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…


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.]

Merry F'kin Christmas

Are you feeling a little grumpy as we near Christmas? Or is it just me?

To be fair, it could just be me.

It’s been 6 weeks since I stopped taking my anti-depressants cold turkey (I’m sure there’s a joke about Christmas leftovers here somewhere). And I’m definitely more irritable.

Though I’d much rather be irritable than depressed.

Actually, I’ve had consistently good moods: literally 6 solid weeks of 4/5 or 5/5 days (as measured by the excellent Pixels app by Teo Vogel).

I can’t remember the last time I had 6 weeks of solid good moods. Over the last few years, it’s been rare for me to go more than 2 or 3 weeks without a few days of depression in which I struggle to get out of bed or have enough motivation to do anything at all.

I’m definitely feeling more irritable than usual, but not so much that it has a significant impact on my happiness levels or general satisfaction with life. Phew!

Many Reasons to be Grumpy

At this time of year in particular, there are plenty of reasons to be feeling grumpy.

There’s the stress of preparing for the big day – buying and wrapping presents, tidying the house (if you’re having guests over), trying to make sure you’ve got all those extra little jobs sorted out in time.

And then there’s incompetent delivery companies… yes, I’m looking at YOU, Hermes UK. You’ve managed to lose a parcel which contained a little boy’s Christmas present, despite the fact it was sent two weeks ago.

Yes, it was insured, but that’s not the point, is it. This present can’t easily be replaced. And by now it’s certainly too late.

You had ONE job, Hermes. ONE.

Managing Emotions

So yeah, there are a 1001 things to do and even more reasons I could use to justify why I’m a bit irritable and grumpy.

But that’s not how I want to feel.

And so I remind myself of a few things which help to return me to a place of calm.

I remember that there are people sleeping on the streets this Christmas, so I should consider myself lucky that I can even afford to send presents.

I remember that although it’s difficult to totally avoid all of life’s little irritations, I can choose how I respond to them.

I can choose to stew on those annoyances, obsessively ruminating on all the reasons I’m justified in feeling angry.

Trust me, I’m an expert at making mountains out of molehills. That’s a big part of why I ended up with clinical depression.

If I continue down that path, pretty soon I’ll have backed myself into a corner, filled with rage. I’ll be a dark, angry, depressed mess, just in time for Santa.

You should have seen me one year ago. I was depressed as fuck. I refused to actually run during the Christmas Day Park Run. Instead, I walked it, stubborn as Mary’s mule.

I hastily deleted the photos taken by the official race photographer. I’m surprised my miserable face hadn’t cracked his lens!

Or…

I can choose just to Let It Go (credit: Frozen). I can choose not to let those irritations get to me.

I can acknowledge the feeling of irritation in my mind. I can notice the tension in my body. And I can just… breathe it all out.

Ahhh, peace. Now that’s how I want to feel this Christmas.

And If All Else Fails…

… just get drunk and start a violent altercation with the nearest bystander.

See you in prison!

Merry Christmas, love from Rock Bollinger x

Misery Is Optional

Some days, the Just For Today email from Narcotics Anonymous really hits the nail on the head for me. Today is one of those days.

“I don’t have to be miserable unless I really want to be.  Today, I will trade in my misery for the benefits of recovery.”

– Extract from Just For Today email.

There’s a lot of crossover between the ideas of NA and those in other philosophical traditions such as Buddhism and Stoicism. And this is a great example.

Look, I get it: it’s human nature to tell ourselves we are justified in our misery…

Perhaps a political party we despise has just been elected (as will happen for a large proportion of the UK electorate in the next few days). Perhaps our boss at work is treating us unfairly. Maybe we’re suffering from some kind of mental or physical illness.

But I like to remind myself of Victor Frankl and his 1946 book, Man’s Search for Meaning. Viktor survived the Nazi concentration camps. If anyone had good justification for feeling miserable, it would be him.

And yet – he took control of the way he reacted to his horrific circumstances. He didn’t let them get the better of him.

Can We Help Being Depressed?

I’d like to think I know what I’m talking about when it comes to depression and suicide. I’ve been depressed on and off for most of my adult life and been close to suicide several times.

