Stop Hitting Yourself

In November (8 months post-breakup) I thought I was cured. That is to say I thought I was over my ex and the trauma caused by living with his disease for the better part of a decade. I thought all the changes that I’d made were strongly rooted and I was ready to be released into the wild. I started dating again and it just so happened the first guy I went on a real date with was just my kind of dreamboat: smart, caring, rugged, funny, and had a smile that made me forget how to talk.

I will give myself some credit. At that point I had made some amazing strides towards awareness, compassion, and self-love; but I still had some pretty large blind spots. Unfortunately for me, those are almost impossible to see until I get tested outside my comfort zone.

In this case, losing my wallet.

I was riding a wave of happy. I had a modest social life again, was developing some personal interests and hobbies, and that aforementioned babe to be excited about. In hindsight, I was manic. I was refusing to see any bad, everything was rainbows and puppies. In my defense, and not to be dramatic, it was more joy than I’d felt in years and I was holding on to every second with a vice grip.

The night I lost my wallet I went to a yoga class at the gym. I usually travel light and this particular evening had only my wallet, keys, and phone. When I got home, I must have put my wallet on top of the trash bins as I took them to the curb and forgot it there.

In the morning, I realized I didn’t have a wallet. I tore my car apart, I tore the house apart, I went to the gym in a panic and scoured the parking lot, I asked at the front desk.  It was no where.

At some point early in this frantic search I started berating myself. I called myself all kinds of unkind things not limited to stupid and worthless.

My mother, bless her, was trying to help me look and I was awful: impatient, angry, argumentative, anxious. I don’t lose things, especially valuable or important things. That’s irresponsible, imperfect, and human; three traits I’ve always had trouble accepting in myself.

Eventually, she wisely backed away from me and left me to my dysfunction.

I continued to obsess, panic, and rage for another couple of hours. I called my boss and told her I would be very late, I lined up at the bank to get new cards, I lined up at the provincial office to get new identification.  I called the city waste management services to see if I could sift through the load that the truck picked up (yes, I know…). I even called to report myself to the credit bureau after having visions of identity theft (yep, that too…). All this time I did not stop bullying myself.

Three days later I got a call at work from a guy named Rusty saying he’d found my wallet in a ditch. He told me that the wallet was pretty much destroyed but all my cards seemed to be there. I retrieved the wallet and it was as he described. It was shredded and soiled, like maybe it had been chewed up by a garbage truck and then spent a few days in a slushy and salty ditch; but nothing was missing. Miraculously a business card had survived enabling him to find me. I bought Rusty a $50 coffee card and went home with my tail between my legs.

That week I also stopped hearing from that guy I liked.

It took me another couple of months to really dissect what had happened. Like many other insignificant events losing my wallet had somehow become an embodiment of my self-worth. Looking back, that’s silly. If someone else had a momentary lapse and made a mistake I would be empathetic. Wallets can be replaced.

I still don’t totally understand why I had that reaction, but…

I suspect it was easier than admitting that I really liked that guy and I was terrified I was going to get hurt. That I knew he could hurt me because I hadn’t been attracted to someone like that in longer than I’d like to admit. That a bit of fear was probably realistic and understandable given what I’d been through.

I guess it was easier to flip out about my wallet than admitting my heart was still broken and that I wasn’t ready for a new connection. I didn’t want to face that I still didn’t love myself enough to have any real success being with someone else.

That’s life.

Sometimes you need to show up in order to see what you need to work on.  Sometimes you need to fail to push yourself to the next level. Sometimes it’s embarrassing and unfortunately you can’t hit reset. You have to deal with that sucky feeling that you missed out on a good thing.

It’s going to be ok.

You never know what great things are coming, you just need to be working on living the best life for you and try to be a little more open the next time.

So, do your best to let it go.

What’s really meant to be yours can’t be screwed up.

Flavours of Dysfunction

When I started recovery I was often surprised that things I accepted as normal my whole life were not in fact normal. I remember a conversation with my therapist, after describing one of my early childhood memories, where I had the sudden revelation that what I had accepted as simple reality was actually kind of tragic. I told her as much through a mess of tears and cuss words. She gave me a sympathetic smile and said “every family has their own flavour of dysfunction”.

At the time it didn’t really register. I’d spent so much time isolated and self-critical that I thought I was destroyed beyond repair, a lost cause: crazy, broken, worthless and unlovable. After all, the person I cared about most chose alcohol over me or at least that’s how I rationalized that series of events.

