anonymous and other "12-step" systems that emphasize that the individual is powerless over chemical dependency and needs to turn to God or some other higher power.
Mr. Ryan himself attended Narcotics Anonymous meetings for eight years, without much benefit, he said. "I went to empathize with others, but it didn't offer me anything to deal with my own behavior. I am basically agnostic. I could not say I was sure any higher power would help me."
Created in 1986 by California social worker Jack Trimpey -- who used rational therapy in his own battle against the bottle -- RR insists that people have the power within themselves.
"If you believe in God, believe that God gave you a brain to thinwith. If you don't believe in God, believe you have a brain," said Nan Nelson, who found RR while looking for a way to help a substance-abusing family member and became an RR coordinator in Reisterstown.
"RR says you don't need to turn to a power higher than yourself. You have the power. It's called your brain," said psychologist Norma Campbell, an RET therapist in Towson who teaches leadership techniques to people who want to be RR coordinators.
"You can interrupt your low frustration tolerance, which makes you reach for a bottle instead of saying 'What am I doing? Is this good for me? Is there another way to feel better?' " Dr. Campbell said.
RR meetings focus on getting members to use the self-questioning technique when facing temptation.
"We start out by asking folks, 'How was your week?' " said Eileen Henderson, who with her husband Charles coordinates an RR group in Columbia. Non-abusers themselves, the Hendersons found RR two years after their 33-year-old son died of complications related to an alcohol addiction he could not control with traditional 12-step programs.
"It is a tenet of RR that you don't go back into long-past history and review and repeat it over and over again," Mrs. Henderson said. That doesn't help you put it behind you and get on with life. The emphasis is on what's happened recently."
Lapses from abstinence, related at a meeting, become a "learning experience," said Mr. Trimpey, in a telephone interview from RR headquarters in Lotus, Calif.
"We say, 'What was I thinking the last hour before I had that drink, the last half hour, the last minute, the last few seconds before I did it?' We're helping people learn it is always a choice, every time."
RR also assumes people are quick learners: Abstinence is lifetime, but membership is short-term. Attending for more than one year is seen as substituting one dependency for another.
"We recommend that some time during the second semester, the person should start planning to leave the group," Mr. Trimpey said. "If you're still there at one year we ask, 'What do you come here for?' If you say, 'I like the people, the friends,' we say, 'Aren't there friends outside the group? If not, why not? Why do you have to hang around people with these personal problems?'
"And if the person says, 'I am fascinated by the group process,' we say, 'That's fine, you're better, let's make you a coordinator.' "
But whether most people can stay better this way is a question, according to Trish Gaffney, clinical director of the outpatient chemical dependency program at Sheppard Pratt Hospital.
"People do need to look at the way they're thinking. But unless they can pair that with spiritual recovery, the peace of knowing there's a higher power, people are going to run back to the drug or alcohol to relieve their pain," she said. "My concern is that Rational Recovery does not recognize the profound spiritual impact of the ability to believe there's a power greater than yourself."
On the other hand, she said, "Maybe people who cannot tolerate the idea of a higher power need this alternative." As an adjunct to treatment, people in her program must attend a self-help group. "If someone wanted to go to Rational Recovery, we'd say, 'Try it and come back and talk about it,' " she said.
Whether most people establish lifetime sobriety through 12 steps is also unknown, however; there are no studies of long-term outcomes of any addiction-fighting regimen, according to Rick Sampson, director of the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Administration in the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
And though 12-step groups have been around for a long time and appear to help a lot of people, and even offer groups for atheists, state-run treatment programs now allow for other kinds of self-help participation.
To learn more . . .
*For more information about Rational Recovery, or to volunteer for Rational Emotive Therapy training, call:
Nan Nelson, at 876-6702, in Reisterstown
Matt Ryan, at 789-0604, in Catonsville
Charles and Eileen Henderson, at 730-7585, in Columbia
Jack Trimpey, in Lotus, Cal., at 916-621-2667
Women for Sobriety is a cognitive self-help program for women that also emphasizes empowerment of the individual. Call (800) 333-1606.