Codependency and Loneliness

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When I think back on the time I spent with my ex-alcoholic, the dominant emotion that comes to mind is “loneliness”. Over time, as our relationship became more and more dysfunctional, I made the choice to turn inward.

I pulled away from others for a number of reasons, one of the most shameful is because I found his behaviour embarrassing.

I remember an evening we went over to my boss’ house for dinner. After dessert, her husband took the “men” out to his workshop for scotch. Predictably, my ex drank beyond his limits and ended up sitting on another female guest’s lap for an extended period of time (much to my horror and the silent fury of her husband). I waited until the morning to point out how his behaviour was inappropriate and painful for me. He shrugged off my comments, telling me I was too sensitive, selfish, and should lighten up. Conversation over.

That’s typically how we talked about things that bothered us.. someone would bring a legitimate grievance to the table to be dismissed, put down, and ignored. Notice I said “us”. Over time, this became the relationship’s culture, it’s normal. My hands are not clean.

I can’t speak to how this experience was for him, but it had a profound impact on my self-worth. Having my opinions, needs, and experience undermined and belittled made me feel as though I had nothing relevant or authentic to bring to the table. Without that, there could be no positive change and as a result, the only “logical” next step was to avoid interacting with other people. Without third party accountability, it was easier to continue on with my “truth”: that I was worthless, unreasonable and unlovable.

Another reason I withdrew, is the misguided notion that I felt that if we only had to be accountable to each other, things would eventually improve. That life would be somewhat predictable and manageable with only one person to worry about.

But, as many of you can relate, being in a relationship with someone that is not present is not fulfilling; emotionally, spiritually, or physically. The harder I clung on to him and tried to force him to spend “quality” time with me, the more he rejected me and tried to make space. This started with refusing to share meals, refusing to spend time time together, and eventually to sleeping alone.

Our evening ritual would culminate as he became increasingly distant, quiet, and sometimes confrontational.  Anything to make me retreat and shut myself in the bedroom, to leave him alone to drink and watch a movie he had already seen hundreds of times waiting for the vodka to overtake him. When I remember this, I still cringe. I’ve never felt so low, undesirable and lonely. I remember hearing the bottle pop before I’d even made it up the stairs.  I remember lying awake for hours, wondering what was wrong with me, how I could fix myself to make him want me again.

Truthfully, I still struggle to combat this feeling. I sometimes break into a cold sweat trying to get out the words to set a boundary and express my feelings. I can’t seem to override the expectation that I shouldn’t share what I’m feeling because it somehow doesn’t matter.

But – I’m working on it.

I remind myself that someone else’s option of me does not need to impact my own self-worth.  I remind myself that we are all free to make our own choices and suffer the consequences. I remind myself that I also have choices to make, and I should value my own needs when making them. I remind myself that I’m also entitled to have good things and experiences and that I don’t need to accept unacceptable behaviour.

Enough.

woman and man sitting on brown wooden bench
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In February of 2017 my then boyfriend asked me to marry him. We were walking in the off-leash dog park near our house and he thrust his grandmother’s engagement ring at me, and said simply “will you?”.

He told me later that he had hoped to ask in Niagara Falls.

I had put an end to that plan when we’d gotten into a huge argument when he suggested going away for my birthday. It was just after Christmas, I was looking at a mountain of credit card debt, the mortgage and other bills looming, and obsessively looking over our bank records, I knew his contributions were almost non-existent.

He had told me he wanted to take me away for the weekend and I melted down. I shamed him for even considering spending money.

We had been together for 8 years at that point.  Truthfully, most of it not great. There was very little trust on either side and neither one of us seemed capable of supporting the other in any idea. We bickered constantly and had almost no intimacy by any stretch or definition of the word. Our relationship was full of lies and shame and we were both in deep denial of his illness.

He had graduated to drinking in secret. He slept at irregular hours and it was not unusual for his behaviour to deteriorate; he said inappropriate things, stumbled around, and slurred his words. I had forced him to go to the doctor, insisting that if he was not abusing substances there must be something deeply wrong. The doctor said that his sleep patterns could be the catalyst for the strange behaviour and suggested more discipline in his daily routine.