It didn’t occur to me that there were other people out there who had already put themselves back together, some from a much lower place. I thought my story was unique, pitiful, and underlined incurable deficits in me.

I hated myself so much it was physically painful to get out of bed or look in a mirror.

Although I believe that we need to examine the way we romanticize substance use in Canada, I also know that alcohol is not to blame for the tragedies in my life. I have no doubt that someone determined to numb themselves will find another avenue if their drug of choice is not available. I see how poorly we socialize our children to deal with stress and challenges in healthy ways and that “toughening” people up can lead to a cornucopia of mental issues. I see that I have my own set of these challenges.

Slowly, I found the commonalities in many stories involving the devastation caused by the disease of addiction. I found how prevalent these issues are and how many people I know are dealing with similar generational injuries. I discovered the context for the phrase “addiction is a family disease”; that compulsive behaviour is learned and can be passed along for generations. I know that growing up with addiction makes you significantly more likely to be an addict or be with an addict. I know first hand that you cannot properly connect with an addict, and those of us who’ve had this experience as a child can spend the rest of our lives confused about how to connect with others.

Despite this understanding, I sometimes find it difficult to be around people that are not actively pursing recovery; who are isolating, numbing, or otherwise trying to cover up their wounds with denial and care-taking. I see my scars and I can now spot similar marks on others. Sometimes they scare me, sometimes they make me angry or intolerant, other times my old survival programs run and I become the desperate and closeted women that has dominated my adult life. I sometimes feel the sensation of bursting with the effort of holding back unsolicited lectures on the benefits of recovery. When I do erupt in well meaning but misguided attempts at “education” it almost always falls on deaf ears leading me to feel more isolated, helpless and broken.

As much as it has been challenging admitting my problems, swallowing my pride, disregarding my embarrassment, and seeking out support, there has been value being in contact with people who are in active recovery. It is comforting to see down the road to the benefits and stability that can be earned.

As I get to know myself I appreciate the similarities between us. We all have heavy suitcases full of good and bad experiences that we haul around. The contents vary but we are family, no matter how we try to highlight our differences. I recognize that my actions have been as wild as yours and we have both cried tears of frustration and anger over the hands we’ve been dealt. I see my pain reflected in you and I’m grateful to have your company in the dark. I hope that I can offer you the same comfort. Normalizing my experiences through these connections has helped to combat some of the self-loathing, shame, and embarrassment I feel.

I understand that although I need to protect myself and enforce healthy boundaries and separation from people that add chaos and strife to my life, it’s impossible to live a balanced life in isolation. If I don’t have anyone I can trust with my deepest and darkest thoughts I will almost certainly drown in them. I also recognize that the right way to help someone is not to drag them away from their chaos, it is to focus on myself and hope that they join me when they are ready.

I’ve been working on the strategy of detaching; understanding that to make it out of this nightmare it has to be a personal choice. I grudgingly accept that finding your way is part of the lesson and it isn’t right to rob someone of that, even if I think I’m helping.

Read aloud with me:

I can’t change someone who doesn’t want to change and I can’t help someone who doesn’t want help. This is not a reflection of my worth, it is just the reality of life, love, relationships, and being an adult. All adults need to take responsibility for themselves first.

Repeat as needed.

Be the Renegade

Recovery is hands down one of the hardest things you will ever do. Although I can’t say with certainty that my challenges are the same as people who struggle with other types of compulsive behaviour, I know that there are common themes in our journeys. I try to write only from my own perspective but I need to make the point that, despite my own experiences, I admire anyone that takes up this crusade.

No matter what lead you to recovery, we are all looking to bring out the best versions of ourselves and improve on the maladaptive behaviour we’ve accumulated. I applaud you knowing that not only are you going against years of your own habits, thinking, training, and (sometimes) trauma; but I suspect, like me, you will have points that are totally lonely and discouraging.

At the beginning, I was so desperate and motivated that I honestly think I was trying to be a totally different person.  Not surprisingly, this made people uncomfortable and uneasy. I didn’t understand that the goal of recovery isn’t to erase my traits and experiences, it is to own my past and build on it. I was so embarrassed about what had happened and how I’d acted that I thought I had to be someone else in order to be accepted and healed. I was robotic and obsessed with my every action. I stopped bending over backwards, I stopped dropping whatever I was doing for others, I did more of what I thought I needed to do for myself and offered less explanations, justifications, or apologies for those choices. I didn’t think I could help anyone or give them anything without being “codependent”. I found it impossible to continue the same kind of conversations I was used to and I had to take large steps away from some people because I knew I wasn’t strong enough to continue to be with them and change.

