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:

WHAT I’VE FINALLY CONCLUDED ABOUT 12-STEP PROGRAMS AFTER 25 YEARS WRITING ABOUT DRUGS AND ADDICTION


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.

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.

When the World Doesn’t Measure Up to Our Expectations

There’s some truly excellent personal development advice in 12 Steps programs. I feel this advice applies to everyone, not just those in recovery from addiction.

The Very Best…

Here’s a great example of the very best advice in Narcotics Anonymous. As you read this quote, I’d encourage you to see the ways in which it applies to your own life:

“There are days when some of us wallow in self-pity. It’s easy to do. We may have expectations about how our lives should be, expectations that aren’t always met. Maybe we’ve tried unsuccessfully to control someone, or we think our circumstances should be different. Perhaps we’ve compared ourselves with others and found ourselves lacking. The more we try to make our life conform to our expectations, the more uncomfortable we feel. Self-pity can arise from living in our expectations instead of in the world as it actually is.

When the world doesn’t measure up to our expectations, it’s often our expectations that need adjusting, not the world. We can start by comparing our lives today with the way they used to be, developing gratitude for our current circumstances. We can extend this exercise in gratitude by counting the good things in our lives, becoming thankful that the world does not conform to our expectations but exceeds them. And if we further cultivate gratitude and acceptance, what we can expect in the future is more growth, more happiness, and more peace of mind.

We’ve been given much in our lives; improving ourselves has paid off. Acceptance of our lives, just for today, frees us from our self-pity.

Just for today: I will accept my life, gratefully, just as it is.”

Extract from a “Just For Today” email from Narcotics Anonymous. I’ve made some minor edits so this applies to non-addicts too.

Isn’t that quote simply amazing! Such good advice!

… And The Less Good

Unfortunately, there are some NA ideas I disagree strongly with. Here’s an example…

“Our recovery must come first. Job or no job, relationship or no relationship, we have to attend meetings, work the steps, call our sponsor, and be of service to God and others. These simple actions are what make it possible for us to have vacations, families, and bosses to worry about. Recovery is the foundation of our lives, making everything else possible.

Just for today: I will keep my priorities in order. Number One on the list is my recovery.

Extract from a “Just For Today” email from Narcotics Anonymous.

The above may be true for most addicts, but I don’t believe it’s true for me.

This is one of the things I dislike the most about NA – it tries to lump together all addicts without making sufficient room for diversity.

Attending meetings, working the 12 steps, calling my sponsor, being of service to others… I can see the value in each of these activities.

However, I see them as merely useful, not essential.

There are other factors which help people stay clean. The NA way isn’t the only way for people to lead meaningful, productive lives. And yet, it claims that it is, which I find a little unsettling.


Staying Clean and Sober

I’ve been having a great couple of weeks, but last night I could tell that the good times were coming to an end. I could feel the beginnings of sadness creeping in, stealing my energy. I reminded myself that my mood and energy levels tend to come in cycles – good for a while, but eventually I’ll crash, likes waves on a shore.

(Note: This is one of those posts where I’m just gonna start typing and we’ll see what happens., i.e. it’s rambling and unstructured, but I hope it makes sense. I’m feeling lots of emotion and my rational brain feels half asleep still.)

But maybe it’s all just a self-fulfilling prophecy. Maybe I’m doing voodoo on myself. Maybe when I think, “My happiness is coming to an end, I’m overdue a depressive slump,” – I’m actually telling my unconscious mind to make it happen, and so it does.

(Note 2: This tune perfectly captures my mood this morning. It’s Help Myself by HWLS.)

What happens when you change the story you narrate to yourself about your life? Well, I know from my own experiences and from those of many other people: your life can transform in the most remarkable of ways.

So, what would happen if I stopped telling myself to expect depression to hit soon because it’s overdue? And what alternative narrative would I put in its place?


I’m frustrated by my 12 Steps sponsor. He keeps badgering me to do the “suggested things”… attending meetings, daily phone calls with him, daily step-work, prayer and meditation, a daily mini-inventory…

I’ve been busy for the last couple of weeks doing DIY, cleaning and chores. For the most part, I’ve been loving it. It gives me a huge sense of accomplishment. Some of the tasks are things I’ve been meaning/wanting to do for a very long time, but somehow I just kept procrastinating.

It’s fair to say DIY has been my latest obsession. And addicts like me tend to be quite “all or nothing” people, meaning we find it hard to balance multiple responsibilities.

My sponsor insists it’s important that I phone him frequently and that I try to do at least a little step-work every day. But talking seems pointless when life has been going so well. And as for step-work, I prefer to do that in longer bursts where I force myself to sit down and concentrate on it for an extended period. Doing just 5 or 10 mins per day almost seems disrespectful.

Anyway, yesterday my frustration with my sponsor reached the point where I’d decided I’d had enough. Don’t worry, I’m not quitting the fellowship (again)… those fuckers are stuck with me for a while longer yet. But I am taking a break of a week or two from my sponsor.

I know he just wants the best for me, but it frustrates the hell out of me that he’s trying to apply a cookie cutter template to me: “Do, A, B and C or you risk relapsing on drugs and might even die.”

