Episode 177: Atheists in Recovery

In this episode, I speak with Dr. Adina Slvestri from Life Cycles Counseling in Richmond, Virginia. Dr. Silvestri is a licensed family therapist who specializes in treating women with substance abuse issues, children impacted by trauma, and helping people cope with and better handle anger. She is also the host of “The Atheists in Recovery Podcast”, which features guests with an expertise in addiction whether they be professionals or people with first-hand experience with addiction and recovery. 

Links to learn more about Adina and the Atheists in Recovery Podcast 


00:00 John: AA Beyond Belief is a podcast by, for and about people who have found a secular path to sobriety in Alcoholics Anonymous.


00:26 John: Dr. Adina Silvestri is the founder of Life Cycles Counseling in Richmond, Virginia, where she is a licensed therapist who has been treating patients for over 14 years. Her practice encompasses a wide array of services, but her specialty is treating women with substance abuse issues, helping children who have experienced trauma in their lives and treating people who have anger and management issues. In addition to her practice, Dr. Silvestri hosts the podcast, “Atheist in Recovery,” which is coming up on its one-year anniversary and has now posted 48 episodes. The podcast features guests who have an expertise in recovery issues, whether they be credentialed professionals or people who have experienced addiction and recovery from personal experience. The podcast explores the importance of one’s belief system in their recovery, and it’s really helpful for those of us in the recovery community who hold a secular world view. Welcome, Adina, to AA Beyond Belief.

01:22 Adina: Thanks for having me.

01:24 John: I’ve been wanting to have you here for quite a while, to be honest with you. When your podcast came out, I was really excited to see another podcast that’s devoted towards secular people in recovery because not too long ago, I would say about five years ago, or more, maybe even, time goes by, but it was really difficult to find anything online that was addressing issues for people in recovery who happened to be atheist, agnostic or have a secular worldview, and it’s good to see more of this information becoming available now. I think it’s important.

02:02 Adina: Yes, yeah, I definitely agree. In fact, the reason that I started the podcast was because the clients would come to me and they would say, “Listen, I don’t believe in the God thing, I don’t feel like AA is a good fit for me and I need some alternative ways to recover”, and so it was for them, but selfishly, it was also for me, because now I’ve met all these amazing podcasters and people from around the globe that are doing this work that I didn’t even know existed a little over a year ago.

02:41 John: Yeah, yeah, that’s pretty amazing. So, let’s go into your background a little bit, your professional background, if you don’t mind, what got you interested in treating people with substance abuse to begin with?

02:50 Adina: Well, so I moved from upstate New York to Virginia, and I’ll make this a short story, [chuckle] but, and I moved here for a job in a locked inpatient psychiatric unit, and I would treat the individuals on the unit, I would do their hearings as well to commit them to the unit, and what I saw over and over again were like these young, vibrant children, 13, 14, 15 years old, they’d come in and we would “treat” them, I’m doing air quotes, as for as long as their insurance would allow, which would be five days and then we would send them out into the world and it just felt like such a inhumane thing to do, but because they weren’t ready, and so that’s why I wanted to study addiction and to figure out how I could provide more resources to my community, and I knew that there needed, there had to have been a better way than what we were doing, just that treat ’em and street ’em type of mentality.

04:00 John: Yeah, and yeah, that’s really important. It does seem to be actually in mental health altogether, I have a brother who has mental health issues, serious ones, he’s schizoaffective, and that type of illness really requires a lot of follow-up and for those people to really have any chance of recovery, because his recovery depends completely on his willingness to take the medication that prevents him from having psychotic episodes and without regular follow-up, he’s not gonna take that medication, and unfortunately, what happens in our society, the way that our mental health system is built, I guess, is like you say, you treat them and you let them go and then when they’re off their medication, it’s impossible to get them, almost impossible to get them back into treatment again, so it’s really difficult, and I can see that also happening with substance abuse too. Well, I know it does, especially for the people that are struggling right now financially, anyway, to get treatment and then just to be put out there, where on their own.

05:11 John: So you’re also interested in facing, in dealing with or helping women in particular, and that’s interesting, of course, women have their own set of issues, and I have a lot of women friends in recovery, and a lot of them will have groups that are specifically for women and some of them even tell me that they speak differently in their women’s groups than they do in men’s group, and I wonder if you might be able to talk a little bit about the specific issues that are facing women in recovery today.

05:40 Adina: When I did my dissertation research umpteen years ago, one of the findings that kept coming up, or one of the themes that kept coming up was that women would only start the recovery process at the willingness of their partners, I guess, [chuckle] so the women would push their partners to receive treatment, but then they would be held back by their partners. Well, if you get, if you will get better, then that means that I need to look at myself. [chuckle] You’re gonna leave me ’cause you’re gonna be elevated, I’m just still gonna be down here, and so that was one of the challenges, and then of course, like all the challenges that come with being a woman in today’s society, and a child-care, sometimes having to be the sole bread-winner. And so how do you manage all these things and then also, put your recovery first, which is really difficult sometimes.

06:36 John: I also found it interesting that the other two areas that you like to work in are helping children with trauma, and also to help people manage their anger and emotions better and both of those are really connected to addiction. I’m learning more now about the role that trauma plays in a person’s likelihood to become an addict later on in life. And I was kind of curious, is that maybe why you became interested in helping children that are facing trauma in their lives? Or was that just completely a separate consideration?

07:09 Adina: Yeah, that’s a great question. I don’t think that consciously I made that decision. Because I started my career in Child and Family Center practices and I just feel like it’s so much… I see quicker results with children than I do with adults and that makes sense? Because there’s a lot more baggage to go through. But even with hypnotherapy, I find that children just take to it, so, so much better than the adults do. So to answer your question, no. It wasn’t a deliberate thing. But I just enjoy working with children a lot.

07:48 John: Yeah. And it does, and maybe it will help them later on in life. When I look back at my early years growing up, I talk about trauma a lot with a friend of mine. She’s very interested in it. And the role that it plays in a person’s addiction, or becoming an addict later on in life. And trauma can take a lot of different forms and I look at my life, my growing-up years, and it wasn’t all black and white, it wasn’t horrible, and it was just a mixed-bag. I think I would characterize my growing-up as just being kind of unstable, and that I didn’t know what to expect from my household, it was just some craziness in there. And I never really think of that as being traumatic but you were kinda always on edge. And I still recall my first drink. I was probably like eight-years-old and it soothed me and it was medicine for me and I never thought about that as what I had been living through as being traumatic at all but I can now look back and say that, “Yeah, that was when I started using alcohol to change the way that I felt.”

09:05 Adina: Yeah, I’d always say that. Exactly, I always say that. I don’t think that any of us have left our childhood un-scarred in some way, shape or form.

09:21 John: Well, it’s generational. That’s one of the benefits I’ve got from being in recovery, is I did take a look at my past. And the people that raised me. And they brought to me their own personal trauma from when they were growing up and what my parents went through in their lives was actually far more dramatic than anything that I experienced. But they had to deal with that while raising me and I can see that, to some extent, they did pretty well. But it was still a challenge. So, looking at it though, I can say that, “Well, this generation is a little bit better off, I guess, than the last one.” At least in my family. But yeah, it’s interesting how that trauma can really be generational, too.

10:15 Adina: Yeah, and they say that family therapy, for individuals that do participate, for the families that do participate, can affect up to three generations.

10:23 John: Yeah, that really makes sense.

10:26 John: Yeah, that really makes sense. Isn’t that amazing? ‘Cause you can look back at your family history and say, “Oh yeah, it’s passed on, it truly is.” And it might not just even be genetic. In fact, I heard in one of your podcasts, I can’t remember which one, you were kinda talking about the genetic predisposition to addiction, and the environment, and how sometimes your environment can overwhelm the genetic part of it. So that your environment really can play a really important role in whether or not you become an addict. Well, let’s talk about your podcast a little bit. Why did you start podcasting to begin with?