When I’m feeling really low, it feels like a kick in the teeth to be told that I should just decide to be happier. It feels ludicrous and absolutely impossible to even try. And I want to punch anyone who suggests it, no matter how well-meaning they may be.

But whilst in the depths of depression, I gradually came to accept an incredibly profound concept:

“Whilst I am not to blame for my depression, there are certain things I can do which can make things better for myself.”

Bollinger, R. 2019

Interestingly, Narcotics Anonymous says something similar about addiction.

Now, as I’ve alluded to above, if you’re currently depressed, often the last thing we want to hear is that we have a responsibility to try to get better. It’s much easier to throw our hands up in the air and say, “Hey, I have an illness. I can’t help it. There’s nothing I can do about it.”

That freedom from responsibility seems appealing, comforting almost – it allows us to take a break from caring. But it’s a silk-lined trap.

“When we recognise that there are ways we can help ourselves, and we’re not condemned to suffer indefinitely, that’s incredibly liberating.”

Bollinger, R. 2019

No Quick Fix

Now, I’m really not saying that a depressed or addicted person can just click their fingers and magically decide to be happy. It’s not that simple.

As any behavioural psychologist worth their salt will tell you: behaviour change is hard. And that’s because we have to build up healthy habits, which takes practice and time.

It takes incremental effort, every day, as we attempt to make our lives just a little better. Just one tiny step forward every day will result in us eventually finishing a marathon.

Actually, it’s even better than that: if you improve 1% every day, by the end of 1 year, you’ll be 37.7 times better than when you started. (I blogged about this idea here).

(Note: not 37.7% better, 37.7 times. That’s 3,770%!)

Your Turn

So, over to you…

What small things are you willing to do, today, which might help you feel less miserable, more fulfilled, happier with your lot in life?


Up or Down?

Today feels like another of those pivotal moments… depending on how I handle things in the next few hours, my life could take a turn for the worse…

…Or maybe I’ll be able to use my arsenal of mental health tools’n’techniques to dodge the knockout punch which life is aiming my way.

If today was happening just a year or two ago, I’d say there would be a good chance I’d be heading into another depressive episode.

Fortunately, I have an ever-increasing belief that I (probably) have the inner strength to handle this. I hope I’m right.


So, What’s Going On?

Let’s start with the facts: Physically I don’t feel great: tired & achey. Mentally I’m not so hot either… brain fog, lingering sadness.

My old friend’s suicide is affecting me a little… but to be fair I haven’t seen her in ten years, so I’m less distressed than if she’d been my closest friend and we’d been better at keeping in touch.

12 Steps

I’ve been pulling away from Narcotics Anonymous. I’m coming up against barriers inside my own mind which are making it hard for me to feel close to people within the fellowship. I’m losing the sense of community I felt previously. I’m also intentionally avoiding my sponsor because much of what he tells me I find unhelpful. I haven’t attended a meeting in at least a week – I’m questioning its value for me personally.

On the plus side, I don’t see myself quitting Narcotics Anonymous completely. I still can very much see the value in doing the “stepwork” from the NA Step Working Guide book. It forces you to carefully consider your relationship to the 12 Steps. It helps you become a better person. And yet I’ve been procrastinating getting stuck into it for weeks. I’m at the start of Step 2, but I keep finding way more interesting things to do around the house… mostly DIY, which at least has felt productive. Yeah, I suck at routines and discipline.

As I’ve mentioned several times on this blog, there are lots of things I dislike about the 12 Steps. However, overall, I still feel it’s beneficial for me. So I’m going to keep going.

Anti-depressant Withdrawal

It’s a little over 3 weeks since I cold-turkeyed from Fluoxetine. This is precisely the timeframe where I might expect to feel the withdrawal effects on my moods and emotions.

I’m certainly feeling emotions more strongly now. The other day, I nearly cried while listening to some emotive music – that’s not happened to me for years.

Physical Effects

Recently, I’ve been really struggling to establish a good routine with diet, exercise and sleep. Again!

I know those 3 factors are very important for my mental health. When I consume too much sugar, don’t get enough exercise and keep staying up into the early hours of the morning, it’s an almost guaranteed recipe for worsening mental health.

