About Me

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I have recovered from the disease of Alcoholism. I believe there is only one person really,.. everybody. And that peace of mind is everything. -So treat your neighbor as you would treat yourself, because your neighbor IS yourself. I think most of recovery is what I would call common sense, but that learning to be ordinary is a true gift very few people acquire. My ambition is to accept everything unflinchingly, with compassion, and therefore be intrinsically comfortable in my own skin, no matter what. I am comfortable being uncomfortable and am willing to go to any lengths to improve my life. I believe the Big Book was divinely inspired, and is extraordinarily powerful. Unfortunately AA's best kept secret a lot of the time. (In my opinion). I just try to do what works, no matter what it is.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

“Dark Matter” shows up between years 5 and 10. Otherwise referred to as depression

I've been meaning to write this post for a really long time and I keep putting it on the pending tray because I really don't know if  I'm able to do it justice in the written form. I've had this conversation countless times verbally but I've never tried to commit it to a written form and I am not sure whether or not it's possible for me to communicate myself clearly enough on this tenuous and somewhat indefinable subject area. I will give it a try.. I suspect I won't be able to explain it all in one post. When I'm explaining things I like to explain it all in one go but if I try to do that these blog posts just end up too long. (!)

By the way, I understand people have very different ideas about depression and medication so I want to assure you in advance that I have no objection to people making different choices than mine… I’m just saying here what works for me in my own experience. Take what you like and leave the rest as they say..

Basically in summary I would say that I expect 95/100 people who are performing a very diligent and capable program who are not taking antidepressants, to experience some form of what I call "dark matter" between the years of five and 10. Normally I see these phases show up in year six or seven, but I tend to have these conversations with people who are at year five or alternatively years six or seven. I see nothing "wrong" with these symptoms arising. I see it as part of the process. I think that this period can be very unsettling for some people who don't know how this pattern arises. They either blame the past, or they blame AA, or they blame their program. I don't see it as an issue of blame. But I do think there are things you can do to make this part of the journey easier.

My solutions are what I would call step 11 and 12 solutions. But I am very particular about what type of step 11 solutions I advocate for people with this type of problem. Basically I shop around for what I consider to be the most sane and mature step 11 community within relatively easy reach, and those are the people that I suggest sponsees spend time with if they are going through these uncomfortable patches. I don't advocate antidepressants not even for people I am sponsoring who are suicidal. So far anyway this approach has worked.

I could go into an entirely separate post just devoted to the use of antidepressants and the medical establishment and the way in which treatment has changed over the last 20 years in respect to the use of antidepressants, but I'm not even going to try addressing that particular subject in this post. Basically (for a multitude of reasons but mainly as a result of first hand experience in recovery) I don't advocate the use of antidepressants. I have sponsored people who were taking a cocktail of pills or prescribed medication before they met me in AA. I have always taken and sponsees through a recovery process whereupon they end up coming off, and not having to take the antidepressants. Basically they all come off the antidepressants and they are all fine. So far. The people who used to be suicidal no longer are suicidal. I've seen this process enough times at first hand to know that it appears to work. I wouldn't recommend it otherwise. Having said that, I have no idea how well it would work if you were simply to stop taking antidepressants and not build new daily routines into your program. Such as helping a newcomer every day. I've seen it work when people help newcomers every day and tell the truth every day to at least one person. In other words I've seen it work when people are selfless and they are going to any lengths to try and practice the instructions in the book. I think if you are a very self obsessed person and you rarely, if ever help a newcomer or do service in AA meetings, then I suspect you will feel very, very uncomfortable if you stop taking antidepressants. So basically when I'm helping Sponsees get off antidepressants or other drugs, it is only on condition that they follow instruction. If they are willing to take instruction and they're willing to go to any lengths then I am more than happy to work with them in the course of recovery, which would involve coming off antidepressants. If they weren't willing to go to any lengths I wouldn't want to help them as I don't think it will work if they stubbornly refuse to practice things that feel unfamiliar or uncomfortable. I would insist that they try their hardest to be honest with me every single day, and I would insist that they try their very best to be selfless in whichever way they can. It has been very labour-intensive working with people who come off antidepressants as I need to keep a close eye on them which can be quite hard work. Thankfully it doesn't last very long and they seem to come out of the woods fairly quickly if I'm steering them in the right direction. I haven't yet had the experience of taking somebody off antidepressants who has subsequently needed to go back on them, or has not been able to deal with whatever "dark matter" arises. This only applies to people who are helping newcomers by the way. It doesn't work and I've never seen it work for people who are largely self obsessed.

