Detachment, Dissociation, and other “D” words

I always thought of detachment as a negative, it implied an inability to connect or a barrier to relationships. In my world, pre-boundaries, when you loved someone you blended together. Their problems were mine, and my problems… well, that’s the funny thing, my problems just kind of got shoved in a corner and forgotten about.

I was F-I-N-E.

Well, outwardly I guess I was fine.

My mask was good, I convinced the people closest to me that I didn’t need their emotional support or help. Hell, I wore it so long I even fooled myself. I thought I was bulletproof and, I kid you not, even joked that I must be a cyborg. People described me as strong, independent, high-functioning, intelligent and together. Nothing would crack me and I’d rather kill myself trying than ask for help. Challenges in my path were minor bumps unless someone else was reacting to them. That’s how I lived, desperate for connection but with no idea how to go about it without sacrificing myself. I wore my strong mask and pushed clumsily forward.

I’ve discovered that those things we bury don’t ever really go away, they just fester below the surface. All those needs I told myself weren’t important and those things I put off doing for myself just reinforced my low self-esteem. Over time it impacted my relationship with myself, with others, and how I cope with life in general.

I believe the correct psychological terminology is “dissociation from the self”. Thankfully a mild case in the spectrum of this condition, a coping mechanism in which I could avoid my painful inner dialog of self-doubt and worthlessness.

In hindsight, it’s no shock that I ended up in the relationships I did. People with codependent traits are subconsciously looking for validation, someone to sacrifice themselves for to give us a sense of value.  We are also often disconnected (or “dissociated”) from their own needs and feelings. We are primed and ready for dysfunctional connections.

“Is someone else’s problem your problem? If, like so many others, you’ve lost sight of your own life in the drama of tending to someone else’s, you may be codependent.” – Melody Beattie

There are those that would argue that this is passion. Throwing ourselves into what is important, sacrificing, putting ourselves at risk for what matters most. Maybe it is, but the impractical side of unhealthy passion is that eventually even the strongest fold; there is a point of burnout, because what we are trying to do is control someone that has their own entitlement and free will to make choices. Not consciously, not maliciously, but trying to influence their path and it isn’t ours to control.

Ultimately my sense of self was tied to an outcome I couldn’t possibly force and if you have any experience with addiction you know there are a lot of days that are total uncontrollable fails.

The real cosmic joke of the addict-codependent dynamic is that in trying to save the addict, the codependent actually contributes to the evolution of their disease. The addict is looking for validation too; and by saving them from the consequences of their actions, the codependent unwittingly sends the message that their behaviour is acceptable as they remove the addict’s incentive to examine their choices and consider another path. They are justified, or at least excused, to continue using.

Consider a classic example of enabling: the addict blasts through their paycheck and can’t afford rent. Enter the codependent, desperate to save their loved one from the loss of their apartment, to give them the money they are missing. As counterintuitive as it seems (to a codependent anyway), the right action here is also the one that on the surface is allowing the addict to fail, letting them figure out the solution to the money problem themselves and hopefully *eventually* realizing that their life would be easier without their addiction. It also allows the loved one to maintain some quality in their own life rather than surviving in the centre of a tornado of chaos.

I am not suggesting that passion is always a bad thing. There is an element of risk and sacrifice to anything worth having in life but the difference between healthy and unhealthy passion is detachment. It is accepting that sometimes you need to let go of the things that matter to you to in order to get to the best place. It is understanding that unhealthy attachment is living in fear that what you want will not come and that this fear creates a trap where un-fulfillment is accepted because the alternative is the loss of the person’s misplaced sense of self.

This can be especially confusing in relationships where “love” is incorrectly labeled as holding on to someone and caring for them in all ways possible. We know that detachment is necessary in relationships; it is what stops us from taking everything personally because ultimately you can’t control everything your loved one does. It is understanding that love is about acceptance, not control. It is about both people having enough room to grow, hopefully together.

Need more reasons why detachment is a good thing? It is required not to over-generalize our experiences and carry them around with us like overstuffed emotional baggage. It allows us to learn from those experiences and leave them behind. It is important because it allows us to take a step back from ourselves so we don’t confuse our thoughts and feelings and act impulsively; it allows us not to disassociate but to understand that sometimes thoughts are just that, they are not absolute truths.

Karma, For Dummies

Being spiritual is not something that comes easily to me. I don’t remember ever having anything close to what could be described as blind faith or trust in the universe.

When I was in middle school, a Christian family moved in across the street in my very small town. They had a daughter about my age. We had nothing in common, but they were kind and generous people and… well, there weren’t a lot of local playmates for any of us to choose from.

The family held daily bible readings. We would be running wild in the yard and get called inside where the mother would read us a bible passage and a second reading geared more towards children, usually a cute story with biblical morals. I don’t remember this being an unpleasant experience but truthfully I don’t think I got any spiritual substance from the practice.  Even at that age I was incorrigible and my engagement was tied more closely to the post study snack rather than any real appreciation for the divine.

