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. 💜

Home working rules, right?

Millions of brits have got their wish and are now home working in the wake of this Corona virus pandemic. Online meetings have become the norm and contact with other humans is limited. Is there any way to manage this experience so it doesn’t feel quite so bizarre, and still maintain good mental health?

In the past whenever I explained my role as SMART Recovery National coordinator to friends who are front line recovery workers the reply is mostly the same, ‘must be nice to be out the office’…
I remember my days as a recovery worker, of excessive caseloads, data entry, risk management and trying to work out who used your milk out the communal fridge. (I’ll be honest that was usually me.)

My job role (pre lockdown) was primarily remote working, from home, coffee shops, libraries and other buildings with wifi, as well as travelling across the country to support our SMART partners. Sometimes I’m away for a few days at a time. A premier Inn deja vu experience with the same 2 veggie items on the menu and an overload of purple, interspersed only with visits to a treatment provider hub or a community centre. Of course now i am mostly confined to my kitchen table and online support and delivery like many of you, too close to the kettle.
I have done a CBA (cost /benefit analysis) on my job many times. I absolutely love what i do, and it certainly has some perks. It’s a relatively autonomous role and I get to travel the UK supporting recovery communities. The costs of that however are that it includes lots of lone working and staring at screens. I miss my family and friends at times when im away from home and it can affect my mood if i get complacent and don’t maintain my positive routines.

If you have heard about the rat park experiments of Dr Alexander, you will know that having a positive environment and connecting with others is essential in us maintaining long term recovery from our addictive behaviours. Now more than ever as we have been made to take a break from our usual routines and stay home, cutting out vital human connection we need to find new ways of managing our recovery and connecting. https://brucekalexander.com/articles-speeches/rat-park/148-addiction-the-view-from-rat-park

So how do we manage our thoughts and behaviours and keep good boundaries working from home? My working week typically involves unhealthy amounts of caffeine so I am in no way asserting i’m an expert here, but I’d like to share my experience and personal rules that have helped me, as someone in long term recovery.

Lifestyle balance is one area we need to be very conscious of. Are you taking breaks, are you working late frequently? A lifestyle balance pie can give us a good insight into areas we need to pay more attention to. I recently updated mine and found that i need to put more focus on fun activities or hobbies. Complete your own worksheet here – https://www.smartrecovery.org/smart-recovery-toolbox/lifestyle-balance-pie/

Check in with yourself regularly – It is very easy to slip into an unhealthy thought pattern and for us to allow it to affect our mood unconsciously. Observing our thoughts is a key part of the SMART Recovery programme, and where necessary disputing them. (DIBS – Disputing irrational beliefs). https://www.smartrecovery.org/how-to-dispute-difficult-thoughts/

Sometimes we work late and other times we get behind, we are all fallible, however this can increase our levels of anxiety as the typical structural norms of office closing do not apply to home working. There is no boss telling you not to work too late, or to stop scrolling social media, or to stop you having that extra coffee break. Of course, we don’t need a boss to tell us what to do. Right?  Absolutely nobody wants to be micromanaged, but it’s my experience that we do need to maintain some clear boundaries in order for us to be as effective in our roles, but also more importantly maintaining our wellbeing and recovery.

Here are a few things I do that help me:

1 – Triggers : Whatever your substance of choice or behaviour, always be mindful of your potential triggers and make a plan for managing them before they happen. Like a fire escape plan, it may not happen but if it does you know where to go and what to do.
(I do not have alcohol in the house, but also on reflection maybe I should get rid of my cafetiere) Remember HALT the BADS. Are you hungry, angry, lonely or tired? https://smartrecovery.ie/smart-recovery-tools/

We use the hula hoop metaphor for boundaries and being rational about what we can control. In the hoop = I can control. Outside =I cannot control +acceptance

2 – Work Boundaries : Keep to your contracted hours…!!!
When you live and work in the same space, time can feel somewhat immaterial and boundaries can become blurred. Be mindful of sending those emails in the evening, or working all day through your lunch and breaks. Ignoring boundaries is a surefire path to burnout. That presentation can wait until tomorrow. Ask yourself ‘is what i am doing part of my established job role?’ Personal boundaries : If you live with someone, be clear that working from home means ‘working’. Consider any other possible distractions. Procrastination can creep in for me and before i know it im hoovering my living room. Some level of flexibility is of course needed but be aware of your behaviours. What are your personal values? Are your behaviours aligned with those?

In SMART we use the 3 questions exercise. (i) What do i want? (ii) What am i doing to achieve that? (iii) How do i feel about what i’m doing? By bringing focus to the link between our feelings and behaviours it can help keep us motivated. Also ask; What could I be doing differently? How would that make me feel?

