The Worst Part.

I’ve only ever been to see one therapist.  I couldn’t tell you if my experience is typical or unique, but I imagine that every therapist has their own style and flavor.

By accident I happened to chose a therapist who has experience treating trauma. I say “by accident” because I didn’t use any care in choosing my professional. I did a loose search in my area for people who had experience treating addiction / related family issues and started leaving voicemails and sending emails, working my way down the list. I had no idea what I needed to feel better or even a good understanding of why I felt shitty in the first place. I didn’t have the language to label any of my experiences as “trauma” and I certainly didn’t appreciate how that specialty could serve me in treatment.

When I finally decided to seek treatment I was so low that I literally signed up with the first person who returned my call. She was the first person who was available to see me. I was so desperate that I figured my situation couldn’t possibly be made worse, that any licensed therapist had to at least be able to talk me off the ledge.

It turned out to be a fortuitous accident.

Among the many effective tools in her arsenal, she works hard to help me develop awareness of my feelings. A question she commonly asks me when we are unpacking a scenario or feeling is, “what was the worst part?” Although I’ve never asked, I feel that this question is designed to develop my emotional intelligence and develop the language to articulate what I’m feeling and why.

The funny thing about such a seemingly simple and innocuous question is that, for me at least, it’s often incredibly hard to answer. Asking me, a person who has made it their unintentional life’s purpose to numb themselves, a pointed question about their feelings is tantamount to asking the average person about specifics of a quantum physics theory or the writings of a little known 18th century poet.  Well, maybe not quite that impossible, but not as much of an exaggeration as I wish it was.

A few times in my recovery journey I’ve tried to pinpoint the worst part, or impact, of my experiences.  The biggest challenge and hurdle to my happiness and self actualization. Today the answer is: I don’t know how to trust myself.

I constantly and consistently doubt my gut feelings.  I wonder if my feelings are valid or something that I am creating for some subconscious ulterior motive. I don’t know if I’m nervous to do something because it’s legitimately dangerous, or because it’s habit — I’m used to doubting myself. I don’t know if I’m fabricating a fear as an easy escape, or there is a real thing to fight or flee.

The deep irony of this is that I’ve spent a lifetime taking care of myself.  Not only that, I’ve often had to take care of others too.  I’ve survived a lot.  Alone.  I’ve proven time and again that I am capable not only of lifting myself up by my bootstraps, but that i can do it with the added challenge of trying to save others too. Did i mention those people I’m trying to save have no desire for my help and are often kicking, screaming, and berating me while I try to drag them along with me?

I’m kind of a badass. Misguided sometimes, but a badass nonetheless.

Logically I know this to be true.

Emotionally. Not so much.

The horrible paradox of this whole thing is that this strong and capable independent woman is so scared to be alone with herself that she lets people convince her that she needs them.

I hope someday I accept that I’ve moved past the scared little girl who did what she had to do to survive and take my hard earned place confidently at the head of the pack.

Why Stay?

When I think back on my time living with alcoholics, one of the hardest things to be honest about is why I did so little to change my situation. I wasn’t happy for a long time and I stayed. Why?

When I met my ex there were a lot of early signs that he did not have his life or mental health together. He told me heartbreaking stories about his life prior to our getting together that he used to justify his choices, his mood, his behaviour.. a lot of things. I later found out that many of these stories were likely falsehoods, or at least severe exaggerations of actual events. I suspect, by that time, he had forgotten they were lies because they were so essential to the self-abuse he perpetuated in his own life. I also suspect I wasn’t the primary target for his deception: he was.

He told me that he was looking forward and made me feel as though I was helping him.

Truthfully I did not have great self esteem. I was recovering from my own life setbacks and was habitually hard on myself when things weren’t going well for me, or people I cared about, whether or not I actually had any real power over the outcome. The way he made me feel in those early days appealed to my ego. It made me feel empowered and useful. It gave me value that I was desperately looking for externally because I sincerely thought that’s where it could be found.

And so it started, the unfortunate attachment of my self-worth to his.

As time went on and he could not continue to sell his lack of progress with his prior excuses, the emotional abuse started. The interesting thing about emotional abuse is that it can be very subtle and hard to identify. It was only after I had some distance that I understood that my relationship was not normal, that most people don’t feel the way I did.

The most common type of emotional abuse in my life has been a form that I later learned is coined “gas lighting”. In gas lighting, the gas lighter undermines the gas lightee by denying facts, the environment or their feelings – essentially convincing them that their feelings or perception of events are wrong. For example, the lightee tells the lighter they are shirking their household responsibilities and the lighter refuses to acknowledge that’s happening despite all proof and logic to the contrary. I don’t think this is that uncommon and likely we’ve all done it to another in blind denial or self-preservation at some point in our lives when fact was inconvenient.. but this wasn’t an intermittent or occasional issue. Over time, this became most of our interactions with each other.

Truthfully, this had been a theme in my childhood as well. I came from a household where it was not okay to be upset and it was not unusual for me to be accused of being “too sensitive” or “too dramatic” when expressing my feelings. When I was a toddler, the dog next door bit me on the face and my recollection of that event is that my caregiver was more concerned about how the dog owner felt about the incident than my well-being. I thought it was my fault, that somehow my existence had warranted the attack. I didn’t realize, as I had more experiences like that one, that I began to distrust my perception of the world. I often feel guilty or self-conscious for having feelings, even when they are legitimate. I’m the kind of person that would gladly accept that I somehow asked to be punched in the face, rather than make someone else feel bad for their own lapse in judgement.

By the time I met my alcoholic partner I was well primed to hand over my self-respect and take the blame for the challenges in our relationship. So, as painful and embarrassing as it is to admit, I felt like I deserved it. I deserved to be unhappy. I deserved to be trying to pick up the pieces of a broken relationship without any help. I deserved to be suffering… so why would I empower myself to try for anything different?

I couldn’t leave without taking an impossible blow to my ego, and I didn’t have much ego to spare since it was my fault and I deserved it.

The worst part about all this for me is that I feel that the easiest way to frame these events is as a reflection of my personal weakness, validating my lack of worth.

But I’ve come to realize that the easiest way isn’t always the best way to live with something. I understand now why domestic abuse victims are now commonly referred to as survivors. While it may not make sense to most why I made the choices I did, I know that what I did was the best I could do with the tools I had at the time. I know that I’ve made it through things that other people would not, and that my past is not a reflection of my weakness but as a pillar to my strength of perseverance.

2020 Memorandum

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As 2020 winds down, I think regardless of where we find ourselves at the end of this unprecedented year we can all agree this is nothing like we anticipated it would be.

For me, this year has been equal parts good and bad. I’ve struggled with relapse of depression, anxiety, and lack of focus. I’ve been insecure, uneasy, antsy, fearful, and helpless. I’ve struggled to maintain structure and commitment to self-care and taken way too many liberties with food, substance use, and lack of exercise. I’ve gone from fear of missing out, to fear of going out, and back again a few times. I’ve struggled to maintain contact with the people I love and the activities I know ground me and contribute to my emotional, spiritual, and physical wellbeing.

I’ve lost sight of the big picture and reduced too many things to emotional extremes. I’ve drowned in political, health, and existential crises and struggled to find myself again. I’ve spent far more energy on the things I can’t control, and not nearly enough on the things I can. And, despite knowing better, I did a lot of this without asking for help.

Going in to 2021, I want to restart and get back on the bandwagon. And what better place to start than some gratitude. Here’s some of the things I am most grateful for in 2020:

  • Early in the year, I celebrated by 37th birthday with the purchase of a new home, in a new town, while in a relatively new romantic relationship.
  • In May I made the difficult choice to leave a company where I had been employed for 5 years to take a chance on a new role despite the discomfort of completing this entire transition remotely.
  • This summer, despite my fears, I disclosed one of the most shameful events in my life to a dear friend and my boyfriend. I hadn’t spoken of this event outside of therapy, truthfully believing it would make me unlovable. I’m humbled to report that my fears were unfounded, at least where it matters most to me.
  • Through over-the-fence distanced interactions I’ve started to know my new neighbours. After years of avoiding small town life, I’m reminded of the great aspects of community. Again and again I’m amazed of the large impact of small kindness – to someone thoughtfully bringing a parcel in from the rain and rushing out to deliver it by hand when you return home, to helping you haul fallen leaves from the large maple in your front yard, to delivering a couple extra date squares because they felt the urge to share.
  • I’ve also been inspired by my small community’s efforts to encourage local shopping, dining, and artisan support in the absence of the town’s usual glut of tourists through campaigns, events, and good old fashioned coming togetherness (Is this a word? Is now!).
  • I’ve been privileged to be trusted with a few friends’ low moments and vulnerabilities and am slowly learning how to help people in a way that’s healthy for us both.
  • In the summer, my boyfriend took me on my first backwoods camping trip in almost a decade. Despite the irony of escaping the isolation of our home with backwoods isolation, we survived, we thrived, we ate great food, and we had a pretty great adventure.
  • Over the last 8 months of pandemic, my boyfriend and I have been putting our touch on the home we purchased – painting, renovating, landscaping, and building something really special and uniquely us. I’m grateful to be enjoying these moments with someone that inspires and supports me in so many amazing ways.
  • Although my relationship with my family is far from perfect, I feel that this year has challenged me to improve my communication and I am enjoying interacting with them more than this time last year. I’m encouraged that healing is possible.
  • Recently, I was approached with another great employment opportunity which represents exponential career growth. Despite the mixed emotions of changing jobs again in the new year, I’ve accepted and am looking forward to another new start in 2021 with equal parts excitement and trepidation. I’m grateful for being blessed for the first time in my career with so many good options.

