How the 12 Steps Affects my Mental Health

Towards the end of September and into early October, I didn’t attend any 12 Steps meetings for almost three weeks. I was on the fence about leaving and trying to stay clean on my own.

So, what effect did that have on my daily mood and happiness?

Fortunately I track my daily mood using a free app called Pixels (available from the Google Play store). It allows me to grade my mood each day on a scale of 1-5.

For me, 1 means I’m depressed, feeling low and unproductive. 5 means I’m having a very good day.

My Pixels scores show me that my mood started dipping a few days after I stopped attending meetings. And my scores remained lower for about two weeks – most days were scored at 1, 2 or 3.

But then, in the five days since I started attending meetings again, every day has been a 4 or 5.

So, my mood has significantly improved.

Correlation Does Not Equal Causation

It’s worth remembering that my mood scores may not have been directly influenced by my meeting attendance. In other words, it could all just be coincidence.

However, I don’t think it is.

When I attend 12 Steps meetings, I feel “topped up” spiritually. I spend time with people who are like me – addicts. They care for me and I care for them. I’ve been to three meetings in the last five days. Each time, I’ve left feeling better than I went in.

I’m pretty sure that the 12 Steps fellowship is doing great things for my mental health and managing my depression. At a bare minimum, it’s making me socialise rather than isolating myself at home.

I just have to keep reminding myself of these benefits on days where I think about quitting the 12 Steps! Addiction is a cunning disease and I’m sure there will be more of those days!

Losing my Higher Power

In 12 Steps fellowships, we talk a lot about God (however we understand Him). Some people prefer to use the term ‘Higher Power’.

For some people, their ‘Higher Power’ is simply a way of talking about the many benefits that the fellowship brings.

A month ago, I felt I was constantly in touch with my Higher Power. But for the last 2-3 weeks, that feeling became more and more rare, until I started to wonder if I’d ever really felt anything at all or maybe I’d just made it all up.

The good news is that the feeling has fully come back today – I’m in touch with my Higher Power again.

If you’re a scientific thinker, it might seem daft to make decisions based on intangible feelings like being connected to a Higher Power. But if you’re a more intuitive or spiritual type, you’ll know exactly what I mean.

It’s just a kind of knowing. Scientific facts are one kind of knowing, but there are certain things we know just because we feel them.

And I promise you, this type of knowing happens even to the most scientific atheists out there, it’s just that they may not be consciously aware of it.

So, what happened while my faith was wobbling recently? A few things…

  • I believed I could keep myself away from drugs without any external help.
  • I felt I didn’t really need to be part of a 12 Steps fellowship any more.
  • I was resisting doing “step work” – I’m currently on Step 1 of the 12 Steps and there’s a comprehensive workbook I’m gradually making my way through. But it’s hard work and uncomfortable – I was wondering if I really needed to put myself through that discomfort.
  • I was getting a bit fed up with the dogma and some of the slightly weird aspects of the 12 Steps.

So, twice in the last few weeks, I messaged my sponsor to say I felt the 12 Steps were no longer for me and I was going to take care of myself instead.

But as soon as my thumbs had typed those messages, I had a sinking heart and a strong physical sensation that I had made the wrong decision.

I talked it over with my ever-patient and understanding wife. She pointed out that I was focussing heavily on a couple of minor things that I didn’t like about the 12 Steps, whilst ignoring all of its benefits.

In other words, I was throwing the baby out with the bath water.

I decided it would be much better if I could just accept or ignore the small bits which bothered me, and focus instead on all the parts of 12 Steps that I like and find beneficial.

Luckily, veterans at 12 Steps know how difficult it can be for newly clean addicts like me. Both times, my sponsor was understanding and welcomed me back with open arms. I’m really grateful to him.

In the last week, it’s become increasingly clear to me that drugs aren’t my real problem. They’re just a symptom of other underlying issues.

And guess what – those are the kind of issues that 12 Steps fellowships are experts at helping people to overcome.

I said to myself, “There’s this lovely organisation of wonderful people who really seem to understand a lot about addiction, what it’s like to be an addict, the thinking patterns, the self-destructive behaviours… and they want to help me… and it’s basically free too.

It would be mad not to be a part of 12 Steps!

And then I also realised… these addicts, over time some of them might actually grow to become my friends. Maybe even really close friends. With 12 Steps, I’ve got a wonderful method of socialising with people who truly want the best for me. That’s going to help my depression too. And I’ve been saying for years that I need more local friends.

But, at this point, my “Higher Power” was still a sticking point. I had so many doubts. What exactly is it? Why do I need it? What’s the best way for me personally to think about it so that I don’t feel I’m compromising myself?