As I leveled out, I started paying attention and I realized that most people didn’t really know how to react to what I’d been through. I believe that most try to help and support me, but without any true understanding of the dynamics of addiction that usually means telling me I’m “ok”, “strong”, and there’s “nothing wrong with me”. I think this reaction is driven by the very human reflex of wanting to try to return to the status quo as quickly as possible after a disruption. In this case, telling me I am “fine”, so I could go back to being the “fine” that is recognizable.

I suspect this is why there are recovery centers and retreats. In recovery, not only do we need to deal with giving up our vices, but we need to deal with the triggers and the people who have joined us in those behaviours. The people who care for us and just want us to go back to the normal us that they know not understanding that our normal is slowly breaking us apart.

While the thought of running away and starting over in a foreign land still holds some undeniable appeal, I recognize that ultimately I need to get to the point where I can “do” recovery standing in a pit of vipers. In other words, when the stress is so high and I would step over my grandmother to get my poison and make it all go away. Believe it or not, it is possible. I’m not there yet but I know that people much stronger than I am go through this process while in abusive relationships, with partners that are still engaging in addiction, and despite or in spite of horrible and unimaginable trauma and hardship.

If you’ve ever been on a diet you have also probably had the experience of not being able to sustain it. If you’re anything like me, after you failed a few attempts at whatever fad was circulating at the time, you may have used trial and error to find a plan that you could get some enjoyment from. The simple reason? You don’t need a diet to get and stay in shape, you need a lifestyle change. It has to be something sustainable and something that isn’t worse than whatever you perceive you are giving up (please cross-reference my previous post on Rock Bottom for more information on that tipping point).

Recovery is a total lifestyle overhaul. It is the granddaddy of all fitness journeys requiring adaptation of mind, body, and soul. Change is uncomfortable and you need to give up your vices, your safety nets. That means that whatever you reach for when you are upset won’t be there anymore.

What I want from recovery isn’t elaborate; I don’t need riches, recognition, or power. My goal is to lead a full and happy life, something I sincerely don’t think I’ve experienced before. That means having relationships that are built on equality and trust, food in my stomach, a roof over my head, and a bit of freedom to grow. Goals don’t need to be elaborate or get anyone else excited, the important thing is that you’re excited. And this goal is important to remember and repeat when you are tempted to backslide.

So how do I stay excited about my uncertain future when the vipers are winding around my ankles and slithering up my calves?

I remember all the times I have succeeded in the past. I collect the hardest moments of my life and I line them up to prove to myself that I’m stronger than I think in my weakest and ugliest moments. Some achievements you could list, include: quitting smoking, that 25 lbs you lost, graduating, making a really mean cheese omelet, or making it to the 3rd flight of stairs without wheezing. These do not have to be big, they can be literally anything that makes you feel accomplished.

Next, I remind myself of all the times I went beyond my own limitations and off the beaten path. Again, this can be as small as when you stood up for the kid getting picked on in the school yard, showing up at that support group meeting when you literally would rather be anywhere else, or trying something you were pretty sure you would fail in a moment of unbridled bravery. I remind myself that I can be an outlaw, a revolutionary and a rebel. Sure, maybe I don’t exactly embody that in this moment, but I can and I will – I’ve done it before. Even if I am also a follower, a doormat, or something equally or more unattractive, I don’t need to be forever.

Little by little, I keep walking.

I take breaks to have fun.

Unfortunately sometimes I stumble.

I pick myself up and I keep walking.

At times it’s a crawl, but I’m still moving.

I try to be accountable to myself and the people I love and will grow to love in the future. I keep perspective and my eye on the prize and I dig my heels in and forgive myself when I fall.

You can be a renegade too. You don’t need to keep doing what you’re doing if it isn’t your authentic self. If you can relate to the content of this blog, maybe you can also relate to the idea that the self you accepted was not totally truthful.

And sometimes, when nothing else works. I turn up the volume as loud as it will go and blast whatever song I know will make me feel like I am a superhero. I let myself have that Rocky stair climb moment, if only for the duration of the music.

If you don’t have one of those songs, try this: