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…

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

Recently I talked about how I now have a pretty flexible belief system.

My goal is to choose whatever belief seems to have the most utility (for all concerned) at any given moment. This means I can believe one thing one minute, then paradoxically, believe its opposite in a different situation later on.

It all depends on what seems like the most useful belief to me at the time.

I also have underlying guiding principles. I have morals and ethics, which are particular to me. This fundamental moral structure helps me to determine the relative utility of different beliefs.

My moral system is built on Honesty, Courage and Love, plus several other spiritual principles.

And I’ve been thinking about how this system might logically be expanded further…

Flexible Feelings and Narratives

I’ve been thinking about feelings and beliefs… and how these build into the stories or narratives we tell ourselves.

If you’ve ever practiced meditation and/or mindfulness, you’ll have probably noticed how us humans are constantly telling ourselves stories. We constantly narrate what’s going on around us.

And we also time travel to the past or the future – and start narrating what’s already happened (in the past) or what we think might happen (in the future).

I’ve found that it’s perfectly possible for beliefs to be flexible. It hasn’t ruined my psyche or diminished who I think I am as an individual person. If anything, my flexible beliefs have made me even stronger and more confident in who I am.

So, if beliefs are flexible… are feelings and narratives flexible too?

I believe they are.

I believe we have the choice to engage and identify with feelings… or just let them pass. This is equivalent to us deciding a belief is true and incorporating it into our self-identity, or simply just letting it be.

Here’s a concrete example… let’s say a friend does something which results in me feeling angry. At this point, I can choose to narrate my feeling of anger and decide I’m justified in feeling that way… at which point I’ll start to build a cohesive narrative around the feeling…

… Or I can choose the mindful approach, which is to simply witness the feeling of anger, allow myself to feel the emotion, and let it pass in its own time.

It’s entirely my choice… engage with the anger, or just let it pass. And that choice brings tremendous freedom. We don’t have to be a prisoner to our own impulses.

Of course… sometimes it’s easy to get carried away in the moment and forget I have this choice… but I’m hoping that with practice I’ll get better at it.

A House of Cards

Recently I’ve become more aware of the stories I tell myself. And I keep reminding myself… it’s all just in my head! The structures of meaning I build, the narratives, they all exist only in my mind. And I often make the mistake of trying to impose my narrative structures on the external world. I confuse my map for the territory, a common human mistake.

It’s such a wonderful feeling of freedom when you catch yourself telling yourself a story about what’s happening, and you realise…

  • This is all just in my head!
  • I can choose whether I want to believe it’s true or not.
  • I can choose how I want to act, based on this narrative.
  • I can even choose to drop a particular narrative altogether, if I feel it’s not helpful.

That last point really struck home for me yesterday…

“I can even choose to drop a particular narrative altogether, if I feel it’s not helpful.”

Bollinger, R. (2019)

It’s so funny! We spend so much time building these houses of cards in our minds… layers of meaning and interpretation layered on top of each other…

And yet, they are only important if we decide they are important. And we can choose to knock over the whole house of cards at any time!

So when we’ve knocked over the house of cards, what choices does that open up for us?

  1. We can choose to switch our minds into “being” mode. This is where we are consciously aware of what’s actually going on around us. We are a witness to our own thoughts, senses and emotions. We just watch these things pass through our minds, without getting attached to them or resisting them. And there’s great peace here.
  2. Or, we can choose to start rebuilding the house of cards in a slightly different way… hopefully one more closely aligned with our personal spiritual principles.
  3. As a slight variation on the above option, we can talk to someone else who has an interest in how we build our house of cards. What meaning do they interpret from this situation? Let’s negotiate to build a house of cards in each of our minds which we can both agree will be useful. This ability to build shared meaning is very powerful for humans. And we tend to get into a lot of trouble when we insist that our personal house of cards is more valid than someone else’s. Again – the map is not the territory.

I feel like it’d be useful at this point to give a concrete example.

Let’s take my recent falling out with two friends.

If we reduce the situation to its bare, component facts, it looks something like this…

My friends said and believed some things about me which I felt were untrue.

That’s it. With all the emotion and righteous indignation removed from the situation, that’s basically what happened.

I then chose to feel angry, upset and offended. I escalated the situation. My ego got involved and I decided I would rather not have a friendship than concede to these two idiots.

Could I have handled this situation differently? Of course!

I could have simply decided I was going to allow my friends to think and believe what they like about me. If they aren’t willing to listen to my explanations, I can’t force them. I also can’t force them to think positively about me or re-assess their own judgements.

In essence, I could have just ignored the whole situation and not let it bother me.

I could have told myself a narrative something like, “They’ve made some incorrect assumptions about me and drawn some unflattering conclusions. But they also won’t take the time to listen to me, so I can’t change anything. So I’m just going to let it go.

And just like that, the house of cards in my own mind, the one fueled by righteous indignation, collapses into nothing.

The house of cards came from nothing. It always was nothing – it existed only inside my own mind. And then it returned to nothing. It only held meaning while I decided it held meaning. I can choose to return it to nothing at any time.

Does all that make sense?

Next Steps

So, moving forward, I intend to use mindful awareness to notice when I’m building a narrative, a house of cards, in my own mind. And I’ll ask myself, “Is this story I’m telling myself a useful one? If there was a better, more useful, story – what would that look like?

I won’t always remember to do this. I will still frequently get caught up in the moment. But I’m hoping that the more I practice this way of being, the easier it’ll be and the more proficient I’ll become.