I think I’m finding some answers now which I feel comfortable with. My Higher Power (God) could be any or all of the following:

  • A part of my unconscious mind which wants the best for me;
  • Fate or Destiny;
  • A way of describing the love, kindness and supportive environment at 12 Steps fellowships.

I realised – I feel intellectually comfortable with any of those definitions. I definitely don’t feel I’m trying to fool myself.

The more I thought about my Higher Power, the more I realised there are some really great benefits in believing in God, especially for addicts.

I’ve mentioned before that I now believe it’s worth holding a belief purely for its utilitarian value, even if part of us suspects it may not be objectively (scientifically) true.

For one thing, at 12 Steps fellowships, we’re encouraged to surrender our will to our Higher Power (however we understand Him/it). On the face of it, surrendering might seem strange. I’m a competent and (mostly) sensible man in my 40s, why do I need to surrender to anyone or anything? But then I realised… that’s just my ego talking. My ego wants to stay in control.

When we surrender to a Higher Power, we release our need to control the outcome of our efforts. Sure, we are still 100% responsible for putting the hard work in. But sometimes our best laid plans fall apart. When our plans go wrong, if we believe it’s the will of a Higher Power, it makes it much easier to avoid getting stressed or upset. This is hugely beneficial!

Another useful psychological function of surrendering: it makes us more humble, more willing to accept our own limitations, more willing to be open-minded and consider new ways of living or being which we’d previously dismissed.

Being humble is a really good thing. It means we accept we don’t have all the answers, making us more willing to learn and change.

So, there you go. I was a Doubting Thomas for a few weeks, but I feel I’m back in touch with God again. And it feels good… really good.

Am I an Addict?

Yesterday, I started doubting whether I’m an addict. Today I’m 100% convinced again that I am.

At my 12 Steps meeting last night, a wonderful woman stopped me and gave me the following advice:

“If you ever start doubting if you’re an addict, go read that leaflet “Am I an Addict?” and answer the questions in it. If you answer just one question with a ‘yes’, then you probably are.”

Woman, W. (2019)

She’s absolutely right.

I’ve just re-answered those questions for myself. I answered yes to 20 out of the 29 questions. I’d say that’s pretty definitive.

I was tempted to reproduce the questions here, but the leaflet is copyrighted and I’d prefer to avoid legal trouble.

If you’re interested in what the questions are, my suggestion would be to attend a local 12 Steps meeting (it’s not hugely important which type of fellowship you attend) and ask for a copy of the “Am I an Addict?” leaflet.

How Do I Say This Without Sounding Insane?

Earlier today, I prayed. I had deep suspicions about whether it was worthwhile or if I was just being stupid and wasting my time. But I did it anyway.

Even though I felt daft, I asked God / My Higher Power to show me a sign. I wanted to know if my 12 Steps fellowship was the right path for me.

Tonight, God answered.

Some things to bear in mind:

  • I considered myself an atheist and hardcore scientific thinker for most of my adult life. (That changed on Aug 13th).
  • I don’t know how to explain what’s happened tonight other than… God answered.
  • If you think I’m insane or deluded, I can’t do anything about that. It is what it is. I know what I’ve experienced and felt tonight.

I don’t know where to start. It was incredible…

You’ll have noticed from my earlier posts today, I was at a crossroads. I felt like shit and I was ready to turn my back on the 12 Steps groups I’ve been attending. I even listed all the reasons why I felt 12 Steps wasn’t going to work for me.

Now I know which way I’m going.

I’ve never been more certain about anything in my life. And I feel amazing.

God works through people in the 12 Steps meetings. That’s the only way I can put it. If you’re an atheist, I’m sorry, I don’t (yet) have the words to explain to you what I’ve experienced tonight.

Stop waffling, what actually happened?

I wasn’t going to go to tonight’s meeting. But my sponsor’s text message this afternoon made a lot of sense to me. So I decided to make myself go, even though I just wanted to stay at home.

There was a “main share” from an addict who has now been clean for 6 years. It absolutely blew me away.

Sure, the finer details of their story were different to those in my life, but so much of the essence was exactly the same. As they spoke, I tried to keep a track mentally of all the ways in which I could relate closely to their story. I quickly gave up trying to count – there were too many. I was smiling and shaking my head in disbelief.

And as other people attending the meeting also contributed their shares, each person filled in more of the hole in my heart. It all made perfect sense. All my questions and doubts were answered.

God couldn’t have provided a clearer sign to me if he physically descended from Heaven on a white cloud and smacked me round the head.

I am an addict. I will always be an addict. The best way for me to recover is by following the 12 Steps: attending meetings, listening to the experiences of others, and doing what’s known as “step work”.