11:14 Adina: That is a great, great question. As I said earlier, I love to learn. And I knew that there was so much that I needed to learn regarding addiction and this was one way to do it. I just sort of immersed myself into other people’s stories and backgrounds and then also, I wanted to build a community for people that didn’t subscribe to a higher power but that needed to find their people. We’ve heard over and over again how they recover in communities so it doesn’t really matter what they’re subscribing to, as long as they can find their people. That’s one of the most important indicators of having a successful recovery.

12:13 John: Yeah. And I guess you got to hear that from the people who come to you for help. And I’ve heard the same thing actually from my doctor, that she does run into quite a few people who say that one problem they run into is when they go to an AA meeting, the first thing they’re confronted with is this idea that you have to have a higher power, in an AA, it’s very specific, it’s God. And I have been in AA for many decades, well, three decades, and so I know part of the problem is that in AA we use a book that was written in 1939, and they’re still using the book in the very same language that it was written in and over the years, language changes and society changes, but that book hasn’t, and it’s so almost impossible anymore, for somebody who is 23 years old now, to give them a book that is 80 years old and tell them that this is what they need to read and anyway, that book has created a culture of… I think that this is the problem that we run into is it creates this culture that, Okay, this is the book, it’s a great book, it’s wonderful and it gives you some specific instructions that you need to follow and you better do this, and when you read the book, it’s all about God. [chuckle]

13:42 Adina: So, instead, you better belong and then decide what steps you wanna follow and what you wanna do, and which one you wanna discard.

13:53 John: Yeah. But what is interesting though, from an atheist perspective, I can see what works and in AA, and it has nothing to do with God, in my opinion. It has everything to do with the other people that are in the room. But as you said, it’s so important to have your own tribe and in a way, it’s kind of sad that we have to have these tribes, but I myself, after some time in AA was found that my view as a secular view of Alcoholics Anonymous was not at all accepted at my home group. I had to start another group for people that are atheists and agnostics.

14:38 Adina: Wow.

14:38 John: Yeah, yeah.

14:41 Adina: But you did that.

14:45 John: Yeah, yeah, and there’s a lot of people that are doing that too, but you do ask a lot of your guests, and maybe you ask it on every episode what their belief system is?

15:00 Adina: Yeah. I think I might change it to what your spirit animal is just to change it up a little, but yeah. [chuckle]

15:06 John: So why do you think that’s so important?

15:10 Adina: I think it’s important because I believe it, that it has a formative mileau on your identity and that impacts your recovery, of course, and so that’s why I think it’s incredibly important. And then it also is interesting to hear what people come up with. Like I’ve heard so many different variations of higher powers like Cristo Buddhist and Indian warrior goddess. And I tell people that come to see me that we’re gonna talk about your higher power or your wise self, and so I figure if they come back a second time then they don’t think I’m completely nuts. But I feel really strongly that you have to have that as part of your recovery, you have to be able to dip into your wise self and we can talk about that if you want or not, but in order to sort of detach from that trance of unworthiness that I feel like we all suffer from.

16:24 John: Yeah, that would be interesting to explore. I guess I have an internal debate with myself sometimes. I guess I take a real practical view of my recovery and the experience that I’ve had yet I do know that it was a really powerful, transformative experience to go from a life of addiction and the insanity that addiction brings to one’s life to not having that anymore. And it was really over a long period of time that this transformation took place, it was like in the beginning, it’s so dramatic, but after a while, you see that it still continues and you continue to evolve over time, but I respect that people have different spiritual beliefs, and I think it’s important. I’ve held them at different times in my life but I just see it as language more than anything else, Adina, and I just look at what a person does. So anyway, my take. It’s interesting, and the secular AA community, there’s constant debates about spirituality. [chuckle] Whether, how important it is or not? Some people think there’s no use for it and for some people it’s really important.

