December 18

More than a program

It’s a fellowship. That’s not the same as friendship – you don’t have to like the whole group, but you should love them and help them. I was going to add that it’s a bridge to normal living, and so it may be for a time, but beyond that it’s a bridge to extraordinary or exceptional living.

I’ve heard people say: “it’s not a social club.” But it’s almost impossible not to make new friends. It’s as much of a social club as you want before and after the formal part of the meeting. But don’t go over the top. There was an Al-Anon group that became a weekly plant sale.

Someone who seems unfriendly may just need bringing out of their shell. It might be a good project to ask shy members what problems they face, do they need any help with the steps and so on. Outside of the formal part, I have found meetings to be splendid for tourist information – and all kinds of local information for people new to the town.

What do you think?
Day 353

August 16

History of drugs

Ciaran Regan, a professor of pharmacology at University College Dublin, wrote Intoxicating Minds published in 2000. Its gem, to my mind, is a riveting historical account of drug use by humans. Critic John McCrone related some details in The Guardian:

“Tobacco was being chewed throughout the Americas for at least the past 5,000 years. For a similar time – judging by the red-stained teeth of skeletons – people have been chewing betel nut in south east Asia, while Africans had their own nicotine equivalent in khat leaves and Australian Aborigines chewed pituri, the extract of a shrub.

“In medieval times, flying ointments were prepared from mandrake and deadly nightshade – the user sleeps, with strange dreams of soaring.

“Cannabis was introduced to Europe by Napoleon’s army returning from Egypt. … The fly agaric mushroom, with its classic red cap and white spots, is so prized by modern Siberian tribespeople that one mushroom can cost three reindeer. Luckily for the impecunious, the drug can be recycled by drinking the urine of the original purchaser. The active ingredient, ibotenic acid, remains potent for five such passes.

“What seemed remarkable to McCrone was the way cultures swing to extremes of opinion about a particular substance. Tobacco or marijuana? Alcohol or cocaine? On a pharmacological cost-benefit analysis, often these drugs come out much the same, but public attitudes are always polarised. Coffee and chocolate once caused moral panic, yet the Victorians were happy to swig opium and alcohol in the form of laudanum. And they used cocaine in every form from teething drops for infants to a drink, Vin Maraini, that carried the Pope’s seal of approval. All societies have had their drugs, and historical accident has apparently decided which become the socially acceptable ones.

“A clearer scientific message is an anthropological observation. In history, drugs have seemed a good thing when they are used as part of a ritual, communion or other bonding activities – when the use is a social rather than an individual act. This is how we instinctively draw the moral boundaries. Drugs that promote sociability become revered, while those that isolate are treated as profoundly dangerous.”

What do you think?
Day 229

December 13

Remember it’s a 12-step program. Some members are selfish eleven-steppers. Who are you helping? (Tweet from Vince_Hawk@Twitter.)

Don’t be an eleven-stepper: Who are you helping?

I’m worried about being hoist by my own petard here. If I look back to comments on Buddhism, one of them was about being able to obtain Nirvana in this world without believing in reincarnation or the afterlife. You need only take the Buddhism train partway, yet obtain wonderful benefits in a non-religious context, or bolt it on to your own religion.

So why not get yourself sober, but forget about the other half of the 12-step primary purpose, which is to help other addicts to achieve sobriety. Some people forget about repaying the help they received by doing the same for newcomers who come in after.

I could argue that this is not playing the game. This selfish behavior is depriving others of the same chance you had. You might reply that you are not equipped to help others, that you don’t feel confident enough, or that you don’t have the time. But these excuses won’t wash.

(Actually the likelihood is that no one will take you to task for being selfish because they know that you are the loser. The newcomer shouldn’t be any worse off because someone else will step in to help.)

       But … you will be missing out on the self-esteem you would gain by helping another human being; you will be missing out on the self-development and confidence building that you would gain by helping another human being; you will be missing out on the friendship you may gain by helping another human being; you will be missing out on further helping and the further fruits of these lost labors – because you never started the process, nor gained experience of the task; you will be missing out on the pride of a job well done (not the outsize ego type of pride); you will be missing out on the quiet satisfaction of seeing another human being gain sobriety and know that you helped; you will be missing out on the repayment of favors that a good deed brings; and you may suffer resentments against you because you refused to give help.

You may not care what others think of you. But if their opinion is ‘less than’ it might reflect on the offers you get to join in with service work and the benefits that service brings. Go on, give it a go!

What do you think?
Day 348

December 28

Spiritual awakening for Bad Behavers

Step 12 talks of a spiritual awakening. No two awakenings seem to be the same, and an addict’s spiritual condition is never static either. A minority claim a big bang experience of a spiritual conversion. But I have always been dubious about all-singing, all-dancing white light experiences in hospital beds when a patient is pumped full of drugs.

If one looks in a thesaurus, spiritual can mean holy, pious, religious, sacred and saintly. These do not fit with a non-religious program so I can only pick out devout as an appropriate synonym. This can also mean serious and sincere. These last two words reflect my attitude to the program after living by it for 19+ years. This does not preclude lots of other facets of a personality such as happy and fun-loving; open and tolerant; and a sense of wanting to help and do the right thing.

Other aspects of spirituality include an understanding of what brought members of a group together. A spiritual awakening or experience is an uplifting feeling on realizing one is part of a connected group. Between members, there is a new sense of belonging. Another aspect is virtues for vices. Having thought long and hard (all I ask is that those who follow think it through and come to their own conclusions) I decided that my spiritual development should come from substituting virtues for vices in my everyday living. Another non-religious meaning for spiritual, given to me by other members, is openness, being teachable, willingness to accept totally new views of the world.

For me, there is no spiritual aspect of a 12-step program that has to be religious. Even prayer can easily be a secular practice with no imaginary receiver of the message. It can be an inner process of one’s brain to promote good motives. Then again, the amends process in steps 8 & 9 is a spiritual action. We become better people as a result of trying to improve ourselves and we feel better about ourselves as a result of doing the right thing and offering amends to people we have harmed.

For an agnostic like me in a 12-step program, spirituality is dreams coming true. I dreamt I was free, but was chained to a bar stool. Now I travel the globe. And after I stopped drinking my career magically took off again. So there are material benefits as well as spiritual.

What do you think?
Day 363

November 10

Most doctors now realize addicts are incapable of curing themselves by willpower. One might just as well try to cure diarrhea by willpower.

(Tweet from Vince_Hawk@Twitter.)

Self-will won’t help you

My AA friend Michael equates self-will with the head, mind or brain of the addict and asserts that it is no good trying to treat one’s disease of addiction from that angle. It is a deep-seated spiritual and emotional disease, he says. That is why so much importance is placed on spirituality in 12-step programs. Indeed, the Big Book says alcoholism could be an illness that only a spiritual experience will conquer.

The emotional side, which has been frozen by the addiction, needs a lot of patience. We need to get in touch with our feelings so that we are ourselves – in other words not a phony. You are much more relaxed and happy if you are presenting your true self rather than a mask. Some people smile from the teeth out. Some put on a mask for the sake of their careers. How can you be happy in the banking sector? – it’s a fraud. But needs have to be addressed here. It is the material vs the spiritual. How much income do you truly need?

It takes a while for the emotions to unfreeze. When that begins, the work is in identifying what the emotions are, and dealing with them. Most people start with anger, which derives from fear. When your receptors are working properly once more there will come the joy of family or nature – whatever does it for you. Living in your emotions can also put you in touch with the healthiness of your body.

Because addiction is a spiritual and emotional disease, to tackle it we sometimes need to keep the head out of the loop. Rational thought will eventually return, but when we start in a program we need to abide by the simple set of suggestions that does your thinking for you. For example, don’t go to places where there will be a temptation to relapse.

Take the biblical story of Jesus going into the desert for 40 days and 40 nights to face the devil, or his demons. That’s not the way we do things in 12-step groups. We throw in the towel, surrender, and in that way remove the demons’ power. Since you don’t have the willpower to resist taking a drink or a drug in a certain place – don’t go to that place.

What do you think?
Day 315

January 18

Program a process, not an event

There is no magic pill, no booming voice of god. The realization that you are in trouble and need help can seem like a revelation. But the treatment does not happen in a snap. It is not a single event.

The first great achievement will be abstinence from your addiction. The magnitude of this may not even register because the addict arrives with a foggy brain and is emotionally numb. Apart from this giant step, because changes are often subtle, the addict can’t see the improvement from one day to the next. Looking back to yesterday there may be no improvement and things can even have taken a temporary turn for the worse. But ever since I got half a year under my belt, I have been able to look back six months and see a measurable improvement.

It is a process of many years. But don’t let that put you off. It can be done little by little, one day at a time. There will be a multitude of small achievements that will add up to a life worth living. You will keep bettering yourself so, for you, the program will change over the journey.

For example, anonymity is more important to the newcomer at the start than later on. But it is a personal decision to break your own anonymity. You must never break another member’s because this aspect is one of the great attractions of the program to newcomers.

“Don’t feel guilty, it’s not your fault, it’s the fault of the drink” was another great sales point for the program at the start for me. Six months later the guilt came back but, by that time, I could see other advantages that kept me in the fold. Remember, you’re a sick person trying to get well, not a bad person seeking forgiveness or redemption.

Selfishness is encouraged at the start whereas, years on, you will probably end up unselfish and helping others. ‘Take the program or leave it’ is the attitude at the start to avoid putting undue pressure on newcomers, but later they are encouraged to complete their step work to become fully contented individuals in the program.

Don’t visit your old haunts is the advice at the start to avoid putting temptation in your way to use again. Later on you will be able to visit old haunts if you have a good reason like helping another addict to break the habit.

What do you think?
Day 18