The day after Valentine's Day, Matt Scarce's partner told him to leave the family home, where he lived with her and their four children.

His drinking had reached the point of alcoholism, but Matt, now 42, was in denial.

"I was spending on grog instead of paying bills," he says. "We had four kids under four, but I'd just sit in the corner and drink. The power was cut off. The phone got disconnected. The rent wasn't paid. I contacted a debt consolidation company — so I had more money to drink."

Alcohol had impacted every part of his life.

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"I wasn't exactly an active parent or partner. I didn't want to help out — I'd rather be drinking. I was selfish," he says.

"I got possessive (about) how much alcohol we had left. If my partner had some, I'd point the finger at her for having all the drinks, when it was me. Every conversation became an argument."

He drank daily, turned up to work drunk "often" and churned through jobs — at the meatworks, at warehouses and painting houses. Alcohol caused him to lose at least one job and police raided his home and arrested him for his other addiction — cannabis possession. He eventually went bankrupt and was estranged from his eldest son, now 19, for almost two years.

Matt, from Brisbane, got sober using Alcoholics Anonymous' 12-step program. But he has since left AA and decided there's a better way for him to stay sober — through the Smart Recovery program.

It's an alternative program focusing on all addictive behaviours using cognitive behavioural therapy with the option of moderation, rather than AA's insistence of lifelong total abstinence. Matt finds it refreshing. "In AA, you rake over people's war stories" he says. "In Smart Recovery, you only look back seven days. I like its future focus."
Matt had also outgrown the anonymity part of AA, an "outdated rule" which he felt further stigmatised alcoholism. AA members are forbidden from speaking out using their full name.

"I was ready to use my story to help others," Matt says.

He has been fundraising for Smart Recovery by paddleboarding non-stop from Brisbane to Townsville over 25 days.

Smart Recovery is a relatively new player in the addiction scene.

Starting in the USA in 1994, it came as a response to demand for an alternative to 12-step abstinence-focused programs. The program is now in 15 countries and came to Australia in 2003. There are 255 meetings held nationwide, attended by around 2000 Australians.

"It connects people's thoughts and feelings to their behaviours," Smart Recovery senior program manager Josette Freeman says. "We encourage people to challenge entrenched beliefs about themselves, which impact their behaviour."

Matt believes the AA focus on abstinence isn't for everyone.

"The first step of AA is to stop drinking and in some cases that's physiologically dangerous," he says. "People discover abstinence for themselves rather than being told what to do — nobody likes that," he says.

Smart Recovery deals with all addictions — in Matt's group there are porn addicts, internet addicts, food addicts and ice addicts. But Josette says alcohol is "by far" the most common problem they see. Although abstinence is practised by some members, others attend to moderate their drinking, rather than going cold turkey.

Josette says: "There are no labels (like "alcoholic") — we're very practical and solution focused. Rather than just sitting there and telling your story, we ask, 'What are you going to do about your story — and how are you going to do it?'"

So how does controlled drinking work when alcohol weakens restraint?

"People set their own limits using strategies such as never getting caught up in shouts, going out with a two-hour limit and taking a pen to mark on their wrist every time they have a drink."

"There's more freedom for the individual to learn and grow," Matt says. "Our experiences have a common thread — I learn from others' mistakes and the events leading up to them in the past week. It's eye-opening."

He also prefers the collaborative approach of the program.

"In AA, one person stands, shares their story then sits; there's no interaction. But in Smart Recovery, other participants ask questions or share ideas — it's collaborative. You see people building confidence as they achieve smaller goals, then using that same process in other areas of their life — from playing instruments to relationships and careers."

Josh Rosenthal, senior counsellor at Sydney addiction treatment centre The Cabin, says: "A lot of our clients prefer abstinence-based programs like AA or NA. There are misconceptions it's a religious program — it was written in the '30s and states you have to hand yourself over to a 'higher power' — but that doesn't have to be a religious God. I believe alcoholism is an illness — if you stop treating it, eventually you'll relapse."

One Sydney AA member who has completed the 12 steps (and cannot reveal his name due to the anonymity rule) says: "Most of us have tried 'controlled drinking' — and failed.

"It takes time to fully accept the disease. I accept my condition and am quite happy; others rebel against that. It's tough to accept the first step — that you're powerless over colourless liquid. Some believe they can control that. To me, that's like having a nut allergy and wanting peanuts."

Matt thinks AA's abstinence hard line is off-putting for those who want to reduce, but not give up, their alcohol intake.

"I find it difficult to conceive you're either an alcoholic or you're not.

"It's too daunting to give up for the rest of their life, so unless they find something like Smart Recovery, they just keep drinking."

Smart Recovery services are available in New Zealand through Odyssey House.