12 steps.

AA and the 12 step program saved my life. I will forever be indebted to that society and that program – in so many ways, like it does for so many, it shone a light down my path to recovery that I just wouldn’t have been able to navigate on my own.

It, along with the support of loved ones and a harsh but ultimately essential period of residential rehab, formed the beginning of a life so rich in happiness and contentment that I dared not even dream of it.

So why have I felt the need to found my own program for addiction? Am I in competition with the 12 step programs that exist out there? Do I not believe they work? Should someone do the RCVRY program and not attend AA anymore? What’s the difference between the two programs? These are all valid questions, and ones that I get asked a lot. So I thought a blog post could help answer them, and as ever, invite conversation and discussion!

First up – I am in no way in competition with any of the fantastic 12 step programs out there. They saved my life and they continue to save lives every day. For many, they are the daily elixir of staying clean and not falling back into bad habits. The essence of the program has been around a long time, and such is it’s power and reach, you can find a 12 step group just about anywhere in the World now – even at the foothills of Mount Everest ( I am told! ).

I rarely attend AA anymore – but for years I did, and I definitely will do again periodically. That’s one of the many positives of these programs – you can drop in to most meetings, even if you have never been before, and immediately feel at home.

If you ever feel the temptation, or just need a top up or a reminder of why you’re in recovery – you can get along to a meeting and share, listen, absorb, chat – drink awful coffee and tea – a truly fantastic service open to us addicts. So no – i’m not in competition with AA, NA, GA or any of the other groups.

Second up – do I believe 12 step programs work? Here’s where I guess I’ll start to flirt with controversy – but do read my whole explanation before you pass judgement.

Yes I believe they work – but it depends on what level you’re asking they work. Do I believe a 12 step program alone can deliver you from addiction and nurture you to being the best person you can be? No. Definitely not. Should it? I don’t know in all honesty. I guess not, it’s not the job of that program to do all that – it’s the purpose of the 12 step program to help you find recovery, help you stay in recovery and help you help others .

The steps have been proven to work, and depending on where you look, there are a variety of statistics as to how well it works. I think it’s easy to forget that even the fact that a group of addicts can all assemble in a room at the same time on the same day every week, and be part of a ( in the most part ), organised meeting is a miracle in itself!

What these programs do give which is invaluable is a sense of community for an issue that is still largely ostracized by society. So the 12 step programs do deliver an awful lot….upto a point. I do also believe that whilst they can be a factor in helping you find recovery, I’m not convinced that it is the whole answer, and I’m not sure the program is designed to take you forward into a life post that initial recovery.

Many people feel it does and it has for them, but I feel the 12 steps bring you to a point – a good point – but not necessarily any further. I’m also not sure that because of the scale of the audience the 12 step programs address, that it is fit for purpose for everyone.

When I talk to people about where they’re at, and then start talking about the 5 elements of the RCVRY program, it soon becomes apparent that what they really need is a bespoke program based on their own situation and their own journey into – and out of  – addiction. I always recommend that attending 12 step meetings should be a part of the overall program, and having worked through the steps, I am in a good place to other advice and insight into what the steps mean ( or at least what they meant to me ) and discuss the fundamentals behind them.

Where RCVRY comes into its own is on two separate levels. Firstly – it is bespoke to the person. For this reason, and I guess it’s a downside, it can never be something that I can deliver to the mass market. It is not a one size fits all solution, it is structured path based on the individual and includes a lot of support.

Secondly, the program is designed to help get into recovery, maintain recovery ( and this is, to be fair what AA et al all do as well ), but then also to excel on the other side of recovery.

Through working the structure of RCVRY and addressing the 5 elements as they are relevant to your own life, you can not only feel confident in your recovery but you can also work towards being the best person you can be in every aspect of your life.

Drinkers Like Me : Adrian Chiles

I was pleased and even excited to see that the subject of alcoholism was going to be featured in a BBC documentary, shown in a prime time slot, on the sensible and serious BBC2 – Adrian Chiles : Drinkers Like Me from the outset looked like it could be a good forum to highlight the serious issue of addiction that is endemic in our society today.

Having watched the program from start to finish, I was left with mixed feelings about the messages that came across from the show. This is by no means a review, and I certainly don’t have the credentials to be a TV critic – but I do know a thing or five about addiction and specifically, my chosen specialist subject, alcohol addiction, so I do feel in a comfortable place to have a reasoned opinion.

What I found refreshing was Mr Chiles openness about how much he drank, and the concerns he openly explored as to what that amount could be doing to his health, both physically and mentally. To be fair to him, he set himself up to be scrutinise and perhaps even criticised for having a daily drink ( apart from Thursdays – he was keen to labour, never Thursdays because he was on air – but then I would always insist I wouldn’t drink on nights before I had a long drive the following day – and I always did #justsaying ), but actually, I think what came across was the fact that his drinking habit is not out of the norm for a lot of people in the UK today.

A bottle of wine a night, a few pints at lunchtime followed by a few post work drinks, a few tinnies during the football, a bottle of Prosecco while catching up with friends, a glass or 3 of Pinot while cooking the kids dinner – whatever the reason, there is a large slice of us who enjoys a regular, maybe daily, drop of alcohol. The line between this habit being a well deserved relief from the stress and pressure of our modern lives, and it becoming something more damaging is blurred at the best of times, even more so when drinking alcohol has been so normalised through advertising and media.

In one clip of the documentary, Adrian ( I feel I’m on first name terms with him now, since I’m delving a little deeper ) was with some friends in a pub at 10:30am pre going to a football match. There was nothing that suggests that he “needed” to have a drink in the morning, but because it was a football day with an early kick off, it was completely normal to indulge in some pre match pints… regardless of the time.

The psychology behind this wasn’t really tackled – I know from my own experience that any event which gave the green light for early drinks was always very welcome – but I am openly an alcoholic. I admit that I have an addiction with drinking and that my relationship with drink is toxic. I guess my point here is – if someone, anyone, feels compelled to drink 3 or 4 pints of Guiness at 10:30 in the morning, what is the rationale for that being healthy?

Because it’s football? – I’ve watched a lot of football sober since giving up drinking, and believe me, it’s far more enjoyable.

Because of peer pressure? – Please. These were men all in their late 40’s / early 50’s – they didn’t seem shy or retiring – if they didn’t want to do something I don’t think they would have any problem saying so.

So perhaps it was genuinely because they just wanted to, and as a counter argument, I have to concede where is the problem with that? They seemed to be enjoying themselves, nobody came to any harm and maybe it did enhance their enjoyment of the game.

But.

But.

Go a level deeper. What is it that made their brain tell them that to make the day better, a few drinks would be a great idea? Stick with me here, because this might become a little complicated, more to do with my written articulation than the actual concept.

To often we assume that what our thoughts and our brain tells us to do is “us” in terms of our conscious being. It’s part of our personality so to speak – so a lot of addicts will berate themselves for being broken, weak willed, a lesser person. All completely untrue. What if, actually, the addiction was born from a physiological reaction that was born into our psyche from a very early stage.

Sugar and alcohol excite and invigorate the part of the brain that is linked to the feeling of reward – a lovely feeling. Over the years of our existence, this feeling is married to memories of when this feeling was stimulated and very cleverly, it links all the pieces of the jigsaw together.

What has alcohol and sugar in abundance? Lager, beer, wine … etc – what occasion does the brain associate with this? In the case of Adrian, football. So the physiological reaction had quite possibly already determined that having a few drinks would result in an instantly good feeling. The longer term damaging effects of those pints is parked for that instant hit of happiness and pleasure. What chance did those poor unsuspecting guys really have of NOT having a few pints when it was hard wired into their psyche that the best and quickest way to have a great sensation would be to get a good dose of the amber nectar down their necks.

Now – a new physiological reaction comes into play. Blood sugar levels. As we have one drink, our levels spike, and just as rapidly start to decline. Our natural reaction is to get more sugar into our veins as quickly and efficiently as possible, all the while maintaining the stimulus of the reward part of our brain. The obvious answer has to be another pint – and so the chain reaction begins, and for many people, becomes hard to end.

I recognise this even today from my daily diet. If I have something sugary early on in the day, the rest of the say, almost sub consciously ends up being filled with bad, sugary or high carb food. My body yearns for it, crying out for another fix.

If I steer clear – I never seem to reach the point in the day where I’m so hungry I’ll eat absolutely anything. So the relationship between ourselves, sugar, alcohol and the stimulating effects it has on us is far closer to the surface of why we are compelled to drink than we think or realise. It has a lot less to do with someone just being “broken” or addicted. And understanding what is in play when you feel the desire to have a drink can help massively in not taking the drink in the first place.

There were two other stand out moments for me in the program. Let me cover them quickly before summarising.

The first – Frank Skinner. Sober for 30 years, Respect to you Frank. But your advice to Adrian to keep on drinking?!!?? Really??? I found this to be so odd. Cutting down or stopping drinking is tough for most people, and a clear message from the program was that Adrian himself had almost unwittingly found alcohol entwined into his daily life – and even just starting to moderate what he drank was going to be difficult. So to casually suggest he carry on regardless was awful advice – but then I did also feel that Frank Skinners whole demeanour towards the fact he had given up drinking was one of almost bitterness. He stated, somewhat sadly, that his social life had never recovered – my own experience of people in recovery is that their social lifes have never been better or more fulfilling.

The second stand out moment was at the end – Adrian revealed that he had cut down on his drinking ( good man ), but was supping a pint of Guiness as he revealed this. So despite educating himself fully on the damage drink was doing to his liver, the impact it could be having on his health and the revelation that it become part of his daily life –  as well as talking to and visiting recovering alcoholics and surely hearing their story – he was still enjoying a pint.

This is in no way a criticism, but an observation on the malicious and sinister nature of alcohol. Even when all the facts point towards the unavoidable conclusion it really doesn’t do anything good for us, the most a lot of us do is cut back a bit, and the realistic view is, that period of cutting back is temporary.

Well done to Adrian for tackling the issue head on and giving an honest and interesting view from the perspective of a relatable middle age(ish) person. I loved the program, but just felt that it highlighted even more than ever the blight that alcohol is having on our society without really delving into how to recover from it.

 

Relapse.

Relapse. Go ahead say it. It might take some of the fear out of it straight away – or it might not. It might make you shudder, it might make you cringe as you maybe remember your own experience of one, or it might even strengthen you as you use it as your resolve to stay clean. Whatever the word, and the event, of a relapse does to you, it’s one of the most dangerous subjects in recovery that I have come across.

In the true spirit of the band of brothers and sisters that recovering addicts are, let me share my own experience of relapse. It has happened once, and it happened very early on in my recovery. There were definite triggers for it, and I can pin point them – but even knowing and acknowledging there were reasons behind the relapse did nothing to lessen the shame I felt. In fact, the feelings I had about that “slip up” took me right back to the mental state that was all to common during my active drinking days – anxiety, embarrassment, deceit, pity – the list goes on and none of the words look or feel particularly positive. At this stage of my recovery, I was still somewhat of a nomad in terms of attending AA groups, so hadn’t settled on a Home Group, and as chance would have it, it also occurred on the weekend before I started a new job in a new location that I was moving to – this at least in part helped me get over the embarrassment part of the relapse, as I could and did treat the new beginning as exactly that – a new start.

It was the one and only time that I gave in to the demons of addiction since going to rehab, and ladies and gentleman, here’s the kicker, I am grateful I had that relapse. Yes. Grateful. I have even included it on my gratitude list a number of times since – because the lessons I learned from that episode and the dissipation of fear around the subject of relapse that it gave me have been worth their weight in gold.

Let me start with the lessons I learned.

Probably the biggest was that what I thought I was missing from drinking was really not that attractive, sexy or exciting. Having given up drinking after 25 years of barely ever going a day without a drink, and as the memory of what it was like to indulge in that most poisonous of liquids started to fade just a little – there was that little voice in my head, and I’m sure some of you know the one I’m talking about – the one that kept saying ” it wasn’t so bad”, ” just one won’t hurt”, “what could possibly happen?”.

Coupled with the other voice in my head that was almost daring me – “you’re really gonna go your whole life without a drink???”

There was a …. curiosity … I guess …. around what it felt like to drink and get drunk, as if 25 years of doing it on a daily basis hadn’t taught me all I needed to know on the subject. Then there was the wonderment at how good did it really feel? Obviously at this point I’d spent a few months doing little else except practising the lore of the 12 steps and understanding that alcohol was not going to do me any good – and in fact, without it, my life was already starting to go much better – but like a carefully edited movie trailer that shows you all the best bits of a film within 90 seconds, my brain played tricks on me. Stop. It wasn’t my brain playing tricks on me, that sounds like I’m passing responsibility to someone else, as if my brain is completely not under my control – no, I was playing tricks on me, and started to just think about the great times of drinking.

Lastly, I think there was a part of me that had the relapse itch to scratch. If I hadn’t done it, I would have spent a lot of time energy wondering about it. Maybe the longer I remained sober, the more that feeling would have built. Maybe it wouldn’t. Maybe it would have lessened and disappeared altogether – who knows. But at that point in time, there was a very strong feeling within me that I needed to know what a “relapse” felt like.

So, what did it feel like? Happily, it felt awful. It did all the things I had learned drink would do. It made me feel depressed. It made me feel beaten. My self esteem plummeted. It took me low. It took me right down. Within a few hours I felt like I was back where I started, and everything I had learned in recovery was for nothing. I didn’t feel it right then, but now I see it was one of the best things to have happened to me in recovery.

The mystique of drinking was truly gone once and for all. It suddenly didn’t hold any more magical promise for me.

Waking up with that horrible dry mouth, a mind full of regret and an anxiety that bordered on mania, I could well and truly say that relapses were not good things, not things to try every now and again and certainly took away any notion of “it wasn’t all that bad” when I reminisced on my drinking days.

It was a harsh lesson, a painful experience emotionally – but an important one.

I think another dangerous side of relapse is the way we perceive others will view it. I’ve seen people suddenly stop going to AA meetings, only to bump into them at other AA meetings – their reason for changing groups  was simply the fact they had endured a relapse – or a period of relapse, and felt they would be judged, or that they had failed when they returned to their group.

Of course this is completely against the ethos of AA – it’s a community that doesn’t judge ( in my experience ), but the feelings of shame and guilt overpower that reasonable logic. The powerful, deceitful cunning effect of alcohol.

So whilst I don’t wish a relapse on anyone, and if you’re in recovery, I hope it remains a clean run for you – if you do stumble, you’re not alone and don’t be ashamed of slipping up. Do learn from it though. From a seemingly negative situation, take the positives. Use it to help you stay on the clean path for the longer term. Good luck.