I really just want to say, “Fuck off, I know what I’m doing.”

I refuse to abdicate my intellectual prowess and succumb to dogma. I’m not a 12 Steps clone, I’m an individual. My personal history and current circumstances are pretty different from a junkie who used to shoot up heroin every day. My using was occasional and I could be abstinent for months at a time.

There are plenty of other differences between my life and the “generic addict” life as portrayed in 12 Steps literature. I do my best just to gloss over these differences. I try to “look for the similarities, not the differences”.

But I do still struggle with the 12 Steps “lump all addicts together” approach. Why does the 12 Steps insist on treating me exactly the same as every other addict? Why is there no scope for individuality, for customisation of one’s program of recovery?

Yes, I fucked my life up with drugs. But that doesn’t mean I need to submit myself wholeheartedly to a generic program and turn off my brain and ability to reason for myself.

Why can’t I take the bits and pieces of Narcotics Anonymous (NA) that I like, apply them to my life, and ignore the rest? That seems like the best approach.

I understand that for NA as an organisation to survive and thrive, it needs a certain amount of unity. If different people with different ideas are allowed to do their own thing, they risk splintering off into their own denomination. NA would risk becoming like Christian churches… 101 Dalmations (or 1 million and 1 denominations).

So… in NA, individuals are discouraged from doing their own reasoning and tailoring the generic program to suit their personality and their circumstances… and this is done for the sake of the survival of NA as a whole.

I suppose I can see the logic in that. But I’m (selfishly) putting my personal recovery as a higher priority than the survival of an organisation. Sure, I owe a debt of gratitude to 12 Steps, but my own recovery comes first.

Here’s what I know about successful organisations/companies… they adapt and evolve. They don’t stay the same. They constantly re-evaluate market conditions and develop their products and services accordingly.

Organisations which try too hard to stay the same, those ones tend to die. They become rigid fossils.

My fear is that NA is like that… too stuck in the past, too inflexible.

AND YET… I still feel I get enough benefit from NA that I can overlook all of its flaws and continue my membership. It’s just that there’s a lot I must turn a blind eye to.

Historically, I’ve always been a maverick. I’ve always wanted to do things my own way. I’ve attempted to influence and shape the organisations I’ve been a part of to fit with my own ethos, ethics and ideas of what’s right. Apparently this trait is quite common amongst addicts.

So: here’s my plan… I’m going to do NA my own way. But I’m not going to attempt to influence the shape or direction of the organisation. Not yet, anyway. There’s huge institutional inertia and scope for conflict if I try to change things.

I don’t want extra conflict in my life right now. I want to stay clean from drugs (in my own way), and rebuild my life into something meaningful.

That does mean I need a sponsor who can be flexible with me. I have a horrible suspicion my current sponsor doesn’t have the capability to be as flexible as I need him to be. I guess I need to have a chat with him face-to-face about this.


I had a horrible dream this morning…

[Warning: contains gory imagery which some people may find disturbing]

In my dream, I’d blacked out after a party involving copious quantities of drugs and alcohol. It was now morning and I was trying to piece my life back together,

I couldn’t think straight. I couldn’t operate my phone properly. I desperately needed to talk with my wife, but I couldn’t work out how to get my phone to call her.

I’d relapsed… and not in a small way. I felt gutted that I’d ruined all my hard work in staying sober.

I’d been in charge of our 4 dogs while my wife was away. But I’d neglected them because I was too obsessed with getting wasted and partying. I’d let them out the house to roam the neighbourhood – anything could happen to them.

I found Seth, our second-oldest dog. He’s sweet, gentle, highly intelligent and avoids any kind of confrontation. I offered him a piece of ham, but he wouldn’t come towards me… I knew something was wrong.

Then I noticed that his eyes were rolling back. Something was very wrong. I got closer to his face and I noticed a large wound on his cheek – he’d been bitten by another dog. He looked like he was really suffering. I needed to get him to the vet immediately.

SHIT! How had I allowed this to happen? I desperately tried to get hold of my wife on my phone. I needed her to phone the vets and let them know we were on our way. But again, I couldn’t work out how to operate my phone properly – my mind was clouded by drugs and alcohol. Last night had been wild.

I spent a while wandering the streets, trying to work out how to get home. I was somewhere in London, lost. I accidentally got on the wrong train and became even more lost.

I managed to get hold of my wife on the phone. Apparently I’d been involved in some kind of public disorder last night and was being prosecuted and fined by the police. I couldn’t even remember where I’d been or what I’d done.

I saw Akira The Don (famous music producer / YouTuber) in my dream. He told me to get in touch with him, “about the thing”. I think he was talking about some music track we were working on together.


That’s about it. A horrible, stressful, depressing dream in which my life was falling apart.

Maybe the memory of that dream will help to keep me sober.

Maybe I should contact Akira the Don and see if he wants to collaborate with me in some way. I have zero music production skills, but… I don’t know his views on drink and drugs, but maybe it’s worth asking.

OK, rambling post over. What title shall I use? I know…