Saturday, 28 May 2016

What is a relapse?

Alcoholism is pretty clear-cut. When you start drinking of a day, you massively overshoot; when you start drinking after a period of sobriety, it could be days, weeks, months, years, or even decades before your mind 'unfogs' and you're able to stop; and once you're sober, a drink will still sometimes seem like a good idea, even despite years of terrible consequences.

A relapse would be drinking again. It is safe to say that taking any other substances where your relationship with the substance is or could be like it is with alcohol is a relapse, too. Do addictions to certain drugs mirror alcoholism? Check the above definition of alcoholism against your experience of cocaine, opioids, benzodiazepines, etc., and there is clearly no doubt. There are other drugs (let's not list them) where there is no overshooting, where the vicious cycle does not develop, and where there is no real physical or psychological dependence; they're just fun and are not very good for you. Maybe the 'not good for you' includes triggering a relapse on a really dangerous drug, so perhaps best to avoid anything mood-altering altogether. Mapping the scheme of alcoholism onto all other mood-altering substances is unprincipled, however, because the analogy often breaks down rapidly.

What else is a relapse?

People often say that taking a mind-altering substance is a relapse. That should be clear, right? Well, unfortunately caffeine and nicotine pass the blood–brain barrier, as do certain nutrients, and lots of foods affect mood and mental status.

The definition is made murkier as soon as you realise that a lot of medication is psychotropic, and a lot of medication, even non-psychotropic medication, crosses the blood–brain barrier and causes changes in mood or mental status. Then there is the question of which mood-altering substances can produce an addictive cycle.

Legality is also terrible as a test, because what is lawful in one country is not lawful in another. It is a historical quirk that alcohol and nicotine are not illegal, whereas less addictive and less damaging drugs are not.

Even once you have drawn up your list of banned substances (which usually involves applying principles piecemeal, because few people would treat caffeine as a slip, even though it is clearly addictive and clearly mood-altering), you're not out of the woods: all sorts of activities that do not involve ingestion cause the release of chemicals that are mood-altering. Exercise, gambling, and worry are good examples. Is gambling a relapse? Probably depends on whether you're a gambler. Is worrying a relapse? I could construct a good argument for that being the case.

Never taken a mood-altering substance since your sobriety date? Good for you! Trouble is, you have. Your digestive system even produces tiny quantities of alcohol. You have likely drunk coffee, perhaps smoked, and certainly eaten sugar. Your body is also a chemistry set, constantly producing chemicals that alter your mood, and any analysis of the interaction between behaviour, chemical composition of the bloodstream, internal release of chemicals including neurotransmitters, and brain activity is extremely complex. How do you think gamblers get high? It's not by introducing a substance into the body; it's by using behaviour to alter mood, and, chemistry is certainly involved.

So, here's the conclusion: I don't drink. I don't take narcotics and I don't take medication that is mood-altering if I can help it, because I hate the effect now. There are lots of other things I don't do, too.

What I don't do is pronounce everything an addiction at the level of alcoholism or crack addiction, because it's not. What I also don't do is tell other people what to count as a relapse and what not to count as a relapse.

Thursday, 26 May 2016


If one looks carefully at the context of the phrase 'suggested as a programme of recovery', a few points are clear:

If you are an alcoholic of the hopeless type, the only solution is to have a spiritual awakening.

The only way to have a spiritual awakening known to the authors of the book, other than waiting for a spontaneous one, is to take the steps.

The authors of the book concede there may be other methods, but they do not elaborate on what such other methods may be.

Clearly, however, the authors have tried other methods and have failed.

So much for other methods.

Obviously, the programme is 'suggested' by the authors. They're hardly in a position to give orders, because they have no authority over the readers. All they can do, therefore, is suggest.

'Suggested' does not mean 'you can achieve the same results by other means'. It is merely a politeness device; it says, 'we're in no position to instruct you what to do, but we would be dead if we hadn't done this, so feel free to adopt the solution we have found'.

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

How to choose a meeting

Most people judge which meetings to go to by how they feel. If they feel companionship, camaraderie, comfort, and other lovely things, it must be a good meeting. If they feel inadequate, cowed, intimidated, resentful, envious, or jealous, it must be a bad meeting.

Unfortunately, in quizzing one's own emotions, one is asking the person whose actions, for years, and not just in relation to alcohol, were apparently not in his or her own best interests.

I am therefore very suspicious of choosing which meetings to go do based on feeling.

A good meeting provides three things: identification, inspiration, and instruction. You need to know that the people there used to have or still have the problems you have had or currently have. You need to be inspired by people who have actually solved these problems. And you need to be instructed about how to get from A to B.

It is no good having just two of these:
If identification is lacking, hope is hard to hold onto, because there is no reason on earth that their solution would also work for you.
If inspiration is lacking, again, hope is hard to hold onto, because there is no evidence that the instructions given will actually work.
If instruction is lacking, the meeting is all fur coat and no knickers: carrying the message necessitates teaching through example precisely what to do to get well.

A good approach to judging which meetings to go to is to assess whether the meeting provides these three 'i's.

Sometimes good meetings are very uncomfortable to be in. When I have been very sick, I have been suspicious, cynical, and envious of people who are well. I did not feel 'part of' their little groups, because I was so far away from where they were spiritually. I therefore felt excluded even though these people were overtly welcoming me. I did not identify with their positivity so thought it was feigned. In short, I often felt terrible at good meetings, at precisely the meetings I needed to go to in order to learn how to apply the programme.

Conversely, meetings where people were as sick as me were exceedingly comfortable. There was no one doing well enough to show me up, and I felt temporary comfort because I did not feel as alone; perhaps being as miserable, resentful, and frightened as I felt was universal, normal, and not actually a problem to be addressed. Perhaps all I had to do was go and share how difficult I found life with people who were just as depressed, with the result that we would all get a tiny little bit of relief, but not actually have to lift a finger to do anything about the problem.

There have also been meetings over the years that have been huge fun. The people were attractive socially, they shared eloquently and interestingly, and we all got on like a house on fire, during and after the meeting. Beneath the shine, though, nothing was changing; no work was being done.

With any luck at all, the good meeting, the one providing identification, inspiration, and instruction, will also be the one that is jolly and that my friends go to. Of course, a strong meeting will be one where the people know each other very well. It is going to take months of consistently turning up, doing service, and joining the others for fellowship afterwards before I feel part of the club. There is no such thing as genuine instant intimacy. If I go for six months and still feel estranged, time, perhaps, to find a new meeting, but I've got to have given it a really good go to know for sure that the people are just not my cup of tea, and that the problem is not my own hostility and tendency towards mental separation from others.

I go to a Big Book meeting every week, and a Step meeting. I suggest sponsees do likewise. If they don't feel camaraderie at the Big Book meeting and Step meeting they're going to, they're of course at liberty to go to as many other meetings as they wish, so that all of the bases are covered. The jolly meetings are not a substitute for the nutritious meetings, however. You need spinach as well as Turkish delight.

To sum up: it is the substance that counts, not the shine, and the purpose of going to meetings is to recover from alcoholism and to help others recover. The question is not: 'how do I feel?' but 'does this serve my primary purpose?'

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Terrible thinking

If you're having a horrid experience of life, your thinking must be rotten. It must be out of kilter with spiritual principles. However, to the individual thus suffering, it will never seem that way. It will seem reasonable, rational, evidence-based, and in fact the only possible way of thinking about his or her circumstances.

How on earth does one discard ideas that one believes in for those that one does not (as, to someone spiritually out of kilter, spiritually 'in kilter' ideas will seem unreasonable, irrational, and non-evidence-based, or else they would have been opted for by preference long ago)?

The answer is contained in ... drum roll ... the book Alcoholics Anonymous:

'Is not our age characterised by the ease with which we discard old ideas for new, by the complete readiness with which we throw away the theory or gadget which does not work for something new which does?'

Judge the validity of your thinking by this: are the thinking and associated action bringing you health, happiness, harmony, love, joy, peace and connection? Or are they bringing you fear, resentment, guilt, and disappointment?

Regardless of what seems true and false to the spiritually misaligned, this test is the crucible in which the false is separated from the true.

With alcoholism, and with other obsessions of the mind, remember this: 'they cannot after a time differentiate the true from the false.' With this consideration foremost, apply the outcome test to each thought and action: what result is it bringing?

Monday, 9 May 2016

Have you tried Step Seven?

Once I thought the programme wasn't working because I felt really bad a lot. Feeling bad a lot was flowing from doing bad things and thinking bad things. You know they're bad things to do and think because they make you feel bad. Turns out, the problem wasn't God or the programme. It was me.

Step Seven suggests we ask God to remove every single defect of character that stands in the way of our usefulness. That means, whenever I think a bad thought or think of translating that bad thought into bad action, I must ask God to remove the bad thought and give me the strength to not do the bad thing. The best way to do that is to think a good thought and do a good thing.

Turns out, if you apply Step Seven constantly, it works. I had been expecting the results of Step Seven, namely the removal of defects, by taking it once but then not actually asking God to remove a defect every time it came up. That's silly. It's like going to the supermarket once for food, then being surprised when the fridge doesn't keep filling up with food on a daily basis. Then again, I'm often silly. That's not a problem unless one thinks oneself clever. This is why humility is necessary.

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Making amends to yourself

It is very fashionable to make amends to yourself, because, after, isn't it yourself you've harmed the most? Sometimes the authority cited is the later AA literature, for which, read: more evolved.

Let's leave aside the fallacy that, when two ideas are presented, the latter is superior because it was presented afterwards; let's also leave aside the opposite fallacy, namely that the original idea is superior with all later ideas somehow watered down or bleached of significance.

Let's instead examine principle.

First of all, what is the intention behind Steps Eight and Nine per the book Alcoholics Anonymous? It is clearly to resolve relationships that are damaged because we have harmed people and not righted the wrongs. It is self-evident that an amend therefore requires a relationship to obtain. It is furthermore clear from the instructions that the amend takes the form of an admission of wrong and a sincere expression of goodwill in attempting to right the wrong.

With these facts in mind, it is perfectly evident that an amend cannot be made to oneself, unless one is minded to have a conversation, say, in front of the mirror.

It is true that we did harm ourselves. If we were indeed to right that wrong, how would we do it? Well, we would stop drinking, start relying on God, seek God's will to determine the most effective deployment of our time, energies, and talents, and mend our fractured relations with others. In other words, the most effective way to rectify the harm done is to do what we have already committed to doing, namely to take the Twelve Steps.

The first element of making amends, the conversation, is simply not possible without an absurd charade with only one participant.

The second element of making amends, the practical follow-through, is already covered by the fact that one is taking the Twelve Steps. To be of service to others, one necessarily must look after oneself; to make the most of one's life, one necessarily must seek God's will (or, if you like, a humanist equivalent).

The making of amends to oneself is thus a substanceless proposition.

What is equally interesting is the psychology behind the proposition of making amends to oneself. When the idea is presented in meetings, it is usually accompanied by a presentation of all sorts of other ideas such as making amends in God's time not one's own time (for which, read: never), not making amends to exes, not making amends until your motives are entirely selfless, not making amends to people who are just awful, etc. One cannot of course know precisely what another's motivations are, but it is striking how the concept regularly seems to be accompanied by a downplaying of the harm done to others and the overt purpose of Step Nine, plus a renewed focus on self, as though the problem in the past is that we never put ourselves first enough.

It may be the case that we neglected ourselves physically (I feel sorry, for instance, for dental hygienists treating a newcomer AA who has not had his teeth fixed in years), but this was not because we were so selflessly devoted to meeting the needs of others to our own detriment that we failed to look after our own lives; no, the reason we harmed ourselves was because we were bent on more imperious and even more selfish motives that self-care: personal gain, relief, euphoria, and oblivion. Even the genuine martyrs among us had selfish motives: manipulation, punishment, control.

The answer is not, therefore, the cultivation of self but the recognition that if you're in a devil of a state yourself you won't be of use to others, so, to be of use to others, which is the real purpose of Step Nine, you need to attend to the basics of self-care. In other words: put your own oxygen-mask on first before helping others. The mistake, to extend the analogy, is to conceive of the placement of one's own oxygen mask on first as the primary and only objective. Whilst others are suffocating around one, one can lean back, close one's eyes, and enjoy the flow of oxygen-enriched air.

The psychology of the self-amend is thus questionable. By all means, decorate your life with pleasant things and certainly do look after yourself, but don't use this as an excuse to tick the 'Am I taking Step Nine?' box while neglecting the actual substance of Step Nine.

The fabled Step Eight 'never' list

I heard someone say yesterday that it is helpful to divide the Step Eight list into three categories:

  1. Amends I am willing to make now.
  2. Amends I may be willing to make in the future.
  3. Amends I will never be willing to make.
It is perfectly reasonable to identify that one is currently unwilling to make a particular amend (category 2) or that one is so unwilling one cannot conceive of ever being willing (category 3).

This approach, however, is used universally to justify postponing indefinitely a large swathe of amends; I have never heard this approach being presented in conjunction with this instruction from page 76:

If we haven't the will to do this, we ask until it comes.

The recognition of unwillingness does not license indolence or postponement; rather, it commands concerted action to remove the blocks through prayer, consultation, reading, and consideration of certain principles, which are these:

If I were owed money by the tax authorities, I would not accept the tax authorities saying, 'We do owe you the money, but we've put you on the "never" list, so you can whistle for it.' Similarly, if you order goods and they are not delivered, you complain, because you have a right to them. In the same vein, you owe people amends; the amends are not an act of uncommon generosity but adherence to the most basic principle of human relations: fairness.

There are valid reasons for postponement, but these must be pragmatic and not related to some pseudo-spiritual notion of waiting 'until God shows me what the right time is' or until 'God gives me the willingness'. True enough, God will give you the willingness, but only on the back of vigorous spiritual action by you (as outlined above), which should take days or weeks, not years.

So, the basic principle is this: are you going to live a moral life, or an immoral life? Are you going to seek out companions and sponsors in AA who will challenge you on the morality of your conduct? Or have you surrounded yourself with people who, themselves deficient in the practice of Steps Eight and Nine, counsel the withholding of amends from people who thoroughly deserve them?

There is furthermore the question of drinking again if one does not complete amends, and the equally pertinent question of remaining trapped in compulsive and other unsavoury behaviours whilst the past remains unresolved.

In sum: do not deny lack of willingness, but resolving the lack of willingness is then your number one priority and the number one focus of your AA action, with comprehensive willingness, as expressed by actually doing one's utmost to make amends, as the imminent objective.

How to make a decision

If I’m following the Steps, how do I make a decision?

Here are some tips (all pages references are to Alcoholics Anonymous). Not all tips will apply in all situations.

First of all, I have to clear away emotions that could distort the decision or reduce them to natural proportions:
  • If I have emotional disturbance around the question, I do four-column inventory and apply the prayers on page 67. I endeavour to forgive everyone for everything.
  • If I am frightened, I do the inventory on page 68 and apply the instructions on the same page for eliminating the fear. I decide to serve God and only God and rise above the fear.
  • If there are outstanding amends in the area, I make those before the decision (pages 76–83).
Spiritually preparing for making a decision:
  • I apply the page 86 instructions for the beginning of the day before praying specifically on the topic (asking God to direct my thinking), etc.
  • I ask specifically to be guided by what I can give not what I can get—I remember that I’m there to do God’s will, not my will, and I’m there to help the rest of God’s kids get their heart’s desire by performing His work well (see page 63).
  • I ask specifically ‘what is for the good of all?’
The decision-making process itself is divided into several stages.

Stage 1: aim
  • What is the purpose, the outcome, the objective of the proposed course of action? What problem or lack does the proposed course of action seek to solve? (Tradition Five: what is the primary purpose?)
  • What spiritual principles are going to guide the attainment of that purpose (e.g. usefulness, kindness, tact, consideration, humility)? The principles for how to make amends on pages 76–83 are very good on general spiritual principles, as are pages 110–135.
  • Even if something is God’s will, is it God’s will for me, as opposed to anyone else? Is God really delegating this one to me? (Twelve Concepts)
  • Is this genuinely God’s will or is this self-centredness dressed up as God’s will? Are there any secret selfish plans lurking? Bad motives lurking under good?
  • Am I personally attached to a particular outcome (Tradition Six)?
  • Am I being over-organised—in other words controlling (Tradition Nine)?
Stage 2: options
  • What are the available options (i.e. what courses of action are open to me, including doing nothing)?
  • What would each involve, practically?
Stage 3: assessment
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of each option?
  • What are the risks associated with each option?
  • What experience do I have with each option?
Stage 4: consulting others
  • I consult one or two highly trusted individuals who are logical, rational, reasonable, experienced, and have a sense of humour.
  • I don’t shop around for views or I will confuse myself.
  • Is this a decision which involves other people? Do I need their permission (Tradition Four)?
  • Is this a decision which should be made jointly? Do I need to hold a ‘group conscience’ with them? (Tradition Two)
Stage 5: asking God
  • I ask God specifically for direction.
  • I listen to or read spiritual materials, seeking guidance through those materials.
  • I sit quietly and wait for answers.
  • I write down anything that comes.
  • I consult back with the one or two highly trusted individuals.
Stage 6: conclusion

  • I choose an option from amongst those available.
  • I follow through.
  • If the decision turns out to be wrong, I admit it promptly.

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Round up (2 May 2016)

What can hardly be a success?

Page 60 says that, prior to taking Step Three, we must be convinced that living life run on self-will can hardly be a success. Later on in the book Alcoholics Anonymous, it talks about 'giving not getting' being the guiding principle.

This is true also, therefore, of decisions: what to do for a living, who to spend time with, who to spend one's life with. The question is not what to get but what to give: is this a worthy object of my talents, my time, my effort?

Making a decision on this basis takes guts, because it involves setting aside what we think we will get out of a possible decision, trusting that God will give us everything we need to be OK and will ensure we can have health, happiness, harmony, love, joy, peace, and connection, even though we can't see how a particular decision could bring those to us.

The truth is this, however: those commodities arise from within us; they do not come from the outside; they come from giving, not getting.

What do you do when you realise you have terrible values?

When you realise that you have been driven and consumed by desires for material or career success, approval, or superior appearance, and that such desires are empty and ultimately cause only frustration, anxiety, and disappointment, there is nothing to do other than recognise that they are illusions. When you have been dreaming and wake up and realise that the dream was a dream, you do not need to process the dream further. All you need to do is recognise you are back in reality and get on with your day.

The Twelve Steps and other methods

A summary of the Twelve Steps is set out on page 59 of the book Alcoholics Anonymous. This is not really the Twelve Step programme; the programme is the set of actions described up to page 164. The list is like a menu; it's not the set of recipes. Sometimes buildings are ripped down and their facades are kept, with a new building being erected behind the facade. If you are taking the Steps other than in accordance with those pages up to 164, you are doing something similar: you will be following instructions erected behind the facade of what is written on page 59, and there is no guarantee that those instructions are consistent with the actual instructions up to page 164 or that those instructions will produce the same effect. Other programmes cannot by definition be anything other than based on the Twelve Steps. They may resemble the Twelve Steps and may indeed be very good or even superior, but the Twelve Steps they are categorically not.

Removal of character defects

We do ask for character defects to be removed. However, in the realm of the spirit, what is going on is not removal but substitution. Virtues are substituted for defects. Thinking about God and how we can serve Him is substituted for thinking about ourselves.

Self-worth and the flat earth

If you feel bad because someone does not like you or approve of you, you are being foolish. If someone says that the earth is flat or that climate change is a fiction, that does not change the truth: the earth is spherical and climate change is indeed happening. If everyone disapproves of you, the same is true: you are of infinite worth because you exist, full stop. What is really going on is that, for some reason, you have decided you are worthless, and you then seek corroboration in others' responses to you, for which they are then duly blamed, for making you feel bad. We are the source of the problem, but fortunately we are also the source of the solution. God has placed the truth of what we are inside us. Our job is to uncover, discover, and discard the dross, thus revealing the innate truth.

Having a tough time emotionally

When I’m having a tough time emotionally, before examining the substance of my concerns, I check that I have not been neglecting the actions that cumulatively ensure good spiritual hygiene. These actions, set out below, are available to newcomers and more seasoned members alike. I resume taking all of the actions below, wait a week, and then see if there is any remaining substance to examine.

  • Every week, I attend a Big Book meeting focusing on the material up to page 164 of Alcoholics Anonymous. I do service at this meeting. I do fellowship after this meeting with other attendees.
  • Every week, I attend a Step meeting. I do service at this meeting. I do fellowship after this meeting with other attendees.
  • Every day, I take the Step Eleven actions set out on pages 86 to 88 of Alcoholics Anonymous. I don’t belabour these instructions but follow them I do.
  • I adopt a spiritual practice with daily actions beyond the instructions of pages 86 to 88 whose focus is on changing all of my attitudes and thinking and then maintaining positive and helpful attitudes and thinking.
  • If I have emotional disturbance, behave badly, or am confused about a decision, I apply the Step Ten actions on pages 84 to 85 of Alcoholics Anonymous and talk to someone with solid sobriety as soon as possible.
  • Every day, I speak to at least one person with solid sobriety (someone who ( a) has completed the first nine Steps, (b) is active in sponsorship and service, and ( c) is over five years sober).
  • When I am in the first Nine Steps, I allocate at least half an hour a day to working on the relevant Step, ideally more if possible, sometimes the bulk of my free time—I do not want to stay in the first Nine Steps any longer than strictly necessary. If I have to get up early to find the time to do this, I have to go to bed earlier the night before.
  • Once I was part way through my Step Nine amends, I started sponsoring and I still sponsor.
  • Every week, I aim to work actively with at least 5 people on the Steps. When I have fewer, I go to extra meetings.
  • Every day, I speak at length to someone new, in trouble, or seeking a spiritual life, with a view to seeing how God can help them through my experience.
  • I have a service assignment that involves carrying the message outside AA—this is suitable for anyone with more than one year’s sobriety.
  • I have a service assignment within the AA structure—this is suitable for anyone with more than two years’ sobriety.

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Round-up of the week (1 May 2016)

How often should I pray?

The Big Book says about prayer: 'Better men than we are using it constantly'. There's your answer: constantly.

Don't engage

When other members or other groups try to engage you in conflict, don't get involved.

They have no power except the power you give them.

According to Concept XII, we avoid public controversy, but we may scan their communications for valid criticism that can aid our own inventory and we may write privately to correct published misformation. Other than that, keep your mouth shut and do not let the bad behaviour of others enter or settle in your consciousness.

Call first

When you are faced with a novel or a tricky situation, call someone sane, grounded, and with a sense of humour before not after acting. A good deal of sponsorship time is wasted trying to unpick situations that could have been avoided by placing a judicious call first.

How do you deal with overwhelming tasks?

Break the task down into its constituent parts. Break that down into its constituent parts. Break it down until you have a single next action to take (check out page 87: when agitated or doubtful we pray for the right thought or action) and then take that action or pray for the strength to take it and pray until you're taking it. Then take the next one. Eventually Jerusalem is built. Or builded, if you like Blake.