Also it's not as simple as just helping others. I tell people that it is not enough simply to try to be helpful. I tell them that they have to actually say something pertinent, targeted and strategically useful to the newcomer. In other words it's not good enough just to offer a encouraging words, although encouraging words are not useless in themselves. But I use the example ..let's say a battered wife who is also a newcomer. I would suggest that in addition to offering encouragement to the battered wife, that you might also offer some very useful targeted information that specifically addresses the fact that she's being beaten up by somebody every day. So I might suggest a shelter. Or I might suggest relying more heavily on her female friends for support in order to build up enough courage to leave the person who's beating them up every day. Occasionally people think that being helpful merely involves making generic encouraging remarks. I don't think this is good enough. I think it's a question of addressing the most glaring need at any given moment. If they are being beaten by their husband, I try to say something helpful about how she can not be beaten. If I am speaking to somebody who has just found out that their cancer has returned, I will offer useful information that I believe will help them address the cancer. If they have a bullying co-worker I will make suggestions about how to deal with having a bullying co-worker. I don't simply offer encouraging generic remarks. I try to address what I perceive at that moment to be the most pressing/important need. The pressing need changes every day. I believe that in addressing the most pressing need I am trying to be of maximum helpfulness. I don't pick up on satellite issues I try to address the core issue. or the issue which has the power to do them the most harm if left unattended to on that day.

I suppose what I'm saying is that I am very particular about what people do when they are coming off antidepressants, and I believe this has a lot to do with the success I've observed with Sponsees coming off antidepressants in the past. They come off antidepressants and they stay off antidepressants. That's been the case for the people I've sponsored is that they come off them and stay off them and they are okay even when quite "dark material" shows up.

Right sorry for that long winded intro, now.. I can get onto the subject of this "dark material" that shows up between years five and 10.
It's very hard to explain but I see the process of recovery as a predictable energetic unfolding of sorts. Although on a very physical level there is an immediate absence of drinking. On other levels there is an emotional and mental and energetic unfolding taking place. I watch people 'defrost' so to speak. The first five years of recovery are what I call "automaton". I think of the first five years of sobriety as about gaining core competency. It's very necessary, but it's a bit partial on an emotional and mental level. I've heard some people say that it takes five years to "clear the head". I prefer the term "automaton". I feel that the first five years is a bit disconnected. A bit frozen. A bit dissociated. Glib.  

Sometimes there is the 'appearance' of a lot of emotion in the first 5 years, but I find this range of emotion more about drama, thrashing about, blame or 'mushyness'. Sort of 2 dimensional. 2 dimensional compared to the depth and range of emotions that become evident from year 6-10 anyway. It's all relative. 

Anyway, sometime between years 5 and 10 (usually about year 6-7) a sort of defrosting takes place. Things inside that used to be blocked and stuck start to unwind. They uncoil. I see it as an energetic process taking place inside. It's not necessary to understand it as an energetic process in my opinion. All that is necessary is to understand that there is a softening going on inside. What is hard and stuck inside is becoming loosened. I describe it sometimes I say it is like that without realising it, all those years you have been emotionally constipated. And now everything is moving around inside and wants to come out to the surface. Which is its natural place. This is not something to be resisted. It is nature taking its course having been subjected to this spiritual life for a period of five years. So I don't see it as a problem although I do think that for most people it can feel very unsettling. The balmy spiritual environment has the effect of softening contracted places inside the body. This has the effect of loosening debris that has accumulated in various energy centres. Thoughts and feelings that have been lodged in various places, start to make their way to the surface. They can take the form of what feels like a more "heavy" vibe. Sometimes this process starts as early as year 4, but that’s unusual. 6 or 7 is more the norm.

The first thing people notice is that things feel different but they don't know why. There is a rich texture to this seam of feeling making itself present on a daily basis. It's as if they have inadvertently hit upon a seam of rich dark oil which is seeping to the surface of the ground and discolouring dry pale earth making it dark and swirly. There is a rising dark swirlyness that becomes apparent inside. This energy becomes apparent in their field of consciousness. It appears all around and sometimes coming from inside ..this unsettling swirly feeling. All they know is that this richness and swirlyness is present, and it wasn't present before. They start looking for reasons in their immediate environment why this "dark matter" should be presenting itself. Very often they attribute it to their childhood. Or perhaps to a difficult set of circumstances that has reared its ugly head or an emotional battle they are fighting at the time. There is nearly always a set of circumstances that will justify the presence of this "dark material". I like the word rich to describe this new seam of emotion because I think it is infinitely preferable to the emotions experienced in the first five years. I have no objections to people going through this process. And I will always tell people that I am much prefer the company of people who are able to access this type of feeling. 
I don't mean people who are overwhelmed by this feeling or are caught up very unconsciously in this feeling. I mean people who are readily able to access this range of emotion. I am much less content with the company of people who do not have access to this range of emotion.

This 'material' could be from this lifetime or a past life, or inter generational stuff from an ancestor that is working it's way out after many generations. Who ? knows. It might be something collective, or from someone else in your family, or close circle. All I know is that it 'shows up'. That's all I know. 

All I know is that you start 'cooking' differently at about year 6 to 7. Stuff comes up which feels heavier than before, and a different level of commitment to honesty is asked of you to make this part of the journey manageable. Simply trotting out all the 'positive' stuff you've  read in books, or repeating what your therapist told you just doesn't cut it. I call that a bit glib, defensive and unthinking. It's a different sort of a challenge. Something 'more' is being asked of you that is less bullshitty than what you were doing before. We never really outgrow the capacity to bullshit, so there is always room for improvement there. That's what I find anyway. 

By the way I would not assume that if you relentlessly talked about your emotions that you were any less prone to bullshit than someone else. Being long winded and almost exclusively preoccupied with your emotional temperature to me would indicate another manifestation of unconsciousness. So please don't think I'm saying the first 5 years are emotionless. I'm not. I'm saying they are different. More 'basic' or something. A more subtle art is required when things start feeling 'heavy' in this particular kind of year 6-7 way..

I see it like a piano with dark notes and high notes. In the first five years people sound like they have a very limited range of notes they can't hit any of the low notes. They have plenty of drama yes. But they lack the depth and lustre of a rich full-bodied range of emotions. It's like choosing a very rich dark blend of coffee instead of a very light blend of coffee. As it happens I also like to drink very high roast rich blend of coffee. But what I'm saying is this rich darkness arises in the consciousness of people in the years from 5 to 10. I think it is relatively challenging containing this new type of emotion, but I absolutely believe that it is possible and that it is doable. Even for people with very limited skills and limited intelligence.

This process is something I like to observe. My only regret with this transition is that a lot of people I meet haven't yet developed sufficient ability to be "still" and practice a meaningful acceptance of these swirly states enough to "bear with" this temporary discomfort.

I've heard people describe a process called "holding a space" for a transformation to take place. All I know is that when I am dealing with Sponsees I feel as though I am "holding a space" for their process to emerge. It's as if I am creating a safe place for their process to unravel. I provide some kind of energetic ballast for their destabilising experience. So they sort of have this wobbly experience, but my presence relays the understanding that "everything is all right" and this makes them feel safe. The reason I'm explaining this skill of "holding a space" is it because it is the same skill I would expect a Sponsee to cultivate in respect to their own swirlyness. I would encourage them to "hold the space" for this process of discomfort that is arising. I would also suggest that they do very simple pragmatic things such as keeping the lines of communication open. Speaking to others. Confiding in trusted people. Trying to be helpful in a selfless way.

On the other hand I often hear people saying they are "sitting with it". I'm not always convinced that this is the right answer. Sometimes you need to just go out and spend time with friends. Sometimes the reason you feel lousy is because there is an important aspect of your life hasn't been addressed. Perhaps you need to change into a new career. Perhaps you need to change the friends you are hanging out with. Perhaps there is something that is way past its sell by date that needs to be changed. So it's not as simple as just sitting with these uncomfortable states. Very often a way of life has outgrown its usefulness. A domineering parent needs to be dealt with. A chapter needs to be closed. Painful relationship needs to be walked away from. Someone who is being bullied needs to stand up to the bullies. A persistent longing to find a solution to emotional problems in relationships needs to be outgrown. A victim mindset needs to be outgrown. Some basic pattern needs to be outgrown. If there is a difficult and painful habit that you haven't outgrown, then of course you're going to feel terrible about it until something changes. So in these cases I don't see it as depression and I see it as drawing of one chapter to a close. Walking away from an old way of life.

So on the one hand I advocate holding a space for these uncomfortable emotions, but I would not say that I was advocating "just sitting with it". Because I don't think that's what I suggest. I would also advocate exercise and a good diet. I would also advocate looking for areas of your life which are long past their sell by date. I would also advocate seeking out nourishing friends. I would also advocate attending a high-class meditation group in order to learn how to "hold a space" for these uncomfortable internal states.

All I know is that this chapter of "dark material" rising is much more likely to happen if you are from a background of some form of abuse in your childhood. Abuse is very common and so in most cases alcoholics will have had this experience. I don't want to say this to reinforce the idea of victimhood, it's just an observation. People who don't have this type of background may very well avoid this all together. But nearly every single alcoholic I meet encounters this dark swirlyness between five and 10.

When I sponsor people I always warn them about the years 6 and 7 in the first few years of recovery. I also encourage them to attend very grown-up meditation groups as early as possible, so that when this material "hits" so to speak, that they are strong enough inside to contain it without getting too disturbed or alarmed by it. In other words they have developed a sort of inner steadiness from helping newcomers and doing service in a day from attending grown-up meditation groups. This inner steadiness means that they are protected during this dark chapter. Sometimes people I have sponsored get therapists during this chapter but I don't think it matters you can do it either way. When somebody tells me that they have had a difficult or abusive childhood, I try to introduce them to a grown-up step 11 practice soon after they finish step 9 because I know they will encounter this dark material with some force later. I tell them this in advance that they are likely to encounter this chapter of dark swirlyness, and that this is why I am recommending step 11 before this period hits. This makes it a little bit easier when this chapter shows up. It's still very difficult because going through this dark swirlyness has a very negative effect on the thinking. But it does make it a little bit easier because I feel as though they have been forewarned and they know what to expect.

I get annoyed with Sponsees who haven't started practising step 11 by year 4 or 5 for precisely this reason. I get quite concerned about the prospect of this material arising at year six and seven without adequate preparation. Occasionally people don't decide to practice step 11 in earnest and I have seen people in that category drift off and become reliant on antidepressants when life delivers some uncomfortable chapter.

Even when all these preparations are in place, it's still a uncomfortable process when they enter into this dark swirlyness chapter. They can get temporarily quite angry and shirty. I know better than to take these spells personally. As long as they are helping others and service is a way of life for them, I feel no fear when they encounter this chapter. I am sure they will be looked after. Very often it is their service commitment that is the life raft. The mountaineering rope that keeps them moored to a safe place.

I suppose I am most comfortable about somebody's recovery when they reach year 10, because I feel assured by this stage that they have almost certainly encountered this dark chapter and have moved through it without drinking. In other words I feel they can navigate this dark stretch of emotions safely. I am confident that they have the ability to use resources to cope with this chapter without drinking.
Having said that I have met people who I haven't sponsored  who reach 10 years sober, but who I don't look upon as having developed this ability. So in other words even if you are 10 years sober I wouldn't automatically say that you have this ability.

I suppose the way that I sponsor people is very heavily dependent upon helpfulness towards newcomers, and helpfulness towards other people generally. I always say that I expect them to sponsor somebody else when they complete the first nine steps. It's not an option for them simply to not sponsor people. It's also not an option for them not to talk to newcomers after meetings. It's not an option for them to lie cheat and steal, and it's not an option for them to avoid step 11. So I don't think I'm particularly typical in that regard. But what I'm saying is that within that context I have seen people very safely navigate through this unsettling chapter and reach year 10. I see people come out the other side looking very different and breakthrough into a new and different life. It's not as if they are dragging themselves along maintaining that they are grateful. It's like an different way of life is opened up to them. It's like watching a caterpillar shed its skin and become a butterfly.

I think the most valuable thing Sponsees learn in preparation for this inner swirlyness is the ability to consciously "hold a space" for this swirly internal state. It means holding a space without judgement and without alarm. Being still. Being present. Being unafraid. It is my belief that it is the process of step 11 combined with continued work with newcomers and doing service that keeps them safe. People who 'give themselves' in terms of service are always looked after it seems. That's what I've noticed. But in addition to that a good step 11 practice enables you to have an internal steadiness when this swirly dark material shows up.

I wouldn't describe it as particularly comfortable or pleasant, but it is eminently doable. And you don't need to do it 24 seven, you can take a break and go to the gym or watch a film or spend time with friends or develop areas of your life that are very healing and balancing. I think very often these periods of dark swirlyness often precipitates the letting go of a chapter of your life that is long past its sell by date.

Anyway I am very sorry for rambling on at length like that. But as always I have no idea how to explain things briefly. I know that I haven't fully addressed the issue of the medication and  I'm not even going to try because that's quite complicated. But all I'm saying is that within the context of sponsorship the way I have taken people through the steps it seems to work when people come off medication. I haven't seen it not work. I've seen it not work when people are not helping newcomers and stop telling the truth. But I haven't seen it fail when people are going to any lengths and are helping others and are telling the truth.
I normally avoid the whole subject of medication like the plague because it is quite contentious to say the least, but I'm just saying that's my experience. My experience is that I've seen Sponsees come off medication and stay off medication when they do the things that I do, which is try to help others, develop a step 11 practice, and confide in others when something is wrong. A fairly ruthless commitment to telling the truth at all times. Even when its very uncomfortable and embarrassing.

Well I hope you find some of that useful and  I'm very impressed that any of you find the time to read this. I've had to resort to software such as ace reader pro in order to get through lengthy posts like this one. I'm not sure how anyone else does that. But I rely on speed readers.

The weather is very hot over here and there's a great deal of preoccupation about the prospect of imminent financial collapse, Olympic explosions and other sorts of other disturbing world affairs which I'm not going to go into right now. :)
I hope that your’re all enjoying nice summer weather wherever you are, and thanks for taking the time to read this.


Syd said...

Very interesting and also something that I wonder about for anyone in a 12 step program. As you know, my wife has suffered bouts of depression during her life. She stopped her meds about a year ago. I don't know how well she worked the steps. She only attends one meeting a week and does service by baking. She has not to my knowledge worked with newcomers or sponsored anyone. I know that some depressions are biological. I am for the moment, glad that she is on medication. Thank you for your interesting post and your comment on my blog.

charlotte klein said...

You Provide Some Insight to the Problems People Share, Gives us all something to think about.

Mike L. said...

Great post! So much I agree with wholeheartedly. But strangely, while I've heard about and seen this phenomenon in other recovering folks, including some sponsees--I've never experienced it as a specific or definable phase in my own 11 years (please update your list of recovery blogs so I'm in the 10+ years group... ) of recovery.

Reading your post just now did remind me of a great book that your might like: The Dark Night of Recovery by Edward Bear. That's a pseudonym -- if you've ever read A. A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh books you might be able to figure out why this author (a recovering alcoholic...) picked Edward Bear.... ;-)

The book is a story about all that you talked about in this blog. In fact, I'm wondering if it was you that wrote it!

Good to read you again. I've been away from my own recovery blog for too long now -- my family has been walking thru the death of my third grandchild (umbilicord accident the night before he was due to be born....). But I was able to be there for everyone, feel my own depth of grief which i never before allowed myself to feel and to develop a deeper appreciation for the ever changing/ending nature of life.

Take care!

Mike L.