As a fluorescent light flickers nervously in the corner of a room at Pink Triangle Services, Mike Jan drags chairs into a circle and waits for people to arrive. The week before, during a vicious snowstorm, no one showed up. This week, two people attend in addition to Jan and his collaborator, Matt Ellis.
“Is this the secular sobriety thing?” asks one man, a newcomer, before settling into a chair.
As the hour progresses, secularism is discussed just as much as sobriety. The four men alternate between swapping stories about fighting the daily temptations of their addictions, and relating their frustrations with the God-centric attitude they found to be omnipresent at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
When the official meeting ends, the men start to open up even more about how the religiosity of other 12-step groups has affected their recovery. It’s just the kind of conversation that Jan and Ellis hope will help recovering addicts who feel sidelined by the faith-based approach of other 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous.
The pair, both recovering alcoholics, have launched Ottawa’s first addiction recovery support group aimed at separating sobriety from religious beliefs. The group is only the second of its kind in Canada. In June, the Centre For Inquiry, a secular organization, started a similar group in Toronto.
The meetings are based on the group-based, self help “SOS” approach, which stands for Secular Organizations for Sobriety or Save Our Selves. Unlike AA, which advocates recovery via surrendering yourself to a higher power, SOS encourages people to use science to understand their addictions and take responsibility for them. In the 22 years since SOS was founded, it’s become the most widely used secular recovery method in the world.
But unlike the Toronto group, Ottawa’s Save Our Selves Addiction Recovery group is specifically geared at the queer community.
“For me, my heart’s more with the community because I’m gay,” says Jan.
Jan and Ellis have attended both mainstream and queer AA meetings for several years. While Jan credits the group atmosphere of the meetings with helping him stay sober, he says the “supernatural” rhetoric of some of the people at the meetings left him cold.
“It made me feel out of place. I felt like the literature wasn’t speaking to me anymore,” says Jan. “Looking back, it probably never spoke to me, but I used to accept it more. Now I want to take the group support, and leave the rest.”
Although AA says that the group can function as a person’s “higher power,” Jan says many people at AA meetings refer to God. He says that when he acted as the informal leader of AA meetings, some people would approach him to say they were uncomfortable with the religious overtones.
“Those people never came back, so they didn’t have that support to deal with their addiction,” says Jan. “I think that for some gay and lesbian people especially, the references to God at AA meetings could turn them off, because there’s a correlation between religiosity and homophobia.”
Jan says he and Ellis have been dissatisfied with AA for a couple of years and had looked into other options like SOS, but those alternatives weren’t available in Ottawa at the time. After reading an article about Ottawa’s need for secular and queer-focused recovery programs in the Jul 4 issue of Capital Xtra, Jan and Ellis approached Pink Triangle Services about starting the group.
Claudia Van den Heuvel, the program manager at Pink Triangle Services, says at the time Jan and Ellis asked her about setting up an SOS group, a queer AA group that had been considering renting space from PTS decided on another location.
Van den Heuvel says she was excited about the chance to offer a secular group because she says queers and God don’t always mix well together.
“The people that need [a faith-based program] are already serviced,” says Van den Heuvel. “So having this group, which provides itself for a different demographic, and a demographic that I think fits more with queer values, fit better with us as an organization.”
Jan and Ellis both emphasize that the SOS group is not in competition with 12-step programs.
“A lot of people like AA because it works for them,” says Ellis, “But I think it’s absolutely important that people have this option.”