He, of course, did not follow any of the doctors suggestions and responded to my nagging by insisting the doctor was a quack and he was fine. He told me that I was a fool, a nag, and that I should mind my own business.  He was right on most of those points, the doctor did not identify the problem… and by that time, I wasn’t able to focus on myself at all, I had become obsessed with how to turn him into the person I thought he could be.

I initially said “yes” to his proposal. I had been waiting for it, couldn’t believe we’d been together so long without that commitment.  I said “yes” because I thought that was the clear next step towards the kids I thought I wanted with him, the “ever after” I imagined where he was alert, available, and we were no longer adversaries.

On the walk back from the park, all kinds of thoughts came flooding in: the lies, the financial hardship, the person I had become over the time we had been together… When we got back to the house I rescinded my acceptance of his proposal, telling him that I couldn’t think of marrying him as things were between us.

He told me he would do anything to keep the ring on my finger.

I suggested we work on things, and hoped that he would ask again.

Over the next month, he moved the heirloom ring around the house – I’m not sure if that was to punish me, or because it was painful for him to see the symbol of my rejection; probably both. His behaviour became more erratic and I spent an increasing amount of time worrying about where he was, what he was doing, and imagining all the things that would happen to him. In my paranoia, I became worried that he would dispose of the ring, and worried about the impact that would have on his mother.

Then, one Sunday in March, he drank himself into a stupor and passed out on the couch. In a strangely empowered moment, I got his keys, and decided to search his car for the ring.

I found chaos. His car was full of garbage – fast food containers, clothing, cigarette packages, other unidentifiable mess. And then I opened the trunk and found it full of empty vodka bottles.

I remember staring at the contents of the trunk, of the first irrevocable proof of his addiction, and wondering if I could just close the trunk and imagine that I could forget what I had seen. I remember standing there, trying to think of any other explanation for why they were there…

And then I realized I was sick too.  I called his brother and begged him to come and get him.  I packed a bag for him, and waited.  A few hours later, they coaxed him, half passed out, into the car and took him away.

I’ve only seen him once since then, in a bank parking lot about a month after I forced him out of our house. Already skinny, he’d lost more weight, his skin was grey and he looked more ill than I remembered. I wondered if he’d always looked that way and I hadn’t allowed myself to see it.

I spent the first year working through my belief that there was something missing from me which should have inspired him to get better. It took me that much time to realize that while there were things that I could have done better for both of us in light of his addiction, there was nothing I could have done to make him stop before he was ready.

It took me that long to accept that we were not meant to save each other.

One Day at a Time

I am the product of generational wounds.  I learned the basics of relationships and behaviour from people that passed along their lessons. I know that my experiences as a child were not my fault, just as theirs were not their fault. A child is helpless and at the mercy of their surroundings and we do our best with what they are presented. A child doesn’t understand that what they are being shown is not healthy, or abnormal. They trust and accept, they have no other choice.

For a lot of years I blamed my parents and my family for my unhappiness.  And some of that was justified. It is okay and reasonable to be angry about the experiences I had as a child. To wish that I’d had an easier and more supportive ride.  To be frustrated that my current emotional wellbeing, as an adult, is a result of unlearning and acknowledging the good and bad of those experiences.

Anger has always been an easy emotion for me, and one of the few I excel at. There was a lot of anger and resentment in my childhood, and in the generations that proceeded that. My grandparents and their parents dealt with a lot of challenges – poverty, discrimination, war, and grief. There was little to no effective mental health medicine or treatment available to them.  The only choice was to continue on, and to their credit they did what they needed to do. And they tried to prepare their children for life by passing along those lessons, strategies, and mechanisms.

Those strategies did not include anything which would resemble emotional intimacy, compassion, or care. Those strategies included disconnection, isolation, force, desperation, resentment, addiction, shame and insecurity.

Like my parents, I don’t understand what it’s supposed to feel like to trust and love someone unconditionally and like the generations that came before me I spend a lot of time fighting the feeling of being less than, or unworthy of most things.

