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…

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.

An Uncomfortable Realisation

A few days ago, I wrote about how easily we can be influenced by the people around us, even if we don’t notice it.

And since then, I’ve had quite an uncomfortable realisation…

Back in mid-August and early September, when I was experiencing drug-induced psychosis… I think I was unconsciously accepting too much influence from Narcotics Anonymous.

In NA, there’s a lot of talk about God, Higher Power, spirituality etc. And looking back at my posts from that time, I had a lot of beliefs and experiences which I feel were related to these themes.

You see, now it’s 4 months later and I feel better than ever. I feel fully back to my normal self. And I struggle to relate to the “me” who had all those strange beliefs and experiences which I blogged about.

I feel like a lot of my beliefs about God and spirituality came from attending NA. At the time I thought it was helpful, but now I don’t think it was.

There Is No God

If I’m totally honest with myself, right now I don’t believe in God, even if I did 3 months ago.

I don’t even believe in a “Higher Power”.

What I do believe is that individuals have a far greater innate capacity for greatness than they believe.

In other words, many people, especially addicts, are way too hard on themselves and don’t believe in themselves. So they become stuck in self-limiting patterns of behaviour, which is tragic.

I also believe there’s a lot of power in fellowships like NA where people genuinely want the best for each other.

But we already have perfectly good ways of describing these things using non-spiritual language (like I have above), without needing to invoke God or a Higher Power.

It just feels like a horrible, disingenuous fudge to invoke God. Why can’t NA describe these things in ordinary language, as I’ve just done?

Waking From A Dream

I feel a bit like during my psychosis I was in some kind of waking dream… a lot of stuff was happening inside my brain that I wasn’t consciously aware of.

Sure, most of it was good, but it still makes me feel weird.

I feel a bit like I’ve suddenly realised I was indoctrinated into a cult back in mid-August. And I’ve slowly been returning to “normality” in the months since then.

I feel embarrassed and ashamed to admit that. An ex-friend called me stupid a few times for what I blogged about in August and September.

We don’t talk any more – the friendship is ruined. But he kinda had a point, even if his levels of empathy and kindness were less than that of a dead slug.

My ego hates me admitting that. Like most people, I don’t particularly enjoy admitting when I was wrong. But it’s especially galling considering our disagreement resulted in our friendship getting annihilated.

A Sense of Pity

When I hear other members of NA talking about God, a Higher Power, or otherwise repeating verbatim some snippet of NA dogma, part of me feels sorry for them.

I wonder how many other people are sleepwalking, unconsciously accepting influence from NA without fully realising it.

It sickens me when I hear people twisting their feelings and experiences to fit into the NA dogma. It’s not right.

And part of me is tempted to try to break the spell for them, to help explain things in a secular way which I feel might actually be beneficial for their recovery. But it’s not my place to (arrogantly?) intervene. Everyone is on their own path, and if people are happy with NA, I’m not going to ruin it for them.

But It’s Not All Bad…

I’m not trying to claim that NA is a nefarious and malevolent cult. Far from it.

NA genuinely wants to help people. And for the most part, it does a good job.

I’m certain that NA has saved the lives of many, many addicts when no other solution worked for them.

But that doesn’t make NA perfect. It doesn’t make the organisation immune to criticism. It doesn’t mean it can’t improve, if only it were open-minded enough to consider doing so.

And the longer it’s been since I feel I’ve regained my full cognitive capacity, the more that certain aspects of NA just leave a bad taste in my mouth.

There’s way too much dogma in NA. And if you dare question it too much, you either get lambasted by your peers or patronised… at least, that’s been my experience…

I’ve been called dismissive and arrogant for daring to question certain practices within NA.

No Need For Me To Go On

I was about to detail some of the other ways in which I don’t like NA’s practices. But I’ve already done that to a certain extent already. And I’m sure better writers than me have made similar criticisms of NA over the years.

The sad thing is that where dogma is entrenched, organisations find any kind of change incredibly difficult.

I feel sorry for NA and the people trying to keep it alive. The world has moved on, but it can’t keep up.

I think I’m done with NA. And I feel really sad about that.

Narcotics Anonymous really helped me when I needed help, suffering with psychosis and desperate to get my life back in order.

But in the space of just 4 short months, I think I’ve outgrown the organisation and its slightly weird practices.

