Change in Uncertain Times

animal dog pet dangerous
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I’ve talked about my dog before on this blog.  She is a rescue mutt – sweet, loving, and scared of most things. She will startle at a pen falling off a table but shows absolutely no hesitation to go bolting off the deck into the night after an anonymous and unidentified shadow or noise. In these moments, she forgets she is afraid.

I have a similarly complicated and confusing relationship with change. Fed up with life and circumstances I can name an embarrassing amount of times in my life that I’ve bolted into the night, making impulsive and life changing decisions with very little foresight or appreciation for the consequences. I’ve cut people out, quit without notice, and generally acted like a wild and startled animal and not the intelligent homo sapien I am.

For my dog, those actions have resulted in several face-to-face confrontations with angry skunks.  For me, they have resulted in having to reinvent myself almost from scratch more times than I’d like to admit.

The irony of both our situations is that I believe we are both desperately trying to deal with paralyzing fear. Acting quickly, impulsively and desperately is often the only way for either one of us able to do anything without feeling our insecurities.

In the midst of all the pandemic restrictions, collective mental health crisis, and general world upheaval I’ve been approached with and accepted a job offer. Most people that know me well agree that this is an overdue and largely positive move. They reassure me that I am making a good decision and remind me of how much in my life has changed for the better over my last two years of getting vulnerable and uncomfortable…

But – I’m full of doubt and apprehension.

I am faced with the uncomfortable truth that I rarely feel good about my decisions. This is not about the lack of guarantees, the uncertainty, or any number of things that I believe are normal to feel in the face of change.  This is, like many things, another opportunity to examine how old habits are no longer serving me.

Even as a young and idealistic Jess, I didn’t get a lot of unbiased encouragement. I was lead to believe that even the most simple of personal needs or aspirations were selfish and somehow wrong. That things that were about me actually had a larger and more significant impact on others. I’ve spent most of my life believing that I am unable to do things myself, or rely on myself to make good decisions.

As a final carrot to stay at my old company I was offered a mentorship from a leader who told me they were sorry that I was uncertain of my value to the company and wanted to lead me to greater potential.

I know, right?

They could not have picked something that would be more attractive.

Screw money and title, VALIDATE ME and save me!!!!!

In lamenting this new offer, I was whining to a good and supportive friend, ripping apart (yet again) my decision to leave and leap into the unknown. He said, “you’ve always had to make it on your own, when somebody finally comes along to help it’s understandable that it should be both very strange and very attractive.”

It was like being slapped across the face.

I realized that I was being offered something abstract and that tying my success and perceived value to any one person was another attempt to fill the gaping void I’ve been clogging with food, alcohol, and emotionally unavailable people for the majority of my life.

It was a reminder that believing I’m not capable of things on my own is no longer an appropriate way to survive.  It was a reminder that I don’t accept that kind of emotional abuse anymore.

So here I am, sitting in my last few weeks of work ready to run and leap off of the deck into the dark again.  Truthfully, I’m still scared shitless, but at least I’m confident that I’ll make my way through it this time; as I always have before.

Waiting for Worth / Worth Waiting for

girl wearing black and white striped dress sitting on stair
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They say that the things that make it into your long term memory are significant.

I believe this to be true.  I don’t remember every mediocre cup of coffee, single-serving elevator friend, or my last 3 postal codes, but going through the recovery process has given me a unique appreciation for the stuff that I do remember, especially those events which have survived decades of trivia, service centre queues, and other mundane memory wasters.

Memory is a funny thing. If you ask two people to recall the same events, they will likely produce different details and maybe even bicker about the minutae of the conversation, the time of day, or the weather but ultimately the details don’t always matter.  Truth is somewhat fluid. What is true for me, may not be for you and vice versa; but how your brain files and tags your experiences is incredibly important for how you construct your image of the world around you. So – for everyone’s personal experience, how they recall something is often more important to them than the factual events.

This is part of the reason why I try not to get too specific in my writing. I’m conscious and fearful that I will inadvertantly hurt someone else by casting them in my recollection of events that are skewed to my own bias… but, I’m going to try something different today.  I wanted to write about one of my earliest memories.

When I was about 8 years old my family sat down to dinner. This dinner wasn’t special, or celebratory, it was just your average meal. During the dinner an argument erupted. My father was upset about something my brother was doing and it escalated ending in my brother crying, my mother consoling him, and my father storming off.

I remember feeling shocked, confused, and scared. My 8 year old brain was already worried about people getting hurt, abandoning me, of catastrophic events. I was already skeptical that things would just work out, because in my experience they often didn’t. There wasn’t alot of fighting in my household, but there also wasn’t a lot of resolution. We all struggled with communication and often when bad things happened we all went to our respective corners to “deal”.

My “normal” was a low baseline of tension at all times. I understand now that I didn’t have a consistent model for developing emotional skills.  My parents tried their best, but I don’t think emotional nurturing and protecting were gifts they had to pass along. If you’d asked me at that time, I would have told you that “home” was where I felt “safe” and “loved” knowing somehow that those were  acceptable responses but I don’t think I really understood what those concepts meant.

In that moment, watching my daddy storm off, I was worried that he had gone for a walk and wasn’t coming back.

I remember sitting in the garage waiting for him.  I don’t really have any concept of how long that was, but to my 8 year old brain it was an eternity. All that time I was imagning these horrible things that would happen to him and the chaos that would occur when he didn’t return. When he did finally reappear, he stormed past me and into the house.  He didn’t acknowledge me, he holed himself in the basement and coped in the only way that he knew how.

I understand now that everything that happened that day had very little to do with me, but I also understand that I wasn’t equipped to handle this stuff without guidance. Kids need direction, structure, and communication. We aren’t born with the skills to deal with complex emotional themes. I think that’s part of the reason we remain dependent on adults for so long. It’s like the universe is hoping that by making kids physically dependent for such a long period, they will have an opportunity to develop emotionally during the same time.

Unfortunately, in the absence of other information, my brain chose to store my narrative of that day as a message that I wasn’t important enough to care about. My child brain just couldn’t come up with a more plausible reason why my dad would storm past me, waiting for him.

For those of you that have now started to obsess and worry about your childs’ experiences and any traumatic events I’m pleased to tell you that for most people one traumatic or negligent moment will not give them low self esteem. Unfortunately for me, this was only one such event that would happen in my childhood to support this narrative.  I was a shy kid, I struggled to make friends, I had the unfortunate experience of many of them moving away for a variety of reasons in those formative and tough years.  My parents both commuted, holding long work hours and I spent a lot of time alone or with babysitters who ensured my safety but didn’t do much to interact with me. Admitedly, the downside of being in a small town as a kid was that I was isolated. I didn’t have a great variety of experiences outside of what was happening in the household.

I understand now how important those childhood experiences are. In my adulthood, I still struggle with the idea that I am worthy, worthwhile and enough.  I still worry that people will suddenly abandon me, figure out that I’m a worthless fraud, and my mind often wanders to the catastrophic. Slowly, as I unpack my past, and am patient and compassionate with those experiences, I’m able to start re-writing those narratives.

Regardless of what happens next in my life, I am monumentally grateful for the opportunity to believe that I am more than I thought. I understand this is not a gift that everyone gets and for the first time in my life I’m able to look back without regret. If I hadn’t been pushed to the point where I had nothing else to lose, I never would have started the work to be better.

Should you find yourself in that place of dispair and worthlessness, I see you.

Everything is temporary.

Denial (Not the River)

Denial is one of the hardest things to explain to people who show an interest in the breakdown of my last long term relationship. It is also one of my biggest sources of shame. This topic usually comes up in the form of a leading and judgmental question along the lines of: “You must have known he was an alcoholic.  How could you not?”

The truth is, most people are in denial all the time. Imagine every time you or a loved one got into a car you were pummeled with the realization that on average 100 people in the US die every day in motor vehicle accidents.  Consider living in the constant fear that in the kitchen of every restaurant you ate in, the prep cook added unsavoury things to your food. Think about what life would be like if you settled on the possibility that you would contract a flesh eating disease while on your discount all-inclusive vacation. Think of how crappy life would be if every time you ate something unhealthy you imagined exactly how long you would need to exercise in order to work off the calories.