I admit that for the majority of my life I used these models as an excuse not to heal and to justify my own poor behaviour. I think the idea of letting go of that resentment kept me trapped for a long time. It is easier and more comfortable not to change.

I unconsciously look for people that reinforce those feelings of insecurity, resentment, and inadequacy because anything else feels uncomfortable. Anything else means that I have to admit that I don’t understand what healthy means and that I don’t know how to cope with normalcy. Anything else means that I have to look inward and admit that I am choosing to nourish my own misery.

I am fortunate to be in a romantic relationship with someone that does not have those shared experiences. That’s not to say his life has been without challenge, but he has never doubted that his family loves and accepts him. He has never accepted relationships, romantic or otherwise, were abuse has been a factor. He approaches all challenges with confidence, acceptance, and perseverance. He has faith that things will work out and he will be fine, regardless of what he is presented.

I love and admire this in him. And in my weaker moments I am jealous of him and I struggle to understand him. I debate how much to tell him about the specifics of my past experiences and the steps I take in my daily life to grow, change, and live a better life.

It’s interesting at this stage in my recovery that what stops me from blurting out all the shitty things in my past is not that I don’t trust him, or don’t want him to know… what stops me is that I don’t want to do to him what’s been done to me.  I don’t want him to feel obligations towards me because of what I’ve been through. I don’t want to make excuses for my behaviour.

I guess I’m writing this here to try and organize my thoughts, and to illustrate that recovery is an ongoing balancing act. Wherever you are in this process, there will be good and bad moments.  You will need to continue to grow, adapt, and be accountable. There are things that come up that don’t have a manual and there are no one size fits all solution.

I write this to remind myself to keep showing up.  I write this to remind myself that it is always ok to return to step 1.

Fear, Shame, and COVID-19

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Heading towards the fourth month in Canada of social distancing, the seriousness of COVID-19 has not diminished and the mental health impacts of being socially isolated are starting to become more apparent.  My neighbours, and even myself, have started to take more risks when it comes to the regulations: more “driveway” and social distance visits, more justifications to expand the circle, and more attempts to inject some normal into our lives.

The conversations around this disease are starting to shift as people are making large efforts to be sensitive to everyone else’s needs, comfort level, and risk factors while balancing their own need to get back into more natural social packs.  Historically I would describe myself as more of a “lone wolf”, favouring small and intimate connections over large packs, but this experience has taught me that my need for human connection is stronger than I imagined. I’ve found myself lingering longer with friendly frontline workers, talking about the weather or any other non-COVID topic they are willing to engage in through plexiglass on my supply runs.. and after seeing a few friends for a backyard social distance visit for the first time since this all started last week, I am more aware than ever that I need good people around me to feel balanced.

Something interesting that I am noticing is that most people seem very hesitant to admit that they feel any fear over infection.  Most cite a loved one, roommate, or contact as the reason for their lack of contact: “I’m okay, but so-and-so is so uncomfortable so I stay away”.

I’m not saying that we should lift any restrictions, the threat of this horrible disease is still very real with no cure or vaccine close on the horizon.  It is still important to do our part to ensure the safety of the population and no one should feel more uncomfortable than needed or be placed at unnecessary risk. But – what I find interesting about these ongoing discussions is they indicate a very real problem: there is shame associated with being afraid, and shame keeps people from talking about fear.  I say this because in some of my conversations the same people are blaming each other for being afraid. I suspect this is not always miscommunication, but more likely a reluctance to admit their own fear.

I find this especially sad, because I believe most people genuinely want to do their best for others.  If there is something I can do (or not do) in order to make you more comfortable and at ease in your interactions with me, I would be happy to do my best to accommodate. But – if those conversations don’t happen, I don’t know how you’re feeling and I can’t do my part to help you feel better.

I also understand that admitting fear is not an easy thing to do. I grew up in an environment where it was not okay to feel negative things. It was wrong to be scared, to require reassurance or accommodation. To this day, admitting I need something is still peppered with shame… but, I will say, that “normal and healthy” people do not make you feel worse for having a negative feeling. It is okay and normal to be scared, and it is worth pushing through the discomfort of shame to have better quality connections, especially in this time where connection is more challenging than it has ever been before.