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 recovery community. 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.

As I said, 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.

Codependency and Loneliness

woman sitting on white bed
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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.

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.