Truthfully, there are people who suffer constantly with these truths; but for the most part, we all ignore them so as not to interfere with our daily activities and obligations. We do this because the the world is unpredictable and scary and it would be overpowering to carry that around.

Denial goes hand in hand with addiction. Most addicts function in denial of their habit and it is not unusual for the people around them to also operate in denial of the problem. In a lot of ways, this is “easier” and less scary for everyone because the reality of change, recovery, and the social perception of the disease are too much to bear.

I’m sure you can all think of some good real life examples of denial, but I like the way it is presented here as degrees of intensity:

  • First Degree: Denial that the problem, symptom, feeling or need exists
  • Second Degree: Minimization or rationalization
  • Third Degree: Admitting it, but denying the consequences
  • Fourth Degree: Unwillingness to seek help

– Darlene Lancer (WhatisCodependency.com)

Denial does not always mean there is no acknowledgement of the problem, it can also include a justification or minimization of the impact.

So why do we do it?

Simply, it’s a common coping mechanism; it is a way to avoid physical and emotional pain. It is self-preservation: “If I don’t admit the problem, I don’t have to suffer the consequences. I don’t need to fear the implications of the truth and I don’t have to take any action to correct the problem.”

This is not to suggest that this is something that is always a conscious act. For most, what we believe is formed by our experiences and evidence as it is presented. As humans, we are prone to something called “cognitive bias” which basically means that we create our own reality based on our perceptions which in turn influences our behaviour in the social world. So we take our experiences and sort them into something that is palatable to us and often this is done in a way that is most flattering to us so we can go on with our lives justified in our actions and choices.

I like the example that Mark Manson uses in his new book “Everything is F*cked” to demonstrate cognitive bias. A girl is mistreated by her boyfriend and he leaves her. She has one of two choices in shaping her perception of these events to make it something she can live with: 1. Boys are sh*t, or 2. She is sh*t. Option 2 is too painful, so she subconsciously chooses Option 1.

Cognitive bias is helped by another human thought process called “confirmation bias”. This is the tendency to search for, interpret, and recall information that reinforces or confirms the persons’ existing beliefs.  Returning to Mark’s example; the girl, believing that all boys are sh*t, spends a number of years subconsciously proving that rationalization correct. She is attracted to boys that treat her like garbage and enforce her cognitive bias that they are sh*t. Faced with a boy that is not sh*t, she is unable to accept this reality and ends up leaving him because the implications and adjustments that would be required to re-write her perception of the world and own cognitive bias are simply too painful to consider.

The truly tragic takeaway here is that there was a third option all along that desperation, pain, and bias caused her to overlook! Neither her nor boys are sh*t, the one that hurt her had his own set of issues which in reality had very little to do with her.

Denial is a defense mechanism that prevents threatening emotions entering our conscious thought due to an inability to cope with that negative state. This leads to all kinds of unflattering and self-sabotaging behaviour such as: lying, developing a “false self”, and social isolation. The often unethical behaviour that results can also be a source of shame, self-hatred, and low self-worth. These messy emotions provide further reasons not to face the truth. There is also evidence to suggest that in those cases where chronic substance abuse is a factor, the substance impairs insight, self-awareness and makes a person unwilling or unable to weigh future consequences in comparison with their present need. In other words, the substance becomes the centerpiece around which denial is build to act as a shield.

In facing my own denial, I’ve come to realize that while reflection is a valuable and insightful tool, dwelling on our mistakes as anything more than learning experiences is an impediment to progress. When people tell me about positive (and sometimes obvious) steps they’ve taken to improve their lives, I’ve tried to stop asking them why they didn’t make their move sooner or comment on their process. Instead I try to applaud them for making it at all. I’ve started reassuring people they don’t need to justify themselves to me, I’m happy for them taking the reigns. Period.

Denial has taught me that the brutal unflinching honesty and accountability required to face our authentic selves and learn from it is the ultimate measure of bravery. It takes amazing courage to look in those dark and hidden recesses of your mind and pull out the shrapnel.

