Should I Stay or Should I Go?

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It’s common for a person who loves someone suffering from addiction to reach a point in their relationship where they start asking questions like:

  • I’ve done X, Y, and Z for them!  Why don’t they see how they are hurting themselves?
  • Don’t they care?
  • Does anyone ever recover?
  • How do I know this is their rock bottom?

I remember this point. It was the worst period of my life to date. Essentially, I was trying to decide if I would stay or let go.  I was trying to figure out how much longer I would have to hold on, how much more pain I would need to endure in order for him to realize he needed to change. I was trying to decide if it would be more painful to stay or start over.

I couldn’t admit it but all I wanted was for someone to tell me it was going to be ok.

I remember vividly how painful, hard and desperate that place is. Looking at my life now, I hardly recognize the person I was then. I am still dealing with the shame, fear, and guilt from the actions I took in that dark place.

When I ended the relationship with my addict, I had not gotten any help or support. I’d essentially shouldered everything alone for the better part of a decade. I’d long since stopped the little bit of talking I did about our relationship; essentially because I didn’t like the feedback that I was getting. I was in denial of his illness and was clinging to a lot of more convenient, but false, justifications for what was happening.

I ended our relationship impulsively.

One day, he did something so blatantly unethical that I couldn’t ignore it and, like a rubber band, I snapped. There was no more discussion, no more compassion; I needed him gone and I executed that in a desperate, dramatic, and disrespectful way. I know deep down I hoped that would push him into getting help, but manipulation and coercion (even with good intentions) rarely gets good results.

I did a whole other post on why I try not to give people advice (find that here), but I wanted to share some things I learned; things I wish I’d known before I exercised my choice to stay or go.

Don’t Hate the Person, Hate the Disease

Anyone who has lived with an addict understands that there is a haunting duality to this condition. One minute your loved one is a caring and thoughtful Dr. Jekyll and the next a malicious and cruel Mr. Hyde. This is part of what keeps us stuck in these relationships, we catch heartbreaking glimpses of what appears to us to be our loved one fighting to get out. We cling to this idea when Mr. Hyde comes out to play with increasing frequency.

There is some controversy around this point; some people say that addiction is a symptom of the very serious and incurable personality disorder of narcissism, but I personally think that, in most cases, the narcissistic and unethical action we see are symptoms of addiction. An addict’s awareness is foggy and their priorities are always in a state of flux: their substance of choice is number one and everything else is ordered and reordered based on what is falling apart the fastest.

It’s not that they don’t care about you, you just can’t be their number one priority. Addiction doesn’t share, it is not a reflection of your worth.

Some People Don’t Get Better

I would love to tell you that your loved one will get better, but the truth is nobody knows.

A friend once told me a story about an alcoholic who passed out drunk on some train tracks. During the night, both his legs were severed by a passing train and, miraculously, he survived. If ever you would think there was a rock bottom moment, this would be it, right? While getting discharged from the hospital, this man was more concerned with the logistics of getting to the bar in a wheelchair than anything else in the world.

I don’t know why someone one day looks at their kids and decides they need to get better. I’m not sure why faced with the loss of their career something finally clicks for another person that they need to get some help. I’m not sure why others can lose everything and still not change.

I just don’t know.

What I do know is that addiction is a progressive and deadly disease and that as long as someone is sick they are putting their lives and the people in proximity in danger for a drink, a smoke, a big gambling win, Big Macs, working themselves to exhaustion, or sex with a stranger. That is the inconvenient truth.

Stopping is Only the First Step

I used to think that recovery was as simple as choosing not to drink, not to smoke, going on a diet, not gambling, etc. I thought it was about willpower and discipline.

It isn’t.

Stopping is essential. In order to recover, you need to regain awareness, you need to stop numbing. You can’t have clarity leaning on something that protects you from appreciating the gravity of your situation.

However, that isn’t all of it. There are many reasons why we numb ourselves. I saw a meme not too long ago that said “trauma is the real gateway drug” and that resonated with me. I don’t think it’s uncommon for people to choose numbing over dealing with  pain. I also think there are many other reasons that lead people down the path of addiction.

Understanding this now, I wish I’d known it then. In evaluating what I needed for myself and how to help my partner the right way I wish I’d understood that it wasn’t as easy as stopping. I wish I’d understood that real help for someone in recovery is supporting them (not enabling them) while they maneuver the long road towards mental health.

It is also very unlikely that recovery is possible without some kind of outside and unbiased help. If you’ve spent your whole life coping a certain way how could you be equipped to change without outside guidance? You’ve never learned how to think another way, why wouldn’t you need guidance? Also, it is next to impossible to be able to objectively take the right kind of help from someone who is personally invested in your recovery (e.g. family, friend, spouse, etc).

There are no shortcuts. There are no quick fixes. It is not as simple as stopping the behaviour, a person also needs to deal with whatever is driving them to do what they do in the first place. This is how we reduce the chance of relapse; but it is also worth stating that recovery often includes relapse as people are confronted with the gravity of change and revert back to the comfortable and familiar.

