Cookie Monster

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In today’s hipster world, you’d call me 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 only 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; however, 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.

Easy Does It

Almost three years into active recovery, I will admit there are still some parts of this process that I find highly frustrating and confusing.

First and foremost, how to be appropriately vulnerable. I grew up in a household where even the smallest of grievances warranted big emotional reactions. Failure to clean the kitchen properly, not showing excessive gratitude for small gestures, or not abiding the smallest rules were all excuses for us to express our unhealthiest and most dramatic coping mechanisms.

I learned to overexplain myself because I hardly ever felt heard. I learned to be hypervigilant and controlling because my environment wasn’t reasonable or predictable. I learned to fear the unknown, because the known wasn’t a “safe” space. I learned to hide and doubt myself and my feelings, because they were often criticized. I learned to be attracted to and vulnerable with people who were often not worthy or safe for the simple reason that their unsafe characteristics were familiar to me. I learned to be angry, because that was a common behaviour in my household.

Vulnerability is a very confusing and scary concept for a person like me. In recovery, I also understand that not learning safe and appropriate vulnerability perpetuates a lot of that aforementioned list of unhealthy coping mechanisms. But I also understand that doing it unsafely through oversharing, sharing too quickly, sharing to much, or sharing too little all have negative consequences too.

So how do you balance vulnerability? I’m still fumbling through this idea.

The second biggest hurdle for me is learning how to appropriately help people I care about. For most of my life I’ve watched people around me try to save and bail out people from the consequences of their actions. In other words, I’ve watched people model enabling.

I understand now that standing in the way of people feeling the consequences of their actions is disrespectful, demeaning, and unhelpful. It is treating someone like a child and robbing them of the ability to learn from their mistakes and develop confidence in their ability to turn their situation around.

In my household, enabling was often combined with a lecture, disappointment, disapproval and a healthy serving of shame. Not only did I watch people get saved from learning valuable life lessons produced from consequences, I watched them get bullied into feeling incapable of handling the next hurdle in front of them.

In most family groups related to addiction they will introduce the concept of “staying in your lane”. Essentially, this is an attempt to lay the foundation of encouraging people to mind their own business, allow people to choose their own path, and *most importantly* put more focus on their own steps and less obsession on others.

So how do you help someone who is asking you for advice without bullying them and still remaining in your lane? Still working on that too.

One day at a time.

Substances, In Recovery

I am very grateful for many things in my life but, like everyone, some of my days are challenging.

I mentioned in a prior post that we moved into a new town just prior to the pandemic restrictions. When we chose this town I was looking forward to the symbolic re-start, of leaving a place which had been the site of some of my highest and lowest days… but like everyone else around me mourning the loss of their best laid plans for the year, 2020 had other ideas.

I’ve reached a point in my life where I can take responsibility for the good relationships I let slip though my fingers, and for the ones that probably should have left me sooner. But I also finally understand that things work out as they should, and even though I am lonely and daunted at starting “fresh” with few connections, it is exactly where I need to be.

Perhaps you can appreciate why I’m a bit happier than some at the optimistic lifting of some social distancing measures. Whether you think these changes are a good or a bad thing, from my perspective, the risk of leaving my home to seek out local connections is important.

It just so happens, the first connection that I’ve made is with a single mother who is currently separated from her partner, an alcoholic and cocaine addict. This connection didn’t happen in a support group, or any of the places where I would intentionally seek out like-minded people.  But there is order in randomness, and I know that everyone working a recovery program benefits from making these connections. Not only could I positively impact her recovery, but interacting with her could help me remember to keep working my own program.

On hearing my story, her first question was whether or not me and my partner drink or use substances.  As I paused to consider my response, she admitted that she has been getting some judgement from people she knows for her personal choices and new connections she’s establishing.

I find that substance use is a touchy topic in the codependency recovery community. Unlike addicts, we are indirectly damaged by the use of substances so whether or not we continue to be around them is not as black and white as our addictive counterparts.  I’ve met codependents who appear to have a healthy and moderate relationship with alcohol and those that abstain for a variety of reasons.  I think fundamentally, we all figure out what works for us, and some of us force that opinion on others with the good natured intent of hoping they see the same success.

However, one gift that recovery has given me is the acceptance that it is everyone’s own personal right to make decisions for themselves. If you would like to use any substance, in any amount, that is your choice and (one day at a time) I have no desire to take it from you.

If you asked me for the thought process that fuels my own choices, I would tell you that I believe the fundamental problem with substance use is not the substance itself, it’s the instant gratification thought processes that go along with it. Therefore, if I am choosing to alter my state in a quick fix, I must be realistic and accepting of the consequences.