Don’t let anyone make you feel any less than hardcore for doing it.

 

Addiction, Recovery, and the Family

Think of your family as a circus troupe with its own mini structure. There is division of labour, responsibilities, and roles that are assigned to each member which determine the success of the overall machine. Like that travelling show, the ease of functioning, success, and longevity of the production depends on a number of factors, including: each member’s expectations, how they all communicate, how conflict is managed, and how all the members interact with the outside world.

Spending extended time on the road, performing and interacting with the public together will shape the personality and behaviour of each member. And likewise, any change in part of the troupe will affect the rest of the show. For example, if the ringmaster is very rigid and controlling, the rest of the members will respond by becoming less responsible to avoid conflict.

Now, consider the ringmaster has an active struggle with addiction. He starts to behave irresponsibly; breaks the promise he made to the acrobats to repair the trapeze because he used that money to support his habit, disappears for periods of time without telling the circus manager when he can anticipate his return, and tells the clowns they are fat and worthless. The whole troupe is affected by his choices and need to adjust themselves accordingly. Because of the nature of addiction, these changes usually happen slowly while the system makes small unconscious adjustments that add up over a long period of time.

Unfortunately, the effects of the addiction likely do not stop there. Overworked and stressed at not having a front man for the night’s performance, the circus manager takes out his anger on his wife and kids who in turn take out their feelings on others. The clowns, suffering from low self-esteem slowly develop their own chemical dependency issues. Lastly, one of the acrobats develops stress-induced insomnia and eventually injures himself on the job. I’ve seen addiction compared more than once to dropping a pebble in a still pond, perhaps you can see why?

Theories on the interaction of social experiences with the psyche form the foundation of psychology as we know it today. Although psychologists are still arguing about the exact way these experiences influence us it is clear that the family system has a profound impact on the subconscious (or the part of the mind which is just out of awareness but drives a person’s actions and feelings).

Living with addiction is living with chaos. It is nonsensical, ruthless, and unpredictable.  It is not unusual for people who live with another person’s addiction to develop their own mental, physical or emotional chronic and long-term health problems. I’m no exception – for most of my life I’ve struggled with a cocktail of painful emotions, not limited to: guilt, shame, anger, depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and fear. I’ve also suffered from several chronic health issues with no clear origin. Connecting with others impacted by family addiction has shown me that I come by this honestly; it is startling how many similar stories and challenges I’ve heard.

It has shown me that anyone from any socio-economic, cultural, or spiritual background can be impacted by addiction or by someone else’s addiction.

Like many people who have lived with addiction I didn’t understand why I would need to work on myself. After all, they have the problem, amiright?! I focused on fixing my loved ones because I thought that if they got over it my life would be f-i-n-e.

Sound familiar?

The truth about addiction is this: you didn’t cause their addiction, you can’t control it, but you can unknowingly contribute to it and further suffering. We do this mostly by not having appropriate boundaries and knowledge. The most common example of this is “enabling” which is defined as doing anything for the addict they could be doing for themselves if they were sober. The reason this is bad is that it could prolong the addiction by protecting the addict from the consequences of their actions and thus their incentive to consider a different path. Enabling also inadvertently sends the message that whatever behaviour it is acting on is acceptable. In our circus example, enabling would be making excuses for the ringmaster’s poor behaviour versus a healthy behaviour like supporting him in his recovery effort by helping him look up local support group meetings.

Recovery for the family of an addict is focusing on awareness and emphasizing the things you can control: your own thoughts, feelings and actions. It’s using those things to develop a life that is whole, healthy, and fulfilling. It is finding ways to enjoy the life you have that doesn’t depend on validation from the system you have no control over. It’s learning that sometimes you need to go through a certain degree of discomfort and pain to grow. It’s understanding that the best way to break the cycle of addiction is to learn how to prioritize yourself and allow others to make choices and feel their consequences. It’s embracing the importance of healthy connections and what they look like. It’s accepting that the best way to help someone is to support them in taking care of themselves.