17:51 Adina: I used to think that people will come to me, they used to tell me that they would come to me because I was non woo-woo and now I’m completely woo-woo.

18:03 John: Oh, really? [chuckle]


18:03 Adina: I have really done a 180 from the beginning of my practice till now, but a lot of that was because of the hypnotherapy and just seeing the rapid results from that versus talk therapy and sort of just helping people shed their ego space suits. And you’re more than just your feelings, you’re more than just your thoughts, you’re more than these defenses that you put up that you might not even know that are there, so trying to help people understand that and see that has been really crucial to my work.

18:38 John: So do you actually yourself put people under hypnosis and do that? You do really. Wow. Can you talk about that a little bit? That’s interesting, what is it? How does hypnosis work and what benefits do people get from it?

18:53 Adina: So I don’t make you quack like a duck. [chuckle] It’s completely different from stage hypnosis, and basically, I just put people under a light trance, so we do an interview in the beginning and we identify some of the struggles that they’re having. I hit hard on the spirituality piece in their person, it doesn’t even have to be a mythical creature, it could be their dead grandmother or their favorite uncle, somebody that they really trust, that only wants the best for them, and then we create a script together, and so we’re basically future-casting their ideal self and then they listen to the script, and that’s when the transformation starts to occur is when they listen to it outside of the therapy sessions.

19:52 John: It’s interesting, that is. And so, as you got involved in that, became more, I guess, interested in that spiritual aspect that, I guess when the spiritual aspect would be that, that which is really hard to define, right?

20:10 Adina: It is, there just has to be a separation from your ego and your higher self, your Y self. And so, that’s what I’m looking for.

20:21 John: Yeah, I know that, especially for someone who’s dealing with addiction issues, we put ourselves in this situation where we’re in survival mode almost all the time. We are constantly conniving and doing what we need to do to get through the next crisis, and so we’re really reactive. There’s a lot of stress involved with just being an addict and when you stop that, when you stop your addictive behavior, you’re kinda still left with this way of life that you have to somehow deal with learning how to think your way, I guess through problems rather than react emotionally, and I see a lot of recovery being learning how to handle your emotions and your feelings and emotions and the way that those impact your reactions to life.

21:25 Adina: Yeah, that sounds very CBT. [chuckle]

21:27 John: Yeah.

21:28 Adina: Cognitive behavioural therapy.

21:32 John: Yeah, so and I think that that what I find interesting is that seems to be a running thing for anybody in recovery, whether they be, and whatever support type of group they choose, it always comes down to after they stop using their drug of choice, it always comes down to a need for change, a deep, a real profound change in how they view life. So yeah, I can see how through hypnotherapy that that can help bring that about, that’s really interesting.

22:20 Adina: Yeah, and it just goes so much deeper than talk therapy, and I still use talk therapy, that’s what I was trained on, but if I’m able to get to you and to get to your deepest wounds and successions versus one to two years, I’m gonna go with the successions. Why am I gonna prolong the suffering? [chuckle]

22:43 John: Yeah, yeah, I don’t even know enough to even… That’s amazing that ’cause I’ve gone through all kinds of therapy myself and it takes years, it does take years. But it was helpful to me and it’s something that I think that’s important for people in recovery, if they’re able to seek professional help in addition to whatever support that they’re getting and there are different ways. There are all kinds of different resources available for people to get help and a lot of times, people aren’t aware of that, but many of us, when we come out of our addiction, we’re having serious financial issues and that sometimes is an impediment to getting professional help, but there are organizations out there that you can go to that provide these types of services on a sliding scale and it’s really helpful, and I did that in the beginning, and then went on to other resources later.

23:47 Adina: Yeah, and there seems to be a lot more resources now due to the pandemic. I think all the insurances are waiving fees for therapy. I know there’s covidtherapy.com, and I’ll have to look it up exactly, but people that are front line workers, they get four sessions for free.

24:13 John: The COVID thing has been huge in my group, so back in March, I think it was, we had to stop meeting in person, and so we’ve gone to online meetings and most AA groups have, most probably… And not just AA group, SMART recovery groups, Life Ring groups, everything, any recovery, and even community churches, and I’ve noticed that some people handle it better than others, and it’s not so dependent upon age, and you would think it would be, that maybe younger people would be more comfortable with the technology than older people, but sometimes I find that some of the younger people are the ones that have the most difficulty with it because, and when I think about it, it makes sense because I was a young person in recovery, I was in my 20s, and a really important part of my recovery and what I see with these younger people is the friendships that they have, so it’s not just going to a meeting and what you hear in the meeting, but it’s having friends that you meet from the meeting that you can go out and have lunch with and coffee with and do things with, and it’s that social aspect that they’re missing now that is really, really making it difficult, especially if you’re newly sober, it’s really hard.

25:43 Adina: It is hard. It is hard. And I’m sure other therapists are doing something similar as I, but I’m actually starting to do outdoor therapy because the people that I see, the newly recovered people that I see, are not going to the meetings online. They just have an ambivalence, they’re unmotivated, and I get it. We’re all sort of in between ‘fight and flight’ right now, [chuckle] so I’m just gonna… “Yeah, I’ll try therapy.” [laughter]

26:10 John: Yeah, that’s good.

26:11 Adina: Something.

26:11 John: Yeah, we have one of our groups, one of our secular groups is starting to do that now. They’re meeting at a park outdoors and they’re keeping social distance and so forth, and that very well could help. But, yeah, that’s been my biggest concern is one of my… What I enjoy the most about my little group here in Kansas City is watching people get better who might not have been able to access a support group otherwise because of their hesitation, because of the religious aspects of AA and so forth. But to watch them get better and to have friends and to really become happy in their life, and then to see these people having to stay indoors was just… It was just tough. But some of the older people like me actually seem to be doing better as long as we know how to use the technology, because I guess we’re… I don’t know. For me, I’m married. I don’t really have a lot to do. [chuckle] I don’t have a social life.

27:17 Adina: I had someone on the podcast last week and she said that she knows that people in recovery are the superstars of the pandemic because they’ve done the inner work, they know how to take six inches instead of six feet, and she said that she’s more worried about the people that have it all figured out. So I thought that was really funny and just an interesting take on it.

27:45 John: But, I do look forward to the day when this is gonna be past but I think it’s gonna be a long, still quite some time in the future but on the other hand, though, what’s been interesting is to watch a lot of people come together just online, so what’s happening is these recovery groups, whether it be SMART or AA or whatever, they all are going online, on Zoom mostly, and so you’re able to get to these meetings more easily. You can access them more easily. And you get to meet people from different areas of the world and different parts of the country and what’s interesting about that is you get a wider diversity of thought and experience than you would if you just went to your one little group in your hometown, and I think that ultimately as this goes on, it could change the culture of the recovery culture.

28:47 Adina: Yeah, yeah, so just to continue doing the Zoom meetings along with the in-person meetings. I think that would be awesome.

28:53 John: I think that will happen. I think that will happen. In our group, they’ve talked about doing that and most every other group I’ve heard the same thing, especially for those people who want a secular experience, and it’s not so easy to find that. Having the access to a secular type of a support group online is invaluable. Anyway, I was gonna ask you what, a little bit about your podcast again. What have you learned from podcasting and have you noticed that it’s maybe changed you in any sort of a way or affected you deeper?

29:38 Adina: Yeah, that’s a good question. I think that I’m learning something new every day. I’m accessing individuals that I never would have had access to in my little office in Richmond, Virginia, but how has it changed me? I don’t know. I think I would need to reflect on that more. I don’t know that it had any significant changes that I’m aware of.

30:05 John: But I think just opening you up to people that you might not have had an opportunity to speak with otherwise, I think that’s huge. I think that’s been the deal with me as well. It’s an amazing experience just to have that opportunity not only to meet these people that you’re having on your podcast, but you might also have some interaction with people who listen to the podcast and let you know how that has impacted them.

30:33 Adina: Yeah, that’s slowly starting to happen. I think the podcast is still pretty new, it’s still under a year old, but I’m hoping with time, that’ll increase. [chuckle]

30:45 John: I think it will. I noticed that with our podcast too, we’ve been doing it now for five years, we’re coming up on five years, which is hard to believe, but I’m getting more and more. People will write and tell me what the podcast means to them, and it just blows me away. It just blows me away. I just can’t imagine that something that I do, that I enjoy doing, is actually helpful to people.

31:11 Adina: Yeah, and it’s so rewarding for you because it’s such a lonely job, like we don’t really get feedback.

31:17 John: Unless you put it on YouTube, which I really… Drives me crazy sometimes. I love YouTube, so we post all of our stuff on YouTube, but sometimes it really blows me away when someone dislikes something, and I’m like, “How can you dislike that? It’s just someone’s experience. They’re just sharing their heart with you and you dislike it, give it a thumbs down? What’s that all about?” [chuckle]

31:41 Adina: Yeah, yeah.

31:43 John: That’s kinda rude.

31:45 Adina: They’re in reactive mode.

31:46 John: Yeah. [laughter]

31:48 Adina: You might need therapy. I’m kidding. [chuckle]

31:50 John: No, you’re probably right. But social media in itself is kind of weird, and that’s another aspect of the recovery community. There’s a lot going on in social media and that’s a completely different experience than with the Zoom meetings or in-person meetings. I wonder if you’ve had any experience with social media, and how’s it? Do you use social media very often in your practice?

32:20 Adina: Yeah, I do. I have a love/hate relationship with social. But yeah, I find that the individuals that wanna rant and talk about their ways being the right way, I don’t think that that’s helpful. [chuckle] Because then you’re not really open to new experiences. You’re just keeping that guard up and you’re not having any compassionate yesses They’re all compassionate no’s and maybe they’re not even that compassionate with those.

32:54 John: It’s like one of the problems that I see in the recovery community is that we, and it is kind of society as a whole, but we’re in our silos. There was an episode that you did with Tom Horvath from SMART Recovery and he mentioned something that was very true that I wish that more people would understand that. He said that, “Hey, there’s a lot of people in AA that go to SMART”, and I love to hear that because I think that that’s what I would like to see happen more often in our recovery culture is to see more of a mix and match. That people don’t have to belong to a certain group. Just because you go to an AA meeting doesn’t mean that you can only go to AA meetings, you can also go to LifeRing, you can also go to SMART.

33:42 Adina: Yeah, why are we just so loyal to one way of thinking. You’re really cutting yourselves off from new experiences and new connections.

33:53 John: And social media is good for that, it’s good for that kind of divisiveness, but you don’t ever see that. You don’t hear that too much in a face-to-face type meeting or whatever, but a lot of what we have to do now is totally online, which is kind of weird [chuckle] now that every, almost every human interaction that we have is through a screen anymore, and that it can get old after a while, for sure.

34:23 Adina: Agreed, I guess maybe the one last thing I might wanna say, I think I may have mentioned this earlier, but I find that this really helps my people. Is just a thinking about thoughts and feelings differently, so I don’t know who this quote is by but I love it. So, “we speak about losing our minds as if it’s a bad thing. I say lose your mind to purposely find out who you really are beyond your thoughts and beliefs”.

34:55 John: I like that. That’s a good way to close out. So thank you so much. And that’s it. That’s another episode of AA Beyond Belief, the podcast. Thank you for listening. Thank you Adina, for joining me here today. And for those of you who would like to support our website and podcast, you can do so in a couple of different ways. You can go to Patreon and become a patron. You may give us a dollar a month, it’s been even helpful. You can also donate through PayPal, paypal.me/aabeyondbelief. Or just go to our website, and click on the donate button. But if you can’t, that’s okay too. We just love doing this and we’ll keep doing it no matter what. So anyway, you all take care, be well. We’ll be back again real soon with another episode.