Bollinger, R. (2019)

If I ever doubt that this is the right path for me (which I’m sure will happen often because I have the disease of addiction and it’s a sneaky fucker), I just need to return back to these blog posts from today. It’ll show me the total reversal from being utterly broken and miserable, to walking on air. And hopefully it’ll kill any doubts stone dead.

Imagine a shipwreck at the bottom of the ocean. Wooden planks, broken and rotting. Metal rusted and bent. Marine life colonising it. That was me before the 12 Steps.

Now imagine that ship, magically restored to its former glory. It glides over the waves, full of joy and light. It is perfect and complete. The wind of God fills its sails. That’s me now… and it will continue to be me, as long as I KEEP COMING BACK (as they say at meetings).

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A Jesus-Shaped Hole in my Heart

A few years ago, I bumped into an old friend, John. He was one of the guys I used to go to church with, as a teen.

Whereas I lost my faith as an adult and walked the path of atheism and science, John kept his faith.

It was nice to see him again, even if we didn’t believe the same things.

But then John did that thing that Christians sometimes do – he tried to bring me back into the fold. He told me I still had a Jesus-shaped hole in my heart, even if I no longer believed.

I laughed it off at the time – I thought it was another of religion’s oddities. But I was touched that John still cared about me and my fate.

There were some things I missed about the times I went to church, over two decades ago. In yesterday’s blog post I mentioned that I missed the feelings of unity and community – this was especially true during singing or group prayers.

On Saturday 24th August 2019, I became “saved” in a religious sense. (I may already have been saved from when I was a teen, but I figured getting saved again wouldn’t do any harm).

I went to the largest church in my town. I repented of my sins. I made my relationship right with God again.

It’s hard to describe how this felt. My heart was full of joy, forgiveness, love, happiness, serenity and a gentle knowing that what I’d done was somehow right.

I physically felt as if my body was filled with the Holy Spirit. I felt that the breath of God was within me. It felt so wonderful that I almost cried with joy.

I’m in no doubt that the physical sensations were real. As for what caused them, well, I was experiencing drug-induced psychosis at the time. So, according to what you (the reader) believes, I was either experiencing something deeply religious, or it was simply a strange episode cause by mental illness.

The next day, as I reflected on the previous day’s events, I found it hard to relate to what had happened. It almost felt like it had happened to a different person.

I didn’t regret going to church, praying to God, and getting saved. But somehow it didn’t fully make sense to me any more.

I’ve been attending a 12 Steps fellowship for 3 weeks now. A big component of it is God (or Higher Power, however each of us understands it/Him). For some people, it’s simply the power of community: people getting together and helping each other. For others, they believe in a literal, very real God who is like a Father looking out for them.

I’m still not sure what I believe. A few years ago, I believed in nothing, I was an atheist. Then I thought of myself as a humanist – I felt that humans could be good without God.

But since my Spiritual Awakening on the 13th August, even though the psychosis seems to have passed, I now believe there is some kind of Higher Power. I know to some people (notably atheists), that will sound a bit pathetic and wishy-washy. But I really do believe it. Maybe He is mechanistic and blind, like Fate. Or maybe mankind truly is made in His image and he cares deeply for each of us. I don’t know, but I’m remaining open-minded, like a good scientist.

In the 3 weeks since my Spiritual Awakening, I’ve been noticing a large number of “signs”. Scientifically, I know I ought to write these off as mere coincidences. I acknowledge that I’m noticing them partly because I’m kinda looking out for them. And humans are extremely good at noticing patterns, even if they don’t really mean anything (think of faces in clouds).

But a part of me also remembers being a teen and begging God to show me signs so I could believe in Him… but He was silent. If He existed, I felt God had abandoned me, so becoming an atheist made the most sense.

Maybe God wanted to show me signs back then, but the time just wasn’t right. Maybe He’s showing me so many signs now because the time is finally right.

I cannot explain how amazing my 12 Steps fellowship is. It’s such a beautiful thing to have addicts come together in a spirit of honesty and humility. It’s only been 3 weeks and already it’s changing my life for the better. I feel so honoured and humbled to be a small part of something making such a gigantic difference in many people’s lives. 12 Steps literally saves lives.

I have been holding off telling the world about these religious/spiritual experiences because I’ve been worried about being judged or mocked. But, frankly, all of this feels real to me, even if I can’t understand it, so I don’t really care about anyone else’s opinion.

I trust and have faith that my Higher Power is guiding me on the right path. I’m feeling fully Courageous for perhaps the first time in my life. If that makes me deluded or insane, I really don’t care.

It feels real to me, therefore it’s real.

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