Recovery is a roller coaster.  That is just the nature of profound change.

So what now?

No one can tell you how any of this will turn out. If they do, they aren’t being honest. There are no guarantees in life and there is no simple solution to this situation.

Some of you will decide to stay and others will decide to go. There is not a right or universal answer to every addiction scenario. There is no reliable checklist of symptoms that will help predict if someone will be successful in recovery, or if they will even get that far. There is also no guarantee that they will not relapse.

I understand there is an immense amount of guilt around these kinds of decisions. I understand the feeling of being crushed under the weight. I remind us all that we didn’t cause the addiction, we can’t control it, and we can’t change it. Like it or not, we all have the free will to make all kinds of poor decisions. True help for an active addict is learning to detach with love and interacting by helping not enabling action. I would challenge you to consider that not being able to accomplish this is likely hurting the addict more than saving them; that in this case, leaving may be the most compassionate and loving act even if it immediately appears to make the addictive behavior worse.

Finally, I will suggest you seek support before you have to choose. It is possible that there will come a point where that is a reality. Speaking from my own experience, leaving or staying was just one step in my recovery — but a very significant one.

Reflecting on my choices and their consequences, the only lingering regret I have is not that I wish I’d stayed.  My only regret is my certainty that I would have been more confident and less traumatized making that choice if I had already been working a recovery program.

 

“Are people doing the best they can?”

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If you follow me on other platforms, you probably know I have soft spots for Brene Brown and Russell Brand. I could never have imagined the circumstances that would bring these two minds together to create, but I’m thrilled to live in a universe where this happened.. and my mind is blown by the result.

For those of you not familiar with Russell Brand, he is an outspoken comedian, actor, author, and activist. Although I did enjoy his outlandish comedy, I’ve found a new level of respect for him in sharing his experiences finding sobriety after a tumultuous and public struggle with drug addiction.

Brene got a brief nod in a past blog post, with a small reference to one of the first (and most powerful) books I read in recovery Daring Greatly. Holding a PHD in social work, she does research into vulnerability, shame, courage, and empathy. All topics that easily bring me to a cold sweat.

Although I’m familiar with some of Russel’s writings and videos on addiction recovery, I was not familiar with his podcast, “Under the Skin”. On this platform, he interviews a variety of influential public figures and the talk is anything but small. In his conversation with Brene they covered a plethora of hard topics including (but not limited to): handling tough toddlers, addiction, and boundaries.

The interview is over an hour and those interested in the full experience (at the time of this writing) can find it easily on spotify, youtube, or a number of other platforms. The part that really jumped out at me was a discussion on framing perception by asking the question “are people really doing the best they can?”

Although this discussion includes references to God and religion, it could easily be approached without so I encourage you to look beyond that if it does not resonate with you.

Like Brene, I’ve spent most of my life believing that most people (including myself) could be doing better. I met mistakes and poor choices as a personal reflection of value. Needless to say, I spent a lot of time being wounded and hurt by people not living up to my expectations for their behaviour, which in turn impacted my ability to be compassionate and live a peaceful existence. I spent an embarrassing amount of time being pissed off and burning bridges believing most times that people were either lazy or didn’t care.

I recognize that approaching life in this way is not only self-righteous and douchy, it isn’t fair. Reflecting on my lowest points there were days where the best I could do was not great. I remember not too long ago where the simple act of getting out of bed and to work was a monumental achievement. During that time, I was not a great friend, relative, or human. I was in survival mode and that was truly all I had in me.

At the end of the clip, Brene retells her husbands’ take on this huge existential question. Responding to her prodding, “are people really doing the best they can every day”, he says, profoundly “I have no idea. But what I do know is my life is better when I assume they are” (mic drop).

This really hit me because it illustrates so perfectly what many of us fundamentally struggle with: what is ours to control. A common concept in recovery literature is the challenge to accept the truth that you are only in control of your own thoughts, feelings, and actions; not the thoughts, feelings and actions of others.

In this context, whether a person is actually doing the best they possibly can is irrelevant because it is out of our control; but how we frame our thoughts and perception is totally within our power. I can choose to believe that the hurt someone inflicts on me is a reflection of my value, or I can believe that, for better or for worse, they are doing the best they can and choose my actions calmly, intelligently, and compassionately.

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.

 

What does addiction look like?

When I met my former partner I was at a low point in my life. I was lost and unhappy in a job I didn’t like and surrounded by unhealthy relationships. I didn’t think I had anything or anyone I could count on and I approached most things prepared for failure. I had been let down enough times that I thought that was my destiny; to get close to what I wanted but never be able to hold on to it.

He was lost too and shared some intimate stories of betrayal and hardship. He told me I was beautiful and I believed him. He brought me flowers every week and showered me with attention and affection. I wanted to believe that he was the sweet, kind and thoughtful person who made me feel appreciated in a way I truthfully hadn’t felt before.

As time passed I noticed he drank frequently and in quantities that should have sent me running. We were in our late 20s and many of our friends and acquaintances were drinkers. I’d grown up thinking it was normal to have a drink after work or on the weekend and didn’t have any real understanding of the spectrum of addiction or the warning signs.

In hindsight, there were a lot of clues.

He kept changing jobs because he was being singled out, treated unfairly, and overlooked for promotions; the same explanation for several lateral moves. He grew apart from his oldest friends, saying they were always unavailable as they slowed their partying and started families. He missed payments and was caught driving without insurance and an expired license, blaming someone else for misplacing the registered letter informing him of the cancellation. There was often a justification for whatever crises arose, and they almost always involved the negligence of another person. I wish I could tell you I called him on the inconsistencies in his stories, but instead I enabled him; in the last example by paying the hefty fine he received.

He used subterfuge to work late and to stay home alone instead of doing things we had planned together. I started catching him in little and then bigger lies about where he was, money, and other things. I’ve since learned that a lot of what he told me about his past was not truthful, but the only part that shocks me now is how consistently and effortlessly he could lie, as easy as I can breathe. Eventually, he became more erratic, secretive, and adept at deflecting my concerns and manipulating me by pushing my buttons and accusing me of doing things that made him unhappy.

There were many excuses to drink. Often something was annoying him that justified coming home, flipping on the tv and eventually passing out on the couch. If I gave any indication that I was having a bad day, there was a bottle of wine waiting “for me” that he had already been opened and sampled.

His sleep patterns were always strange but became more irregular. He was napping all the time, which he justified with his physical job and inability to sleep through the night. He was often groggy and moody in the evening but sweet, disarming, and apologetic in the morning. I even remember a period where I believe he attempted to cut back himself. Our bed was soaked with sweat and he would twitch randomly throughout the day.

At several points in our relationship I found empty bottles hidden around our living space; sometimes he offered weak excuses, other times he ignored my questions entirely as if I didn’t exist. His personal grooming suffered and he showed less and less interest in me. He withdrew and so did I as it became harder and harder to make excuses that others would accept. I didn’t understand what was happening, but I believed that there was something wrong with me. That I was crazy and somehow causing his mood swings, his lying, and his lack of interest. Slowly and insidiously the sweet and kind man I loved was replaced by another person. In the last year of our relationship I would call him Jekyll and Hyde not realizing how appropriate that comparison was.

I hid what was happening from our friends and family. I sacrificed what I wanted and gave up a job I was passionate about because the money was erratic and I couldn’t count on him to make contributions to our bills. I neglected myself, my needs, and over time became obsessed with him: what he was doing, what he was spending, and trying to solve the mystery of why it always felt like my life was falling apart.

The worst part is that although he was not a good partner, I wasn’t either. He didn’t ask me to do any of the sacrifices I made. I chose them. I tried to control and change him by belittling him, begging him, giving him empty ultimatums, and bribing him. And when none of my tactics worked and I couldn’t control the relationship that would not live up to my expectations I grew bitter and resentful.

I gave up and became a husk of a person. I hated myself. I stopped taking care of me, I gained weight, avoided people, and I sunk into a functional depression. I worried all the time and I drank more than I knew was safe for me both to cope and because it seemed to be the only time he was interested in spending time with me.

Believe it or not, shouldering it all was easier than believing that I was the other woman. That I had interrupted his relationship with something he loved more than he would ever love me. I recognize now that he was an addict when I met him; I didn’t cause it and I couldn’t change it but it wasn’t for lack of trying.

As I write this now, I am grateful for the power of truth and acceptance. I’ve sat down to do this post several times since starting the blog and this is the first time I’ve made it through without tears, overwhelming embarrassment, and (I hope) without casting blame. I finally accept that as personal as everything that happened seemed, it wasn’t. We both made choices that served our own unhealthy agendas and there were consequences. The empowering thing about owning that, even if it lead to mistreatment and victimization, is the knowledge that I can make different choices going forward, I have that power. I’m also able to keep working on the process of letting go by acknowledging that although there is grief for the loss, I understand that the relationship was not healthy for either of us.

If you suspect that someone you care about is struggling with addiction, I encourage you to educate yourself. The correct way to help an addict or someone in a relationship with an addict may not be what you think. Addiction is a complex disease and its effects can ripple outwards for generations. You need to understand that so little about what is happening with the person or people you care about is logical or easy. You need to be ready for the reality that giving up the substance is just the first step in the long, difficult, but worthwhile process of recovery. You need to understand that some people never recover and what that means for you.

Addiction is a dangerous and progressive deadly disease. It’s so important that we help each other in recovery by example and by sharing our stories.

I recomend using your favourite search engine to look for local addiction resources. I guarantee there are people and groups that can help, including Anonymous groups for addicts and families of addicts, rehabilitation centres, intevention councillors, phone hotlines, and crises centres to name a few. I have also seen free online support groups and consultants. Help is closer than you think.

To get you started, here is a good article from MedicalNewsToday.com which discusses some of the common symptoms of substance addiction.

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: