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


OK, I've Remembered What I'm Doing

What a difference a good night’s sleep can make! While I rested during the night, my clever body was hard at work fighting this cold and getting me back to good health. I’m not quite 100%, but feeling way better.

My unconscious has been hard at work answering some of the questions I posed in yesterday’s blog post.

Conclusions

  • Just chill! I was feeling overwhelmed. So I just needed to relax, slow down and take a break. I chose to do one thing at a time and not get so stressed out.
  • I don’t need to worry about my goals for 2020. Or even next week. I’ll take life “Just for today” as Narcotics Anonymous suggest.
  • Sometimes even thinking about today feels like too much. In these instances, all I need to do is zoom in and focus on the present moment.
  • Being present, aware, mindful – that’s much more important than striving for some far-off goal.
  • My core values are: Truth, Courage, Love and Humility.
  • If I live in alignment with my values, I will feel proud of myself and will feel like my life is worth living. There’s no need for massive grand goals.
  • Money and “success” (however I choose to define it) will come as by-products of me doing work which truly helps others. This will take continual, persistent effort every day. It’s not always sexy or fun, but it’s worthwhile.
  • If in doubt, just be kind… both to myself and to others.

Ahhh, it feels good to have reconnected with my life’s mission!

Deep inhalation. Stretch overhead. Smile.

I’ve got this.

I’m already in the right place, at the right time, doing the right thing.

Who I am in the world day-by-day – that’s much more important than what I achieve.


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.


A Strange Place

I’m in a bit of a strange place this morning. I’ve noticed several things which don’t feel quite right in the last couple of days. It’s enough to make me say, “Hold up, what’s going on here?”

I’m finally starting to feel a bit better after having the worst cold of my life. Sounds dramatic I know, but this one has been a stinker. And yet, now my health is improving, I feel kinda generally deflated, when I ought to be feeling pleased.

Things which usually feel enjoyable are starting to feel a bit “meh”.

The money-making website I’ve talked previously about wanting to set up, it now feels just kinda icky and unpleasant.

I seem to have lost touch with what exactly I’m doing with my life. I’ve been so busy focussing on the next task, ploughing on regardless. I’m definitely putting in lots of effort and (hopefully) moving forward, but is it in the right direction? It’s time to look up and take in my surroundings.

Due to selling various items on eBay and Facebook, the area around my computer desk is feeling cluttered. Usually it doesn’t bother me when things get a bit messy, but right now it feels overbearing. And why is it that the more I sell, the more stuff seems to accumulate?!

Two different companies gave me money yesterday. I’d been half expecting it in both cases, but it still should have been a pleasant surprise… but it left me feeling flat.

I’ve been getting strong urges to escape from the present moment, mainly by just staying in bed. Being ill doesn’t help.

My feelings of disgust towards any form of marketing or manipulative behaviour are at an all-time high. All my heroes are totally honest and authentic. They ruthlessly self-assess to see where they’re going wrong and they course correct. So when I encounter people being arrogant, or deceitful, or selfish, or manipulative, it’s triggering major feelings of disgust.

In the last few days, whenever I encounter people trying to make money as their top priority, it makes me feel a bit sick.

Or again, is this just a reflection of my own internal state? Am I feeling a bit disgusted with my own recent focus with making money? Is it me that has lost his way and needs to reflect on his real values and priorities? Quite possibly.

I want to try to understand where all this is coming from. Is it all just because I’m a bit tired and ill?

Is my disappointment really with myself – and I’m just projecting it outwards?

Where do I want my life to go? What are my goals and priorities? How am I doing in terms of my progress towards them in 2020?

Am I busy making lots of noise and mess and problems for other people, rather than actually making others’ lives better?


Right now, I don’t even know where to start to answer all those questions. So instead I’m gonna escape and play some videogames for a bit. And watch hilarious clips from classic movies like Team America: World Police.

Durka Durka.

(Yes, I’m an incredibly lucky man. Maybe I just need to stop whining and practice more gratitude).

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.

I'm Sorry

It’s human nature to criticise others for their mistakes and failures. It’s much harder to stop and take a long hard look in the mirror.

It takes courage and humility (i.e. balls) to admit when you were wrong.

I made a cock up this afternoon. I spoke harshly to someone close to me. I said several things I really should not have.

Immediately I knew I shouldn’t have done it. I’d let myself get carried away with my emotions.

Now I’m off my antidepressants, I’m often getting surges of emotion, particularly anger and irritation. These surges seem to come from nowhere. And I’m still trying to adjust to them, whilst also trying not to say or do anything too stupid.

I’m not trying to make excuses (OK, maybe I am a little bit). I still shouldn’t have said what I said today.

The temptation is to protect our egos: to think of all the reasons we were justified in behaving the way we did. But we need to move beyond this.

I gave myself a couple of hours to calm down and reflect, then I swallowed my pride. I phoned the person I’d wronged and I apologised.

(Aren’t I just the perfect human being?!)

Steps 4 to 9

The process I’ve described above is actually a huge part of the 12 Steps. Though if you ask me, they needlessly over-complicate it.

Really, it’s as simple as this:

  1. Think about a situation that’s bothering you.
  2. Notice who you’re feeling resentful towards.
  3. Choose to let go of that resentment.
  4. Work out what part you played in the situation. Where were you wrong? What mistakes did you make? What fears and false beliefs underlie the way you behaved?
  5. Apologise and make amends, as long as doing so won’t make things worse.

Doing the above isn’t particularly comfortable. But it helps me feel proud of myself. It helps me feel like I’m taking responsibility for my life.

Wouldn’t the world be a better place if each of us decided, on our own and without any coercion, to look in the mirror and apologise for our mistakes.