Bad Dream

Last night I had a bad dream which repeated many elements of another disturbing dream I had recently.

I was in London and wanted to get home. “Home” in my dream was Hampshire, where I grew up. It’s westwards from London. But I got on the wrong train and accidentally headed North. I didn’t even realise I was on the wrong train until the train was outside London.

Once I realised, I got off at the next stop and planned how I would get back to Hampshire. It was going to take forever.

I would also need to walk through a place where I knew a lot of old acquaintances would be using drugs. It would be hard for me to resist.

This morning I’ve been trying to work out if the dream holds any significant meaning. What is it trying to tell me?

I find it alarming if my unconscious thinks that going North is/was a mistake. My wife and I moved North 9 years ago. Sure, we’ve had some difficulties, and it’s been tough for me being socially isolated (I’ve not made much effort to make new friends locally).

However, I can’t stress this enough: I have zero regrets about moving to Yorkshire. I love it here. My hometown holds a lot of painful memories for me and I have no inclination to return.

I’m 100% committed to my wife. My intention is that we’re going to be together until we die.

Moving North was very much NOT a mistake. So, what else could the dream mean?

Perhaps it simply means I’ve been heading in the wrong direction recently. Maybe I’ve been spending way too much time being obsessed with DIY when really it would be wiser to get stuck into NA meetings and stepwork.

Or perhaps the dream holds no meaning at all and I’m too eager to read something into it.

Maybe I should just “collapse the house of cards” – remove all sense of meaning and interpretation from these recent events. Maybe I need to get back to my “being mode” – experiencing life as it is, mindfully, without layering on so much meaning, which only exists inside my own head.

Taking Action

Practical steps I can start taking immediately to wrestle control of my life away from any impending depression:

  1. Remember that nothing holds any meaning unless I decide it does. That immediately reduces any emotional valency.
  2. Get busy. Do some DIY or something productive. Be mindful whilst doing this.
  3. Exercise, eat better today, get a good night’s sleep tonight.
  4. Listen to my favourite music.
  5. Be kind to myself.
  6. Reach out to my NA sponsor. I’ll chat with him at 3pm today.
  7. Get stuck in to working Step 2 this weekend.
  8. Cry if I really need to. Don’t bottle up emotion, but equally don’t wallow in it.
  9. Remind myself I’m on the right path, despite what the dream might suggest.
  10. I just felt this list should have 10 items and not 9. LOL.

The Big S

My brain keeps coming up with amusing ways to begin this post. It’s bizarre, the subject I want to talk about isn’t funny at all.

Suicide

There, I’ve said it. I’m sorry if I’ve just ruined your day.

Last week, an old friend took her own life.

She was recently married and had a young baby. But depression and other mental illnesses don’t particularly care about your life circumstances. It doesn’t matter how successful and happy you might seem on social media.

She wasn’t the first person in my social circle to do this. It’s distressing that I’ve actually lost count of the number of friends and family who have died by their own hand.

And even worse, I’m not particularly unusual. By the time most of us reach our forties (like me), we’ll know at least one person who killed themselves.

Suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK. I’m sure the rest of the Western world has similar stats.

Just stop and think about that for a second…

Not cancer, not heart disease, not even car crashes. Suicide.

And yet many of us are still too scared or feel awkward talking about it. And that stigma contributes to the problem.

I feel strongly about this issue – before my blog’s recent redesign, this post aimed at preventing suicide was permanently featured on my home page.

Impotence

I’ve had my fair share of mental health problems: depression which brought me close to suicide several times, panic attacks and addiction in recent years.

I’m incredibly grateful for these difficult experiences. They’ve taught me useful skills, for helping both myself and others. I’m better able to empathise with people going through similar experiences.

Volunteering as a listener for a suicide prevention charity was one of the most fulfilling roles of my life.

And yet, I feel like I should be doing more. More to help others, more to reduce the number of deaths by suicide.

Suicide isn’t inevitable. Severe depression can be treated. Maybe not for 100% of people, but certainly for some, maybe even most.

There’s more I could be doing to help.

Recently I’ve been looking for a clearer purpose for my blog, a tighter focus. Again and again The Universe keeps prompting me to do something about mental health issues and specifically suicide.

I guess it’s about time I did something.