I remember the day we covered Genesis and the creation of the world. I asked about dinosaurs, evolution, UFOs, and how could we possibly be the only life in the universe. To the mother’s credit, she was patient and told me that she believed those 7 days did not flow through time as we experience it today. The world was new, in Beta test. Even an omnipotent being needed time and some test subjects. Maybe all those details were not captured by the mortals who pieced together the Holy scripture.

I didn’t buy her explanations then and continue to resist anything that can’t be explained with logic, reason, and proof.  Needless to say, there is a lot that happens in life that can’t, so I find myself trying to force things into simplistic and ill-fitting boxes or obsessively trying to come up with rationalizations for things that are not rational, logic for things that are in no way logical, and for proof where there isn’t any.

If I can’t neatly sort and explain things, you ask? I dramatically crumble into a depressed existential crisis.

I acknowledge that this is part of why I struggle with letting go. I need (want) to always understand the why; even when it’s not available or knowing doesn’t make me happy either.

In recovery I have been looking for compromise; for ways to help me accept and let go of the unexplained. One concept that has helped me is Karma, or the idea that there is a relationship of cause and effect in people’s action (or inaction). Rooted in Hinduism and Buddhism, this idea has also been compared to Newton’s Third Law (thank goodness, some science!) which postulates that every action has an equal or opposite reaction. In other words, the universe is keeping tabs and eventually everything evens out.

I used to think that Karma was a result of justice and judgement, reward and punishment, but now I realize it’s about being accountable for yourself. Karma is supposed to encourage you to own your actions, the way you treat others, and also to trust that others should be left to do the same. Karma teaches us to be calm, emphasizing intelligent, unemotional and logical action. This leads to acceptance of reality as well as peace, calm, and surrender.

Another thing that makes this idea attractive to me is that it is often tied to reincarnation. Although I’m not sure I believe in an afterlife, it does help to justify the idea of suffering. While you may not get to experience the return of energy in this life, you will in the next. Some even teach that lifetimes are like levels in a video game with each life subjected to a new lesson or obstacle to overcome. Failure results in repeating the level while passing leads to harder and harder tests until you finally face off against the big boss and are rewarded with enlightenment, peace, and ethereal rewards.

While I think it’s unlikely that I will ever formally practice religion, I do see the value of spirituality. Belief in the unseen and unexplained makes it easier to let go by suggesting things will be sorted out when I let go. And, more importantly, these ideas can inspire hope, trust, and motivation to continue in this age of uncertainty, distrust, and scarcity. Because really, we could all use that extra bit of inspiration to convince us to continue when it seems like there is no hope.

Cheese!

white ceramic bowl
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I’ve always been an over-thinker. I replay scenarios in my head (past and future) dissecting every word, every action, and every possible outcome. I’m sure anyone reading this who suffers from this same affliction can appreciate the slow torturous hell that these loops create — you get stuck holding on to all these real and imagined moments, paralyzed and unable to appreciate the moment you are in. They can also last a shockingly long time.

I’m told this is not uncommon for people in recovery from family addiction issues. I understand that it is a form of coping, survival. Having lived through scenarios that were emotionally or physically painful, we protect ourselves from potential harm by becoming hyper-vigilant. We look for danger everywhere, we anticipate it, and in some cases we probably create it. This is part of that, the endless study of people’s words and actions and in our cases the confusing experience that these are rarely correlated.

This is why when you start digging into recovery literature and programs there is an emphasis on being present. This is a nice way of saying; “let that sh*t go!” and usually involves some combination of meditation and behaviour therapy.

When I first separated from my ex my mind would not stop. I tortured myself with endless questions, such as: was he really an alcoholic? Should I have done more to support him? What if I had done X instead of Y? And so on. An endless daisy chain of questions with no answers that would satisfy me.

I remember having a conversation with a friend where I was off on one of my circular rants. She had just been through the abrupt ending of her own relationship and engagement and I applaud her for even attempting to have the capacity for the flaming tire fire of my emotions. She had enough of her own stuff to sort through.

She stopped me mid-sentence while I was demanding that she give me answers she couldn’t possibly have and told me a story about a time when she was exiting her office and there was a single full slice of processed cheese on the floor outside her door. No one in sight, no clues, but clearly it had not been there long. She told me that when she needed a break from what was happening in her head she thought about that slice of cheese and came up with stories about how it wound up in her doorway.

I didn’t really understand the value of the gift she gave me until shortly thereafter when I found my own cheese story. A harmless event from my past, a mystery that would never be solved but caused me no anxiety and didn’t impact my sense of self worth in any meaningful way.

I still visit that scenario from time to time when I need a break from the loud mariachi band of doubt and obsession that barrels through my brain. I’ve even found that going to that place sometimes gives me just enough distance and freedom to get clarity on whatever idea I am flogging to death.