Until today, I’ve been wanting to continue attending NA meetings, despite a growing sense of unease inside myself.

But to be honest, I wanted to think of NA as a kind of social club for practising self-development techniques. But that’s not really what NA’s about. And it’s not what the organisation would want for me either.

With sadness, I think I need to say goodbye to NA.

Though I hope to keep in touch with some of the people I made friends with there.

They mean well, but if they continue to spout dogma at me, there’s a non-zero chance I’ll tell them to fuck off. And no-one wants that.

Sorry this post might seem a bit depressing. But hey, it’s the honest truth of how I’m feeling.

Ironically, in the last few days I’ve been seeing loads of “spiritual numbers” – especially 444 and other repeating ones.

My rational brain knows this is likely just coincidence.

But also I’m taking some comfort from the feeling that even if leaving NA feels painful, in terms of my own personal growth, the numbers are confirming that it’s the right path for me.

Getting the Most from 12-Step Programs

(Photo: Nic McPhee/Flickr)

I have mixed feelings about 12-Step programs like Narcotics Anonymous, which I’ve now been attending for 4 months.

There are plenty of good things about NA. But sadly, there are also several unsettling flaws which drag it down in my estimation.

There’s zero chance that I’m the first person to have recognised NA’s problems, which indicates to me that the organisation is stuck in the past. It struggles to adapt and change, limiting its ability to learn from its mistakes.

NA is stuck in ideology and dogma, seemingly unable to evolve and improve.

The real tragedy about this is that it unnecessarily limits the organisation’s ability to help people.

I wonder how many struggling addicts have been turned off by NA’s negatives, many of which I’ve wrestled with myself. How many of those desperate people relapsed and died as a result of NA’s failings?

A journalist’s conclusions

I enjoyed the following article, which contains many salient points about Narcotics Anonymous (click the link just below)


I don’t want to sound overly negative about NA, so here’s my attempt at a balanced representation of NA’s pros and cons:

What I like about NA

  1. It’s free (other than a small donation each meeting).
  2. I love the social support I receive from other addicts. There are some really lovely, kind, caring people at my local NA meeting. After 4 months of attending meetings, some of them are starting to feel like friends.
  3. For people who diligently follow a 12 Step program, it seems likely that their lives will improve in many different and sometimes unexpected ways.
  4. One vitally important NA catchphrase is, “Take what you like, leave the rest.” You’re not forced to think or believe in a certain way. There is some room for individual differences of opinion.
  5. There’s a lot of overlap between the 12 Steps and some ancient philosophies such as Stoicism and Buddhism. These philosophies are excellent paths to self-mastery and self-improvement. I’m a big fan of both, and for me, much of NA’s ideology fits quite neatly with my existing beliefs and understanding.

What I don’t like about NA

  1. Some members seems to insist that there is only one correct way to recover from addiction (the official NA way), leaving little room for nuance, individual differences or the complexity of life. I strongly resist such a puritanical and ideological approach. Blind faith in dogma is simply stupid – we should always be willing to question what we’re told.
  2. NA’s insistence on the existence of a “Higher Power” is redundant for the treatment of addiction. NA seems wilfully blind to the fact there are plenty of secular, effective, evidence-based drug treatment programs.
  3. NA lumps all attendees together and treats us as if we’re all the same: sick addicts who are fundamentally broken. Personally, I don’t find this approach helpful. NA literature is full of unhelpful narratives about the lives of addicts – I can’t relate to much of it and I have to force myself to ignore it. The organisation could avoid this problem if it was more inclusive and better recognised the large variations in the experiences of different people.
  4. In its very first step (Step 1), NA insists I admit I am powerless over my addiction. That’s a huge turn-off for me. I’m absolutely NOT powerless. (See the article I mentioned earlier for more on this.)
  5. NA insists that anonymity is essential and non-negotiable. But some people (like me) find it helpful to be open and honest about my drug problems. I believe that silence and stigma around mental illness and addiction just makes things worse.
    (NOTE: I don’t recklessly over-disclose, I’m careful about who I share with. And for this blog I keep my true identity hidden behind a pseudonym.)

How I reconcile all these problems

For me, it all comes back to that idea I mentioned earlier:

“Take what’s useful for you, ignore the rest”

And there are plenty of things I find beneficial about Narcotics Anonymous.

It would be churlish of me to throw the baby out with the bath water – to stop attending simply because there are certain aspects I don’t like.

Perhaps NA is simply a microcosm of society… everyone is different and if we want society to function well, we must be tolerant of each other’s differences…

… that’s unless you want to live in a totalitarian state like Communist China.

Step One

Today I “read out my Step one”, to use 12 Steps parlance. It’s a big milestone for addicts.

In everyday language, that means I spent three hours at my sponsor’s house, reading out my answers to questions from Step one in a book called the NA Step Working Guide.

I like Russell Brand’s version of Step one – we admitted we’re a bit fucked and need some help. That certainly applies to me.

I’ve written my answers gradually over the last two months. There was a lot of procrastination and maybe a touch of fear. I’d been a bit worried I’d get into an intellectual debate with my sponsor, which was the last thing I wanted. I’m comfortable with my beliefs and don’t want someone to try to fill my head with dogma or unsolicited advice.

Thankfully that didn’t happen. We shared our own experiences and opinions very honestly. And today has actually been really enjoyable. I’m glad I did it. I get on well with my sponsor and I’m grateful to him for giving his time to help me so freely.

And so now it’s on to Step two…

But fortunately I think I’ve done most of the hard work for that already, especially around my personal concept of God / Higher Power.

Bring it on!

Self Will vs God’s Will

At my 12 Steps meeting last night, we each shared our thoughts about Step 3.

Step 3 of the 12 Steps states:

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

It was really interesting to hear other people’s interpretations of what this step means.

For a lot of people, the use of the word “God” is problematic. I agree – for me it’s a significant intellectual hurdle.

As I progress on my 12 Steps journey, I’m constantly trying to walk a fine line of incorporating 12 Steps ideas into my set of beliefs, but without selling out or fooling myself into accepting ideas which, in my heart, I know I can’t accept.

Here are a couple of interpretations of Step 3 which I liked (I’m paraphrasing):

  1. It’s about learning to do the right thing, as opposed to indulging our impulses.
  2. It’s about learning to think of others, being self-less, rather than always thinking about ourselves and our own interests.

Both of those interpretations remind me of Dr. Jordan Peterson’s Rule 7:

Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)

In other words, do the right thing, rather than merely what’s fun, easy, interesting, or in your own self-interest.

That reminds me, I wrote a post about “doing the right thing” a few weeks ago.

12 Steps Without God

In previous blog posts, I’ve explored different ideas about what God might be (according to my own personal understanding).

Most recently I settled on a definition of God that’s something like this:

“God is something like the combination of 2 things:
1) The divine spark which resides in each of us – our potential for greatness;
2) The power of the community of people at 12 Steps meetings.

Bollinger, R. (2019)

… Buuuuut… I have to admit, in the last week I’ve really been losing faith.

I’m now finding it hard to believe in any kind of God at all, even one as loosely and generously defined as above.

It’s not God that got me where I am today, it’s me.

Does that make me arrogant? Does that make me full of self-will? These questions genuinely trouble me.

Don’t get me wrong, I really don’t think I’ve got everything figured out. Not by a long shot. Every single day I learn something new in my 12 Steps journey.

I’m trying hard to always be open-minded and humble. I want to always be ready to admit I may have been wrong about something. I want to learn from everyone I talk to.

But that doesn’t mean I have to believe in any form of God, does it? He just seems superfluous.

I believe in me… my ability to learn and change and grow.

I really hope that doesn’t make me arrogant. Personally, I find it empowering.

It reminds me that I’m not a useless, broken, unworthy soul. It reminds me that I am capable of greatness… if I put in the hard work.

Artie Lange: Why He Won’t Say He’ll Never Get High Again

Just For Today

I like Artie’s approach, which comes from the 12 Steps. I don’t have to worry about staying off drugs for the rest of my life… I just have to stay clean for today.

Artie says how he loved the feeling of being out of control. I can really relate to that… I wanted to know where boundaries and limits were… so I could smash straight through them!

It’s also refreshing to hear him admit openly how much he loved drugs. I hear lots of stories about people whose lives were absolutely miserable due to drugs. But it wasn’t really like that for me.

Sure, I had the occasional low point and a few hospitalisations, but for the most part I fucking loved getting high. And it’s a relief to be able to say that openly.

Artie’s right, this attitude is both honest and it takes the pressure off.

Just For Today.