Returning to the Fold

I haven’t been to a 12 Steps meeting in weeks. I’m a wayward sheep, determined to forge his own path. But I do want to return to the fold, I’m just not quite sure how to do it without causing myself and others more problems.

Based on some of my rants and criticisms of Narcotics Anonymous, you’d be forgiven for thinking I hated the lot o’ them.

That’s really not true though. I really like a lot of 12 Steps ideas. Today I’ve been listening to the audiobook of Russell Brand’s “Recovery”. Specifically, I’ve listened to steps 9 to 12.

I really like these steps and I absolutely love the way Russell describes them. He’s my literary hero. I wish I could write prose as beautiful and engaging as his.

Several times today I’ve exclaimed, “YES!” out loud in response to a beautifully formulated sentence from Russell – each and every word carefully chosen to fulfill an important role… and it’s hard to imagine any other word being better.

Yesterday I did my own version of Steps 4 and 5 with my “Mental Buddy”. She’s awesome.

I got a lot out of the process. I recognised several patterns in my own behaviour. I identified certain underlying fears and limiting beliefs. It was a really useful exercise.

What I’m trying to get at is that I absolutely LOVE the 12 Steps and the liberating effect they’re having in my own life. But my path through the steps has been littered with stumbling blocks.

One guy at a meeting said to me, “The only barriers are in your own mind.”

I almost told him to fuck off. The 12 Steps are not perfect, there’s plenty of room for their improvement. And to deny this is… is… well it’s just fucking wrong.

At every meeting, if you’re unfortunate to sit in a seat with an A4 laminated sheet on it, you’re expected to read aloud the dogma it contains at the appropriate juncture in the meeting.

But several times I’ve found myself thinking, “But I don’t believe that! Why am I forced to say this aloud, against my own beliefs? I don’t want to be a hypocrite.”

So I have a choice: read this shit aloud and pretend I believe in it, or obstinately refuse to take part and make myself seem like a total prick.

Or maybe I could pretend I’ve lost my voice and pass the sheet onto the next person. Though that’s not exactly a sustainable solution!

And then there’s the problem which someone in a Facebook group succintly described as, “Too many people in meetings who are more focussed on their illness rather than their recovery.”

I can really relate to that. It pisses me off. And then I feel pissed off with myself for being so selfish.

All of us are on our own path. I can’t expect everyone at every meeting to submit to my will and fulfill my selfish and petty needs.

So then I start to think, “OK, so how should I be of service to other people at meetings, rather than focussing on my own selfish needs?”

And this then brings me into conflict with the other big personalities in the meetings… the veterans who seem so in love with the traditions and the dogma.

Because, truth be told, I would run Narcotics Anonymous meetings very differently.

I’d focus on meaningful, practical recovery, not on self-flagellation or starry-eyed wonder for the programme.

Sure, I’d allow room for personal narrative, but to that I’d add a chance for the group to reflect, an opportunity to analyse and extract out the underlying lessons from the experiences of others.

In other words, I’d make explicit the moral of the stories which people tell, rather than leaving their discovery open to chance.

But I foresee that as soon as I start to shape my local Narcotics Anonymous meeting to better achieve the goals I have in mind, that will bring me into conflict with others who have more traditional ideas. And to be honest, I just can’t be fucked with conflict.

My wife has suggested that I start my own Meet Up groups for people in recovery like me. A kind of self-help, personal development, addiction/recovery support group.

I think that’s a bloody good idea. But I’m shit at being consistent. I would need a team with me. Maybe my Mental Buddy would be interested. She’s already running a support group for people with certain issues. Maybe she’d help me start up another…

So that’s where I am right now with all this…

I love the 12 Steps programme (despite the flaws I’ve moaned about at length in this blog). But I struggle with the way it’s implemented at my local meeting.

Where do I go from here? Well, watch this space…


ATTENTION! Dopamine Loops

As my self-awareness increases and my spiritual awakening unfolds, I’m noticing how often my behaviour is comprised of scripts.

They’re little loops of automatic learned behaviour, fueled and motivated by dopamine.

It’s only thanks to mindful awareness that I’m able to notice and interrupt these loops.

  • Checking Facebook. Before I know it, my brain has kinda drifted off and I’m typing “fa…” into my browser, eager for that little rush of excitement when I see I’ve got Likes or comments or an interesting new post shared by a friend.
  • Raiding the kitchen. This happens a lot late at night. I’m kinda tired, my hunger hormones are spiking. And before I know it, I’m eating way more calories than I need and I’m not even truly hungry!
  • Checking my WordPress stats. How many Likes has my latest post got? Are people saying nice things about me? Are there any new countries visiting my blog?

I’m a little ashamed of these automatic behaviours. As rational human beings, we like to feel we’re in control of our brains and our day-to-day lives.

But in reality, much of our behaviour is governed by habits. And it’s up to us to consciously remove unhelpful habits and replace them with better ones.

And that’s fucking hard when so much of modern technology, social media etc is explicitly designed to be addictive, continually interrupt our concentration and grab our attention.

Dopamine loops, they’re everywhere.

Breaking Out

At times I’m tempted to go to an extreme… no technology for 3 months! Quit all social media!

I mean, that’d certainly be an interesting experiment.

But I have a feeling that the sustainable solution is moderation. Something that, as an addict, I suck at.

Ah well, at least I’m aware of the problem and hopefully making steps in the right direction.

Dopamine loops are my brain’s attempt to engage in what’s pleasurable rather than what’s important.

It takes discipline to keep focused on the important stuff, especially if you’re at home (or self-employed) and don’t have a boss watching over your shoulder.

So it’s appropriate that I’m going to end this post here and go take my beautiful dogs for a walk in the countryside. And I’m gonna try to keep my damned phone in my pocket and pay attention to my surroundings!

Love’n’hugs x


Step 3

Traditional wording of Step 3:

“We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God.”

No, I don’t think so. It’s simply not gonna happen.

Here’s Russell Brand’s version:

“Are you, on your own, going to ‘unfuck’ yourself?”

Slightly better than the traditional version, but still problematic.

Ultimately, my recovery depends on me.

I need to learn and then implement the tools and techniques which will lead to my recovery.

Support from other people will indeed be helpful, but we don’t need to make ourselves feel small and pathetic.

“You’re more powerful than you think. Way more powerful.”

– Jordan Peterson

That’s not arrogance, it’s confidence. It’s self-empowerment.

We still need to be humble and willing to learn. But we don’t need to “turn our lives over to God.”


Here’s my version of Step 3:

“We are willing to accept external help to tackle the problems we’ve identified in our lives.”

Bollinger, R. (2020)

I’ve removed all the God stuff. I’ve removed any diminishing of an individual’s capabilities.

And I’ve retained the need for humility, open-mindedness and the willingness to accept outside help.

Much better.


Powerlessness and Unmanageability

Step 1 of the 12 Steps asks us to admit that we are powerless over our addiction and that our lives have become unmanageable.

Does anyone else balk at the way that’s phrased, or is it just me?

What I don’t understand is the strength and absoluteness of those statements.

Powerless? Unmanageable? Really?

Even Russell Brand’s version doesn’t quite sit right with me:

“Are you a bit fucked?”

Russell Brand’s version of Step 1

No Russell, I’m not a bit fucked. Thinking badly of myself is unhelpful.

There’s nothing wrong with me as a person. There’s merely something wrong with my thinking and my behaviour.

I am not my thoughts. I am not my actions.

This distinction is important.

So, for Step 1, why can’t we just say, “Do you have a problem?”

Sure, perhaps it’s the case for many addicts that drugs and alcohol are totally ruining their lives. They have no control at all, and very soon they’ll end up dead unless they change.

But that doesn’t apply to everyone, and it doesn’t apply to me.

Many of us have more subtle and nuanced problems. And our lives aren’t a complete disaster.

Powerlessness

I am not powerless over my addiction.

If I was, then I wouldn’t have made it to 5 months clean today.

Sure, that’s with the help of Narcotics Anonymous, but it’s still me that’s done most of the hard work.

There’s no God, no Higher Power. If you find belief in these things comforting (as I have at times), then that’s fine. But they’re not strictly necessary if you want to solve a problem in your life.

The reality is: there’s just me (plus the help and support I receive from my friends, family members and the 12 Steps fellowship).

Why do the 12 Steps seem to want to belittle and minimise an individual’s capacity for changing their own life? It just doesn’t make sense to me.

For me, what’s happened in reality is that I’ve learned a set of ideas and techniques which have helped me to overcome a particular problem in my life.

In what way does that show I’m powerless? If anything, it shows the opposite.

Unmanageability

And in the same way as I refuse to admit I’m powerless over my addiction, I also refuse to admit that my life had become unmanageable.

Sure, my drug misuse was causing me serious problems.

I’ve had quite a few trips to hospital as a result of my reckless drug abuse.

And even more seriously, I hid my problem from my wife, which put a severe strain on our marriage.

There’s a pretty good chance that without my wife’s selfless support and help, I might well be dead now, either through suicide or some kind of drug misadventure.

But to me, that still doesn’t mean my life had become unmanageable.

Again, it simply means that I had a problem, even if it was a pretty big one.

The truth is that many aspects of my life were ticking along just fine. I had a job. I was responsible enough to care for our dogs. There were lots of other good thing going on in my life.

Sure, some aspects of my life were out of control, but not all of it.

Pedantic

I know it might seem like I’m being pedantic here, but this stuff is really important.

Words have meaning. It’s important that we choose the best words to convey exactly what we mean.

Accuracy is important.

There’s only a certain amount of fudging or interpretation you can do before you have to admit, “Hang on a minute, the phrasing of these 12 Steps is simply not very accurate.”

Powerlessness and Overcoming Depression

If you’re stuck in a hole of depression and feel totally hopeless, then you probably do feel pretty powerless over your life.

But over the years, as I learned more about the disease of depression and how to achieve good mental health, I realised I needed to take personal responsibility for myself.

Sure, I had to start in very small ways and build up gradually, but the important thing I learned was:

“If I choose to do so, there are certain things I can do which will reduce the severity of my depression.”

– Bollinger, R. (2020)

That demonstrates that I am powerful, not that I’m powerless.

And it’s a similar thing with drugs, alcohol and other addictions.

I realised there are things I could learn and put into practice which would help me to solve my problems with drugs.

This is hugely empowering!

Contradiction

Step 1 also contradicts Step 2.

Firstly (in Step 1) we’re supposed to admit we’re powerless, but then in the very next breath (in Step 2) we’re told to have hope that things can improve… by taking action ourselves!

It just doesn’t add up.

Sinister

Why does NA tell people there’s nothing they can do (without a “Higher Power”) to help themselves?

It strikes me as a bit sinister that organisations like Narcotics Anonymous insist that addicts must diminish or eliminate their own agency (their ability to make beneficial choices for themselves).

To me, that looks like Narcotics Anonymous is trying to make addicts dependent on the organisation… “You are powerless, and you need us to survive.”

To me, that feels a bit like an authoritarian and manipulative boyfriend trying to remove the agency and willpower of his girlfriend so he can better control her and bend her to his will.

Ugh, it’s horrible.

The First 3 Steps

It makes me sad that Narcotics Anonymous is so resistant to challenging and evolving its own dogma.

With a little effort, they can develop more accurate and more helpful versions of the 12 Steps.

Here’s my own version of the first 3 Steps, which I humbly present to you:

  1. We recognised we had a particular problem in our lives which was causing us significant difficulties.
  2. We had hope that we might be able to learn how to overcome that problem.
  3. We were willing to ask for help to overcome the problem(s) we had identified.

It took me about 5 minutes of thought to come up with this today… Though I have been mulling over these issues for a while.

In my opinion, this re-working of the first 3 steps is a million times better than the current NA version.

The 12 Steps don’t have to be so extreme-sounding. We don’t need hyperbole and over-generalisation.

In my opinion, the way the first 3 Steps are worded can be a massive impediment to addicts getting the help they need. This makes me feel really sad. It’s so needless.

I myself rejected help from Narcotics Anonymous many times because of their dogmatic approach. It’s simply not necessary. It gets in the way of recovery.

I dread to think of the number of people who have died as a result of not being able to accept the first 3 Steps due to the unhelpful and inaccurate way they are worded.

When I re-word the first 3 Steps in the way I’ve done above, I feel like I can accept them wholeheartedly.

All of my resistance melts away. My gut feeling of “something’s not quite right here” disappears.

And then I can get on with the important business of actually tackling my problems instead of wasting time fighting against NA dogma.


Unfucking Myself

There’s lots of wisdom in 12 Steps programs.

Not only do they help people recover from addiction, but they also unlock the hidden potential within us to become the best version of ourselves.

(No, that isn’t hyperbole. I really mean it.)

Unfortunately, the 12 Steps are often expressed in ways which some people (including me) find problematic.

That’s why I’m grateful to Russell Brand. In his book Recovery, he explains the 12 Steps in his own words. I get on much better with Russell’s explanations.

Russell’s version of Step 3 says:

“Are you, on your own, going to unfuck yourself?”

This comes after admitting we’re fucked and we need some help.

I love Russell’s phrasing, his invented word “unfuck” puts a smile on my face when considering what’s often a deadly serious subject.

A Need for Support

I haven’t been to a Narcotics Anonymous meeting for several weeks. I have mixed feelings about this. As I’ve written before, there’s parts of NA I really like and parts I really dislike.

My recovery is going pretty well, on my own. I’m 3 days away from 5 months clean. The urge to take drugs is almost totally absent.

Strictly speaking, I’m not on my own in recovery. I have the guidance of Russell and the 12 Steps with me. And I have my very own Mental Buddy who is my partner-in-crime on our mutual journey towards better mental health.

But what I really miss is the hugs, the feeling of camaraderie, of mutual support. People who genuinely seem to give a shit about me getting my life back together, whilst trying to do the same for themselves.

It’s also a really nice feeling when someone tells me that they’ve found something I’ve shared useful.

If I could keep all those good bits of NA and get rid of the shit I find unhelpful, that would make me very happy. I might even start going back to meetings.

Today in particular, I could do with some external support.

Discipline

Bad-ass Jocko Willink says, “Discipline equals Freedom”. And he’s right.

I’ve been getting much better at how I organise my time. I try to do the most important jobs first, leaving the fun distractions for later.

This makes me feel proud of myself.

But it’s also like a game of whack-a-mole.

Just as I feel I’m getting one aspect of my life under control, something else seems to get worse.

Right now, I’m struggling with staying up too late at night. This leads to serious overeating.

I know from previous experience that it only takes a few nights of poor sleep for my mental health to fall apart. And the overeating just makes it worse.

Today I feel pretty rotten, physically.

And the impulsive, undisciplined, pleasure-seeking part of me that’s associated with my addiction – it’s desperate to find an escape.

It feels like a nest of snakes in my chest, trying to take over.

It wants me to abandon all of my displine, my To Do lists, and just sack everything off.

“Just have a duvet day”

The seductive voice of the devil on my shoulder

Kindness

I need to stop and take a breath.

I’m not trying to be perfect. I’m not trying to be the ultimate embodiment of discipline and organisation.

I’m actually doing really well. Every day I’m making small progress in the right direction.

I really AM getting my life back together, even if some days are harder than others.

I won’t let a rough day make me abandon everything I’ve worked for. I’m not going to run away, hiding in a hole of self-pity and trying to escape the world.

I’ll stick to my plan. Two steps forward, one step back.

I’ll choose some easier goals for today. One or two useful and important things.

And I’ll remember to breathe and be kind to myself.


P.S. I’m still seeing repeating numbers (like 11:11 on the clock) all the time at the moment.

(Well, not all the time. That would mean I’m living in a house of broken clocks… Clocks that happened to all break at exactly the same time. Now that would be freaky!)

I know it’s probably just coincidence, but it feels like way more than that. It seems to be happening more often than I can reasonably attribute to dumb luck.

I’m choosing to believe that the numbers mean I’m on the right path. They are affirming my spiritual awakening, every day.

That seems like a pretty harmless belief. Even if it’s just placebo, I imagine it can be quite helpful.

Are Antidepressants Worth Taking?

Since being diagnosed with clinical depression a few years ago, I’ve been on and off (mostly on) the anti-depressant Fluoxetine.

I’ve taken varying doses between the minimum and, most recently, the maximum.

What beneficial effects did Fluoxetine have for me? What were its side-effects?

Rather than writing about how anti-depressants are supposed to work, in this post I’ll share my subjective experiences, which may be typical, or they may be anomalous.

[Nerdy science warning: Care should be taken before drawing conclusions from a sample size of one with no experimental controls in place.]

Fluoxetine seems to take the edge off the more difficult aspects of life. And by “difficult” I really mean “intensely emotional.”

I experienced less emotion while on the medication. This felt a bit like having a force field, enabling me to more easily endure uncomfortable situations (whether they occurred in the external world, or purely in my internal world of thoughts and feelings).

Fortunately my emotions weren’t numbed completely. I think that would have felt unpleasant for me, though I can understand why someone who’s been through a lot of trauma might want to numb everything and feel nothing.

Often it’s really beneficial to have a force field which prevents you feeling so much emotion. For example, in stressful work environments, it’s easier to keep your cool.

Dull

Along with dulled emotions, I believe my thinking wasn’t as sharp. It’s hard to quantify exactly how dulled my cognition seemed to be. At a rough guess, maybe 10%?

I’m finding it easier to get out of bed now I’m off the antidepressants. And the morning’s mental grogginess fades faster. I concede this is partly because I’m simply enjoying life more, so I have more willingness to engage with the morning rather than trying to hide from it.

Sometimes life is fucking brutal. Our loved ones will die one day, many of them before we die ourselves. That kind of loss can cause immense suffering and pain.

Dr Jordan Peterson rather bleakly proclaims, “Life is tragedy tainted by malevolence.” I have some sympathy with that outlook.

So it’s no wonder people turn to antidepressants to get some temporary relief from the bleakest parts of life.

Was my life ready that bad?

I wasn’t taking Fluoxetine short-term. I’ve been on it for years. So what unbearable trauma happened to me? Why was my life so bad that I didn’t want to live any more?

In short, I simply didn’t like life. I wanted to escape from it. I spent large chunks of my time wishing I wasn’t around.

At the time, my understanding was that if life’s making you depressed, then it’s perfectly natural to take anti-depressants so you can cope with it.

I liked my Fluoxetine-powered force field. I didn’t want to give it up. It didn’t miraculously make me happier, but at least it reduced the intensity of negative emotions.

And that’s the key point: I had decided I didn’t want to deal with everyday life any more. I constantly wanted to escape, through anti-depressants, through videogames and eventually by taking drugs.

And that lead me to addiction and Narcotics Anonymous.

It might seem strange, but I’m incredibly grateful I hit that low point.

Because it was there, as my life teetered on the edge of total destruction, that I learned the last little secret to curing myself of depression.


The root problem wasn’t that I was depressed. My core problem was that I couldn’t cope with everyday life.

And the solution wasn’t to mask or escape from reality (via games, drugs etc). The solution was to learn how to accept life on life’s terms.


I needed to stop running away. I needed to take responsibility for my life.

It’s thanks to Dr Jordan Peterson and to Narcotics Anonymous that I’ve made these astonishing realisations.

It’s taken me literally years to get to this point. Change is often really hard.


It’s been almost 8 weeks since I cold-turkeyed Fluoxetine. I don’t recommend that anyone else does this – it can be very risky to suddenly stop taking antidepressants, in some cases fatal.

Two months ago I couldn’t fully articulate why I wanted to stop taking my medication. But I knew it felt like the right thing to do for me personally.

It’s only now that all of this is becoming increasingly clear to me, almost 5 months clean from drugs and 2 months free from anti-depressants.

Ultimately, I needed to learn how to cope with everyday life again.

I needed to start taking responsibility for myself. And I needed to learn a better way to relate to so-called “negative” emotions.

Without Jordan Peterson and NA, I expect I’d still be on anti-depressants… possibly for the rest of my life.

So, it’s difficult for me to understate how grateful I am to both NA and Dr Peterson (via his YouTube videos).

Who knows where I’d be without their help.


[Caveat: depression is a complex disease. It has many different causes and seems to affect different people in different ways. In this post I talk only about my own experiences. I’m not a doctor or a medical professional. I am not recommending what I did for anyone else.]

Moving Forward

[WARNING: ramble-style post]

After declaring my journey was over yesterday, I’ve reconsidered.

There are a few different directions in which I’m thinking of moving forward with this blog and other creative projects.

CODENAME: Project Diary

I still want a place where I can talk about stuff from my own life in a pretty unfiltered way. Selfishly, it’s a kind of therapy for me, plus my experiences can sometimes be helpful for other people.

I’d want to cover mental health, depression, personal development, and the ongoing exploration of a meaningful life.

I also want somewhere where I can be fully open and honest about my recovery from addiction. Not everyone I’m close to know the full extent of my recent drug problems. And for that reason, this Diary Project would need to remain at least semi-anonymous.

CODENAME: Show Me Da Money

I’m also really keen to explore various ways in which to make money online. I’ve been trying my hand at matched betting recently and have been successful.

I also want to review various products and services, providing my honest reviews. I’ll include affiliate links so I can earn some commission.

Really, I’d like this money-making project to be totally separate from Project Diary. I want to be able to share my product reviews on Facebook without fear that my father-in-law will find out about my drug misadventures and hunt me down with a shotgun.

Another core design goal for me: I want to be different from all the existing 10-billion websites trying to sell people stuff.

Sure, I will stick closely to my guiding principles of Truth, Honesty and Humility. I will never sell trash to people just to make a fast buck.

But being an honest salesperson isn’t particularly a unique angle. I need some other way to differentiate myself. Some clever branding trick which helps me stand out. I’ll keep mulling this over.

CODENAME: Don’t Kill Yourself

I’d also like to do something around suicide prevention. An old friend of mine killed herself around a month ago. And I’ve already lost far too many people to suicide in my lifetime. I want to do something more to help, but I really don’t know what.

I feel impotent on this matter.

It’s such an important topic, and yet, if I’m honest, there are plenty of other things in my life which feel more important right now. I feel awful for being so selfish, but it’s the truth.

I have one good friend who I feel is very vulnerable at the moment. His moods have been swinging wildly in recently months. He’s come close to suicide several times. I’m helping him by using my Samaritans listening training to try to be there for him. Really, giving him my time, attention and empathy – it doesn’t feel to me like I’m doing very much, though I’m sure my friend is grateful for my help and understanding.

Maybe that’s enough? Just being there for people in my life? I don’t know.

I’ll keep mulling over this one.

CODENAME: No-one Likes My Music

I’m perhaps a little unusual in that I’m in my 40s and I’m still just as passionate about new music as I was in my 20s. There’s tonnes of dance music and electronica which are a vitally important part of my life.

Music literally keeps me sane and keeps me alive. I listen to Spotify for several hours every single day.

Ironically, virtually no-one else seems to like the same music as me, which makes me feel a bit sad.

I want to do something creative in which I celebrate the music that’s important to me… But without annoying my friends with different music tastes.

When I share music on Facebook, I’m lucky if I get a single “Like”. It’s demoralising… and I don’t want to annoy my friends with stuff they don’t care about.


I’ll keep thinking about these different creative endeavours and how I might best progress them.

Any and all suggestions welcome!