So – while you work your way up to Ghandi-esque zen, I share this strategy with you and hope that you can find the same power in cheese.

Bill Murray (& Showing Up)

I’ve been a fan of Bill Murray since I was a kid. Growing up, he was a standout in Ghostbusters, What About Bob?, and my all-time favourite Groundhog Day. On screen there was always something compelling about him.  He doesn’t fit the mould and there is something magnetic about him. He is genuine, which seems like a strange thing to say about some who makes a living pretending to be other people.

One of my favourite Bill Murray movie quotables is from Ghostbusters:

Why worry? Each of us is carrying an unlicensed nuclear accelerator on his back.

Even in advance of his current popularity that moment captured a little bit of Bill’s approach to living: in the moment, available, doing what he has to do, tongue in cheek, and never-mind the consequences.

Recently I watched The Bill Murray Stories on Netflix. The documentary by Tommy Avallone chronicles stories of the actor making incredible cameos in people’s lives: appearing in a couple’s engagement photos, showing up at a house party and doing the host’s dishes, serving drinks at local watering hole for the evening after befriending the bartender, or putting his hands over men’s eyes in a public restroom whispering in their ears “no one will ever believe you”. In the absence of proof it would be unbelievable that a celebrity of this caliber would just show up and be present, silly and playful, without security or worry, just to be in the moment with non-celebs.

I’ve since read articles speculating on the actor’s motives, not limited to: commentary on how technology has impaired our ability to connect, keeping his improv skills sharp, or a way for him to feel “normal” and momentarily escape his celebrity status.

Regardless of the legend’s motives, I find his actions inspiring. To me, Bill’s antics represent truly being open and available to experience life. As a chronic over-thinker I envy, idolize, and aspire to this state of being. I desire more than anything to just show up and participate without crippling myself with the details.

I think that’s what true freedom and success is about: showing up and making the most of it. Not how many dollars in your bank account, the size of your house, the number of countries you’ve visited, how many offspring you’ve produced, or how successful you are in your chosen profession. I don’t think it’s about grabbing every opportunity that is presented, but being open and available to experiences that enrich your life in the moment, in the present.

While I shuffle forward into my new life I keep Bill in the back of my mind as inspiration to not get so invested in the details and try to enjoy the moments as they come.

His Tao, in his own words:

I live a little bit on the seat of my pants, I try to be alert and available … for life to happen to me. We’re in this life, and if you’re not available, the sort of ordinary time goes past and you didn’t live it. But if you’re available, life gets huge. You’re really living it. – Bill Murray, From an Interview with Charlie Rose via Flavourwire

Gratitude

Some days just suck.

I burn the toast. The dog saves all her farts for the long winter car ride. Flat tires, computer issues, dropped my phone in the toilet, milks gone bad, who ate the last cookie?!?

The universe appears to give me an enthusiastic middle finger as I wallow in a sea of small annoyances and disappointments. Or if I’m especially unlucky, large seemingly insurmountable problems surface to drown me in suck.

As cheesy as it sounds, on those days I’m starting to put more energy into exploring gratitude; expressing appreciation for what I have, not what I want or think I need. I work at eliminating phrases like “I’ll be ok if…”, “I’ll feel better when…” because more often than not, these “if’s” and “when’s” involve events beyond my control.

The last few weeks have been especially trying. I’m working on answering a question involving a large life change which has no clear answer. Both the “yes” and the “no” have very heavy and very different pros and cons. I am confident that either way I will be able to forge ahead and neither outcome will be fatal, but I’ve never been that great at uncertainty.

Gratitude starts with an acknowledgement that life is good and rewarding. I remind myself that I live in one of the safest and most affluent countries in the world. That I have great friends and family. That I have a job, free time, a lovely canine companion. I have enough to eat and opportunities that a lot of the rest of the world does not. And – well, I’m alive, so there’s still time to change the things I’m not crazy about. That’s pretty rad.

I try to mix it up. I journal about gratitude. I speak it aloud to myself in the car. I’m social about it: I tell good friends about what I’m thankful for; especially if that is thanking them for their support.

When I take these moments, I find that it does work. I generally have less lows, I sleep better, I find it easier to practice compassion and kindness, and I feel healthier. I’m also able to rationally approach my problems and have constructive conversations about them where I am not defensive.

For the last week, as I’ve been wrestling with that life question, I have been kicking gratitude up a notch with some trust. I wake up with the exclamation that “everything I need will be provided today” and I repeat this to myself at intervals when doubt starts to creep in. I’ve even set myself a reminder that displays that message to me in the afternoon as a reality check.

Although I still don’t have an answer to my question I am confident that it will be revealed to me in the fullness of time. Until then, I know that I will get what I need, even if it doesn’t look like what I want or what I think I need.

Try not to worry, time cures all and is one of the few things in life that is totally reliable.

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: