Dithering dogma…!

As UK pubs reopened to a mixed response, after the last three months of isolation Brits still seemingly still have a thirst on and aren’t too fussed about distancing.

With news articles declaring consumption has risen during lock-down, and some early studies also looking at potential increases it may be a good time to reflect on our choices. It has undoubtedly been a difficult period, particularly for many of our dependent drinkers, and the lure of getting back out there ‘connecting with friends’ or ‘disconnecting from current reality’. I’ve noticed it both on my social media timelines with friends and family’s daytime drinking patterns, and at work with those i support. One of the biggest protective factors for many was connection, and we have long stressed the importance of this as part of the 5 ways to wellbeing. So as social isolation has grown, as seen in Dr Alexanders rat park experiments of the 70s addictive behaviour invariably escalates.

So what is out there now if i want to get help?

There is of course your local treatment provider commissioned by your local authority, who can put you in touch with all local community assets. A quick online search should find the current one, after initially stopping seeing people face to face many are now opening their doors again. I know many people that simply will not engage with these services due to barriers, either real or perceived varying from stigma to a previous bad experience. There are also mutual aid meetings such as 12 step fellowships like AA or NA that are avidly promoted by GP’s and other public services. Some barriers to engaging with these groups can be the perceived ‘GOD issue’, the ‘powerlessness talk’, the ‘drunkalogues’ or just the perceived monotony of perpetual meetings. Alternatively there is SMART; barriers to engagement – over reliance on confusing concepts or acronyms, lack of community, and ‘recovery know it all’s’. You will often hear the phrase within the recovery community “take what you like and leave the rest” and that is generally the way to go. Whatever you decide do it with an open mind and positive intention. There are some excellent parts that make up the whole and can act as helpful recovery capital to support your goals.

So what about the large majority of those over reliant on substances that find the barriers to engaging with treatment providers or mutual aid too much or too stigmatising?

Recent PHE figures [1][2] before the pandemic also showed disturbing trends of fewer alcohol dependent people engaging with treatment services. Over the last few years we have also seen record numbers of drug related deaths across the UK. It is clear something is not working for many, as services have also faced drastic cuts to their commissioned treatment budgets repeatedly in recent years. The sector is asked to do more with less, but at what cost?

Having worked in “recovery services” of various guises over the last 9 years, and as a person who had a serious substance misuse problem/substance use disorder/addict/person in recovery/recovered* (*delete as appropriate today) I now find myself walking away from the sector i was once passionate about, recently made redundant and disillusioned at current service provision across most of the UK. Having traveled a lot for work i have been fortunate to see some fantastic practice in some areas, however the very nature of commissioning has led to a postcode lottery and dramatic variance in recovery ‘choices’. One thing i have learned in my time working in the sector is that there is no one size fits all approach to recovery, and my view is that recovery should be self directed and defined by the individual. Complete abstinence can be seen as a barrier to entering treatment, and perpetuate the shame following a lapse/relapse. The term recovery itself has become somewhat of an abstract cliche, and people in early recovery are often paraded out to prove a service’s outcomes and to add value to the service’s ever dwindling pot of money, as cuts continue to bite, with very little ongoing support. Volunteers are now finding themselves increasingly on the front line.

“It is an historical fact that practically all groupings of men and women tend to become more dogmatic; their beliefs and practices harden and sometimes freeze. This is a natural and almost inevitable process…. But dogma also has its liabilities. Simply because we have convictions that work well for us, it becomes very easy to assume that we have all the truth….This isn’t good dogma; it’s very bad dogma. It could be especially destructive for us of AA to indulge in this sort of thing”. ( Bill Wilson, 1965/1988, p. 333)

Disclaimer, as i know there is an almost tribal response to perceived criticism of ones ‘recovery pathway’ so I will say, i have spent time with various recovery programmes and fellowships over the years, i have sponsored ‘addicts’, chaired and facilitated meetings and repeated many of the dogmatic well rehearsed mantras. I have also bitten my tongue on a number of occasions in order to be diplomatic and not rock the recovery boat, however in my view services and commissioners should and can do better. The statistics are quite clearly showing that the existing model(s) are not working for many.

Dogma has had a stranglehold on treatment for people who use substances since treatment was conceived for ‘treating’ the feckless, right through the temperance movement and into the dominant philosophy of recent times being the 12 step approach, and abstinence being the “only way”. This is manifest still today in funding streams and also in rehabs, as well as local service providers.

As such it is good to see the rise of the moderation/ mindful drinking movement with Club soda putting on mindful drinking festivals (pre corona) and engaging people from across the spectrum, and hopefully more will follow suit and consider new models and ways to build community and a society that does not need to rely on substances or treatment in the way we currently do. Invariably we use substances for Fear or fun, both are short term rewards, but extremely gratifying. Our reliance on substances as an emotional crutch means may of us are floating through life like a carrier bag in the wind. The way out of my addiction was finding a purpose i was passionate about. I will be eternally grateful to my mentors that gave me the opportunity to make it happen, and will continue to support others in defining their own recovery goals without judgement or dogma.

Giving back is an important turning point in many peoples recovery journey (After mentoring i created a small community group to support individuals in my own community with the limited knowledge and resources we had at the time) however the biggest factor in me sustaining my own recovery was challenging my own limiting beliefs and feeling empowered enough to pursue my own personal growth, until then I was just ‘white knuckling it’ and going through the motions.

Change needn’t be difficult, only resistance to it is (to paraphrase the Buddha). Find something or someone that inspires you to be the best version of yourself and apply yourself wholeheartedly, you don’t need to have all the answers. There is no quick fix, and those that are pave a road to ruin. The future is yours. The future is now. 💜

Extra value deals

What makes thousands of people turn out worldwide to protest in the middle of a global pandemic, and what does this tell us about their values ?

Throughout history protests have acted as the catalyst for change and have shaped the world we live in today, from the Suffragettes, Civil rights movement, Stonewall, Labour movements and so many others. There is typically some commentary on ‘legitimate’ forms of protest and acceptable levels of civil disobedience, but many of the changes we now take for granted simply would not have happened solely by banner waving. After the killing of another unarmed black man in the U.S by police protests erupted worldwide, and in the aftermath there was outrage by some at the toppling of a statue at one such demonstration in the U.K. This week also saw some of those claiming to want to “protect the statues” urinating next to memorials, giving the nazi salute and scuffling with police, seemingly conflicting with their projected values.

This was never intended to be a political blog, however as ive turned 40 this week i’m in a reflective mood and have been considering how my own values have changed in recent years. My days of direct action may be over, however i stand in solidarity with those fighting injustices in their own lives. Legality does not equal morality. – Naegeli’s law.

Although clearly i’m no behavioural psychologist i’ve always had a fascination with human behaviour, particularly my own. So what makes us do the things we do?

As well as our basic needs, it is ultimately our values and beliefs that drive our behaviours, whether we are aware of it consciously or not. Many people float through life from one crisis or emotional response to the next without really considering why they feel or act the way they do.

Intrinsically linked to our beliefs, our values are generally the things we view as most important to us, like honesty, justice or freedom. Sometimes these are grouped together with terms such as ‘family values’, ‘national values’ or ‘religious values’.

Values are not fixed and should be reflected on and adjusted as we grow and develop as part of the human experience, but being aware of them is a necessary first step.

When we connect with our values to make decisions, we make a deliberate choice to focus on what is important to us. We are able to engage with the world more intentionally, and lead a more fulfilling life.

I often work with volunteers to help them identify their core values and beliefs. We look at how this impacts on behaviours and the things we view as important. Being aware of our values and recognising how our beliefs affect our behaviour can act as motivation to strive to be the best versions of ourselves. I love values based work because when we genuinely connect with our values and understand how our internal world truly affects us in the ‘real world’ it can be transformational, and bring about long term behavioural change.

So what happens when our own values don’t align with our current situation, or our needs, or even general convenience? Whether that is a relationship, employment or general life. What level of flexibility can we apply to our values, and how do we reconcile these inconsistencies?

Honesty, for example is a commonly stated personal value, but not everyone is as honest as might be desired, and we may too frequently find ourselves being selectively honest. Although values are essentially aspirational and act as a guide, if they are not consciously engaged with or applied to everything that we do, what use are they other than to project a vision of how we want to be seen?

Do you know what your personal values truly are and do you live your life in line with them ?

“One reason we roll our eyes when people start talking about values is that everyone talks a big values game but very few people actually practice one. It can be infuriating, and it’s not just individuals who fall short of the talk. In our experience, only about 10 percent of organizations have operationalized their values into teachable and observable behaviors that are used to train their employees and hold people accountable.” Brené Brown – Dare to Lead

Does your organisation truly embody its own values or are they winging it with morality?

Just because an organisation picks a few buzzwords like ‘inclusive’ or ‘non judgmental’ and puts them at the top of their branded stationery does not mean that it embodies those values. So what is the point of espousing such values if we or our organisation do not truly practice them in our affairs? A commodification of morality perhaps, package wrapped and branded to appeal to others rather than a belief system that truly drives change, and what deals do we make compromising our own values for those of an organisation, or a nation, or a tribe?

If you have ever faced redundancy, “organisational restructuring”, or tendering you may have had some conflict between your own values and those of ‘the board’ who make all the decisions. You may have felt that the board had an agenda, or were walking a fine line with legality. You may have felt undervalued, unappreciated, dis-empowered, overworked or just been at a crossroads. I can wholly relate to those feelings, and find myself at somewhat of a crossroads here currently in terms of my own employment.

If we highly value our basic needs of financial security we may stay in a job that is perhaps no longer fulfilling, or we may be asked to compromise some of our own personal values or standards for another paycheck. Is this a deal we are willing to make?

If we value equality or justice more highly than a statue’s right to exist and have exhausted other options, that may drive behaviour, particularly if a belief in the justice system makes an individual value state justice less, based on personal experience. If we value national pride higher than equality for example and believe some humans deserve more rights than others then this undoubtedly shows up in our values system and behaviours.

Practicing unconditional acceptance as a basic strategy to counter general unhelpful beliefs is something we can all do to help manage some of our emotions. Reminding ourselves ‘life is not always fair’ and ‘people are not always virtuous.’ At times however more direct action is required, but which of our values we are willing to trade off, is of course ultimately a matter of personal choice.

In some of my most challenging moments in recent years I have referred to ancient philosophy for guidance. Epictetus, who was born a Roman slave, wrote often about living a virtuous and joyful life, despite the challenges of his day and i find reassurance in his words. What would the Stoics however think of the modern notion of ‘values‘ and the flexibility to which they are often applied and commodified. Virtues are defined as ‘a consistently applied and habitual practice’ and the stoics valued living a virtuous life above all else. https://dailystoic.com/4-stoic-virtues/

So, In these uncertain times I reaffirm to myself daily; ‘Rather than floating through life I will act with intent, striving for personal excellence in the things within my control, and aligning myself with my core values. I will engage with other humans virtuously and compassionately, and through this practice I will lead a more enriching and fulfilling life.’