3 – Have a plan : Some days I will definitely wing it. Some days require more patience and acceptance. Either way clear structure is really helpful to keep you focussed. Block out your calendar with space for particular projects. Each morning I write down a list of 3 key tasks to be completed, including how i’m going to achieve that and who i need to speak to. This is a bit like a change plan worksheet and lists key tasks to keep me focussed. Of course general duties can sometimes dictate how the day goes and you may have to readjust accordingly. As with any SMART goals achieving them can help keep you motivated so keep them achievable.

4- Establishing positive habits : Without meaning to oversimplify it, maintaining long term recovery is largely about replacing bad habits with good. One of the most helpful bits of advice ive ever received in my recovery is to establish a positive morning routine. ‘Carpe dium’ (seize the day). Our whole day is filtered through that early experience. Rather than muttering about not wanting to get up, snoozing the alarm and chain smoking or drinking coffee as soon as i wake which invariably sets me off on a negative arc for the day, i have made a more concerted effort to focus on the small details of my morning and through repetition it has become normal, (well mostly, i am also fallible and can get complacent)

(i) Start early and create positive triggers. A short cold shower helps get my blood flowing. A morning meditation (even for 10 minutes) helps me calm the chatter in my mind and prepares me for whatever the day is likely to bring. Practice, persistence and patience are key. There are some great apps out there to help you get started such as headspace or calm.
(ii) I don’t look at social media or the news until after I’m at my workstation. Our phones are probably the first thing we pick up when we wake. (iii) Water before caffeine

4- Create your own PIE : (Psychologically informed environment). Make the place you work comfortable practically for those long hours slouched over a computer, but also taking into account your emotional wellbeing. Make sure you get plenty of sunlight. Put some quiet music on if that works for you. Get a plant. Put some positive affirmations up. Make it a place you do not resent being, and try limit potential distractions.

6 – Practice The 5 ways to wellbeing.
Being active (go for a short walk every day. It’s important to keep moving) changing environment can change your emotional state, and we need the sunshine.
Take notice ( inwardly of any physical sensations in your body inc breathing, your emotions. Outwardly notice nature, the sun, the animals at the bottom of your garden. Connect – Reach out to friends and family where possible. Attend online recovery meetings. Make a decision to do this daily. Keep learning – When completing your lifestyle balance pie do you have a slice of learning? Are you focusing on your personal growth? In whatever small way you can. Even if its learning a new hobby. There are many great online resources out there. Give Back – For me this is one of the most important parts of my recovery. from my time in early recovery as a peer mentor, to the charity work i do now. Giving your time in the service of others is an empowering experience.

Stay safe out there all you recovery warriors. social distancing does not mean social isolation. Reach out and connect but keep your boundaries. It may only be an online meeting, but without being dramatic about it that could be the difference between life and death. 💜💜💜

Carl Zuccaro – UK SMART Recovery National Coordinator England


Link to SMART Recovery tools and resources ;

https://smartrecovery.org.uk/online-meetings/

https://smartrecovery.org.uk/product-category/books/

https://smartrecovery.org.uk/about-our-training/

https://www.smartrecovery.org/smart-recovery-toolbox/

https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/improve-mental-wellbeing/

Own your story

Life is very short and anxious for those who forget the past, neglect the present and fear the future

-Seneca–

~MementoMori #AmorFati

This is a blog for posterity, about my personal journey through council estates and reprobates, addiction and living with a physical disability, followed as ever by the haunting spectre of anxiety and fear.

Im well aware i’m joining the majority of 30 somethings blogging about their dull lives for nobody to read, but I guess i’m doing this partly as I value the stoic strategy of journalling and find it somewhat cathartic, but also in the hope that it can perhaps be a flicker of light to someone going through their own period of darkness. We can and do recover.

I write this having just completed my third 10k road race in Grimsby. The only time I remember doing cross country at school, we used to dick off to smoke in ‘the pheaso’, so running has never been a friend, unless you count running from my responsibilities, kinda made acquaintance with that for a while.

10k

This race was also a personal milestone for me, in that it was the first time ive ran in public in a tshirt since being an adult.  I have suffered from depression for many years relating to body issues from my congenitive limb defect, and become very obsessive about covering up my imperfections. This year has been a bit of a transformative one in many ways as i also adjust to being a dad and balancing a difficult workload, while working on myself. Really appreciate everyones support and motivation.

 

As a person in long term recovery part of my personal programme focuses on goal setting, so in order to push myself out of my comfort zone this year I have signed up to run the London marathon in 2020, and have been humbled to be given the opportunity to be raising some money for a charity that is close to my heart.

(justgiving link)

Practising acceptance among other stoic and CBT based strategies have been central to my recovery journey and addressing my own thought patterns and behaviours. Ultimately we have a choice to face our fears and try to be the best version of ourselves given the circumstances within our control.

#uksmartrecovery Has been also been present throughout my journey into recovery, from facilitating meetings as a volunteer with a local service provider to delivering the programme as an employed staff member in the NHS, to now being employed full time as UK SMART Recovery National coordinator for England.

I was probably considered a lost cause, disenfranchised from society and unable to talk about my issues, perpetuated by the shame and stigma around addiction, mental health, and the taboo of disability, part of my healing process after a successful spell in detox has been embracing acceptance and facing life on lifes terms, as the cliche goes.

Having worked in the sector for a number of years i am as ever encouraged by my amazing peers that are supporting recovery communities across the uk in increasingly difficult conditions, amidst record numbers of drug related deaths and government austerity measures.

I would encourage anyone looking to regain some control over their addictive behaviours to use mutual aid as part of their recovery capital. There are many pathways to recovery, but acceptance is required in all. We can and do recover.

The obstacle is the path – Old zen proverb

UK SMART Recovery

Narcotics Anon

Act peer recovery

Thank you for reading. All is love. 🙂

Facebook Detox

[Insert New Year, New Start cliche]

Let me start off with saying i have never set any firm new years resolutions beyond a half-hearted mono-toned mumbling to the cat as the fireworks fizzled out. I do however try to make every day an opportunity to practice small, positive changes towards personal growth, so this decision has just been the next in a series of life choices i have been mindfully reflecting on. I got rid of my TV almost a year ago as i started to be more conscious about how i was spending my time, and my procrastination gremlin had also resurfaced, so amid the white noise of Brexit i felt it was the right time to get rid of that particular negative distraction.

So as a person in recovery from addictions myself, recent articles highlighting similarities between (dopamine) releases and triggers from social media to those of  ‘traditional substances’ like cocaine really made me think about my own use of social media.  [source] [source] [source]

What once seemed a benign and practical way to keep in touch with family and friends, and occasionally sharing funny pictures, has for me, at the very best become a haven for procrastination, my thumb aimlessly scrolling for what must have been some miles daily during any free time. At worst, i had noticed my mood changing depending on certain interactions with social media, and in real life i was often distracted, sometimes even having a flutter of panic if i had left my phone somewhere i could not check it.

What struck home for me particularly as somebody who often bemoans the fact that i don’t have enough time, was a recent report that stated; “as of 2017, daily social media usage of global internet users amounted to 135 minutes per day” [source] I could not believe it. That is almost a part time job.

So what that i waste time on social media, it is hardly an addiction really is it?

 

‘Addiction’ is often characterised as a compulsive behaviour, that in turn has a negative impact on an individuals life. So while i am not shoplifting to pay for my WiFi, or holding people hostage for likes, i have noticed some addictive behaviours creeping in and have made the conscious decision to be more present in my daily life, and limit my use of social media.

“Desires for media may be comparatively harder to resist because of their high availability and also because it feels like it does not ‘cost much’ to engage in these activities, even though one wants to resist.” [source]

So with the knowledge that social media and apps are created specifically to be addictively engaging [source] it is of course on us individually to challenge our compulsive urges of instant gratification and where appropriate use coping strategies. Be mindful of how you are interacting with the world around you and do some honest reflection. Are your current behaviours truly benefiting you and those around you?

Everyone whom i told about my decision to take a break from Facebook made a very similar and somewhat disconcerting face, a mix of shock, and that suspicious face you make when you think someone has farted in a lift.  Their reaction was oddly reminiscent to that of some of my drug using acquaintances when i first told them i was going into rehab.

What that means for me is simply deleting the apps from my phone, nothing more. I am not putting any pressure on myself to delete my accounts, or making any commitment to anyone other than myself. I am taking things ‘one day at a time’. Also just to note i did not do the dramatic ‘i am leaving facebook post’ that you often see before a person typically returns the following day. This is not about others. This is a personal choice.

I am 10 days in, i feel less anxious in general and have read 2 books i have been putting off, including rereading The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, which is a great book if you have not read it yet, and started a blog which has been on my to do list for an age. I have also taken more time out to practice mindfulness and CBT techniques which have really helped me calm my overactive brain chatter.

If you are struggling with any type of addictive behaviour, remember you are not alone and there are services and resources that can help.

 

If you want to take the leap, here is a great little TED talk about quitting social media  –

 

Thank you for taking the time to read my blog

Carlo Zuccaro