I feel like a lot of my life has been framed in extreme thoughts. Things were largely good or bad (more often bad, if I’m honest) and not allowed to be grey.

Climbing back up on the recovery horse I remind myself that life is unpredictable and strange. Despite our best effort and planning things don’t always turn out as we planned. Life isn’t perfect, but being adaptable and open to change makes it a lot more live-able.

Cookie Monster

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My name is Jess and I’m a foodie.

I plan my day around what I’m going to eat. I enthusiastically seek out new ingredients, inspiration, and rarely take shortcuts with pre-packaged products. My boyfriend jokes that every day in our house is like eating in a restaurant. I cook mostly by feel, and by what’s available. I use recipes as a starting point, substituting based on what I have or what’s in season and I rarely measure the components. As you can imagine, this makes it hard to replicate my successes, and we rarely eat exactly the same dish twice.

It’s my creative outlet. I see food as an art form and, unlike most art, one of the things that I find most satisfying is its impermanence. It exists in small servings, for a person to enjoy and then it’s gone. And if we’re talking about my kind of cooking, it may never be the same way again.

When I was a child, I used to tell my parents I needed a cookie, often when I felt upset. I saw food as a mechanism to comfort myself, showing early signs that my ability to soothe and cope depended on my environment and didn’t come from within.

One of the things my family did consistently was eat well. I remember a real emphasis on dinners together into my adolescence. We would wait for everyone to get home and sit down together to excellent food as a family. I think in a way I saw that as a constant in an otherwise unpredictable environment.

The downside of family dinners was that the addict in my household did their best drinking in the evening. I remember hearing the first beer pop when I got home from school as they started preparing our meal. By the time the whole family was home hours later, they were often well into their nightly drinking and my anxiety would build as we sat down together. I remember watching everyone closely, trying to mitigate and control the conversation so that the meal wouldn’t end in someone storming off and/or saying something hurtful.

Sometimes dinner was pleasant and there was no fighting, other times our drinker seemed to be looking for any reason to fight and storm off, to retreat to the basement and be alone. I remember fights based on things as small as the amount of gratitude we articulated for the meal. As I got into my mid-teens, my relationship with this person deteriorated. I know that I egged on a lot of fights – I tried to anticipate their mood swings and disagreed with them on purpose… I think trying to take the brunt of their rage. I won’t saint myself and say it was totally for the greater good, I think over time I accepted this as my role and I got some perverse satisfaction out of trying to incite their anger. In my mind, if it was going to happen either way, it might as well happen because I chose it.

Around that time, I also started taking a more active role in food preparation for the family. In my ignorance about addiction, I felt that if I removed that stress from my addicts life, and they could just enjoy the food there would be less conflict. There wasn’t less conflict, it just changed. Instead of fighting about how we didn’t appreciate their effort, they smashed around, angry at me for leaving too much mess in the kitchen or wasting ingredients.

Despite this animosity, I did find enjoyment in the process of food preparation. It was something that I could control – with effort, attention, and focus I could prepare a nice meal. Even if I couldn’t control how it was received.

It’s interesting thinking back on my history with food knowing what I know now about addiction. I understand the addict in my life was living with their own demons and was not able to be invested in my experience in the way I deserved. The number one in their life was always alcohol, everything else was secondary. It was a higher priority to be justified in drinking than it was to have a nice family dinner.

Even with this knowledge, I am aware of the residue this has left on my subconscious. I assign more value to quality of food than most people I know, I think because for a long time it was a reliable and accessible comfort mechanism. The way I prepare food has also been altered. I can’t help but clean as I go, leaving less dishes and inconvenience for anyone that cleans up after me; I also feel profound shame if I have to throw out food.. still on some level anticipating a conflict that doesn’t come.

But we do eat some pretty epic meals.