Although there are different physical health impacts from different substances, mentally I don’t think that this choice differs by vice. I don’t think that pot is healthier than alcohol.  I don’t think heroin is worse than it’s “legal” siblings. I understand that eating unhealthy food impacts my health and that I can lose years of my life being addicted to a person in codependency. I think all vices have an impact on what a person can accomplish and it is up to that person to decide how they want to spend their time. If I drink, I may lose a day to a hangover.  If I smoke pot, I personally would not have a productive few hours.  If I only eat junk food, I’m likely to gain weight. If I get stuck in an unhealthy relationship, I know how brutal that extraction process is…

But, it is my (and anyone else’s) right to change, from day to day.

When I talk about addiction, I think that prioritizing instant gratification is a major part of the dysfunctional thought process. We get so used to coping with an instant “solution” (or at least an instant distraction) that we become unable or unwilling to imagine another path.

Personally, my views on substance use change from day to day. But, I understand that my only real responsibilities are:

  1. To decide how I want to spend my day and to deal with those consequences;
  2. To allow others to make the choices they are entitled to, but to honour my own boundaries.

Remember that others are entitled to feel how they will about your choices, and choose their own accordingly just as you can choose to remove yourself from situations with behaviour that is not acceptable to you.

This does not need to be a dramatic or judgmental process.

W.A.I.T.

cheerful sisters with cup of drink using laptop on floor
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Something I struggle with constantly is when and how to approach conversation mindfully.  I work in a sales role which requires me to be engaging and communicative so this is a careful balancing act. If you’ve ever encountered one of those natural sales guys you know that we like (or at least choose) to talk.. constantly. We use speak to engage, to stall, to charm, to manipulate, to be successful in our roles. It’s not unusual for people to leave a conversation with a salesperson in awe of all the talking they did with not a lot of substance.

My background complicates this a bit. I’ve experienced a lot of dysfunctional communication and don’t always understand the value of keeping some of my well-intentioned (but destructive) thoughts and judgements to myself. I’ve harped on this idea a lot in past posts, but it’s taken a lot of years for me to understand that I can’t save or alter everyone’s path and that sometimes you gotta STFU and let someone find their way.

If you’ve ever made it to an “Anonymous” meeting, you’ve probably been exposed to the acronym “W.A.I.T.” This stands for “Wait, why am I talking?” and is a valuable conversation technique reminding us to halt our lizard brain and automatic babble and be mindful about what we are saying. It reminds us that we don’t need to speak in the heat of the moment, and it is also useful in hindsight – you know that thing we all do when we overthink the conversation afterword, in my case often with regret and criticism.

Why am I talking?

  1. Because everyone else is talking.
  2. I have an urge to talk.
  3. I want attention.
  4. In order to communicate with a purpose
  5. I don’t know.

Loren Ekroth, ConversationMatters.com

The old adage, “less is more”, is often true when it comes to conversation. The most memorable conversations are usually with great listeners who know what to say and when to say it. However, like everything else, this is very much a progress not perfection kind of thing.

So what do you do when you’re W.A.I.T.’ing?

First, establish that you are actually trying to add something of value to the conversation. That your intent is to be meaningful, compassionate, and truly constructive.

Next, listen. Really listen to what the other person is saying. An alarming number of people don’t do this. At some point in human evolution it seems we all got fixated on our own sense of importance, and many of us (including myself at times) get caught up in the excitement of our own words – we don’t register what the other person is contributing, we are just waiting for our turn to speak. Stop, and really take in what they are saying – ask sensitive questions to ensure that you know where they are coming from, and make sure you are really making an effort to address their point or question.

Listen first, think second, and talk last (if at all).

And finally, remember that you always have the choice of taking a pause. There are very few occasions where it is not appropriate to ask for a break to mull it over. It is okay, and I can’t stress this enough, to take a step away and give the conversation some thought before you respond, even in business.  Acknowledge the other person’s view and ask for a respite, it’s okay to not know what to say and ask to get back to them when you’ve had a chance to look into or ponder their point more closely.

Taking a break is a valuable way to reduce any regret you may feel from speech. If I’ve made sure that my intent is good and my message is meaningful I am less inclined to wish I’d said nothing if the other person does not respond positively to my words. In those cases where emotions are running high, it gives me a chance to calm down and approach things rationally instead of impulsively.

But really, all this boils down to something that many of us struggle with: taking responsibility for our words. I think we forget, or have been mislead, into thinking that falls on the listener: “they’re just too sensitive”, etc. But that’s a load of crap, we are all responsible for what we say, write, put into the world.  Sure, not everyone is going to like what you say, but we all have a duty of care to be aware of others and ourselves and have a reasonable appreciation for how what we do and say affects and is perceived by others.

We are all entitled to our own experience and have had different experiences that would lead us to respond in different ways to a message. There are times where we will do our best, but our message will still not be received in the way we hope.  That’s okay, the important thing is to try to be mindful, compassionate, and to aware so we can learn from the outcomes and continue to grow as a person.