Our Love Affair with Substance Use

I grew up in a very small town.

My hometown consists of a graveyard, a community centre, a couple of convenience stores, a church and about 100 houses. It’s also a 15 minute car ride to the closest more substantial small town. It is part of a large but underpopulated county in southern Ontario, Canada. My high school had about 500 students, grades 8 -12, many of whom were bussed close to an hour to get there.

Admittedly, I was an odd kid. I was teased in elementary school for being quiet, shy, a bit too liberal for that small farming community, and well… we’ve chatted previously about my home life, I didn’t think I belonged there either.  By the time I made it to high school I had cultivated a tougher persona. I lacked confidence in my appearance and my self and I tried to disguise that by being disruptive, argumentative, opinionated, and a general pain in the butt.

It’s safer to be feared than loved.

– Machiavelli, the Prince

I remember the first time I drank excessively, I was about 15. A girlfriend, that had an equally complicated opinion of herself and desperate need for approval, flirted with an older boy to get us a bottle of pear liquor. It went about as well as you’d expect. I still associate pears with hangovers. However, I persisted.

By the end of my high school career I could out drink most of my classmates (male or female), snuck into bars, experimented with several gateway drugs, was a chain smoker, a master of several drinking games, and spent most of my time in a perpetual state of party. Through those actions, I had the illusion that I gained acceptance. People seemed to find me more approachable or maybe, like many drunks, I just had an inflated sense of self-importance.

At university, in my final year, my party life ended. I was 23 and developed a blood disorder. As a result of this, I have to maintain a moderate lifestyle. Drinking in excess and drug use carry the very real threat of death. It was a lot earlier than I wanted to accept my mortality but, looking at the trajectory of my life, I could have easily graduated to full addiction so I am somewhat grateful.

Following my medical crises, my ability to fit in got worse. While I’d been partying for years, many of my conservative small town friends were just getting started and there were very few social events that didn’t involve excessive use of something mind altering. I found people who were intoxicated hard to be around. It no longer seemed fun to me; there was always drama, someone crying, fights, and conversation that can only seem interesting to people in a similar state.

I kept getting polite invites but I noticed I made people uncomfortable. They would question why I wasn’t drinking and pressure me to join them. When I politely refused, they would appear uncomfortable, like I was judging them. I eventually mostly stopped going to bars and gatherings where the intent was to party and it started to feel like my presence was requested mostly to avoid cab fare.

Later, as my friends started settling down and having kids, I started going to more events. I noticed that the drinking and the drugs didn’t stop. Name the occasion and I was offered alcohol and/or a joint was being passed: children’s birthday party, christening, baby shower. Again, with the questions about why I wasn’t drinking more or why I didn’t want to get high.

Substances are widely accepted to punctuate many life events and are a common theme in popular media.

Bad day at work? Have a drink.

Broke up with your boyfriend? Let’s get stoned.

Got that promotion? Cocktails!

Engaged? Vegas binge till we blackout, y’all!

Over time I developed the ability to nurse a drink or two for an entire evening, but generally still find it easier to leave before people get too sloppy and start asking questions about my relative sobriety.

I guess the point that I’m trying to make here is that I feel like we need to seriously look at our relationship with substance use. Especially following recent changes in legislation in Canada that make it easier and easier to obtain various legalized substances. Notably, recent changes to provincial liquor law providing more retail options for purchase of alcohol and allowing drinking in public, which was previously regulated. This nips at the heels of federal legislation reform on cannabis.

While I don’t necessarily think that regulation is the answer to reducing addiction, I think that increasing the availability of these substances without more discussion on how Canadians relate to them is a mistake.

Getting drunk or stoned is not romantic, it doesn’t make you cool, it’s not for everyone, and ultimately it should just be for recreation. Substances do not solve your problems, they are not a valid way to cope, they don’t make you more attractive or desirable, and are they really how we want to punctuate our happiest events — by potentially not being present for them?

Everyone is entitled to occasional escape, being a human is at times complicated and challenging but I wish we would do more to remind ourselves that substance use is a privilege, a personal choice, and should be approached with in a healthy state of mind.

You are not hard to love

About a month ago I posted a meme to Instagram from Word Porn, which stated:

To date, this post has had more attention than anything else I’ve shared: more views, more likes, more comments, more saves, and more shares. By far.

I shared it with the intent to draw awareness to the psychological damage that can be caused by emotional abuse. What I realize is that this is a message that more people need to hear.

In a lot of ways I had a privileged childhood. Both sides of my family are well-educated and accomplished. We weren’t wealthy, but I didn’t want for many things and there was no overt abuse. People were probably confused as to why I was not happier. We look great on paper.

I received the message that I was difficult to love as a child. This is not to say that my childhood was bad or filled with trauma, but there was a lack of affection and connection. I’ve mentioned before that there is addiction in my family, but I want this blog to be about healing and not about blame or the negative behaviour that accompanies this disease so I hope you understand why I keep the focus on myself.

I will make the point that if you are actively numbing yourself in one way or another to the world around you a wall is built. It is much harder to connect with people, be open to their needs, and connect with healthy intimacy. This can be an especially challenging situation for children who look to adults to model relationships, self-worth, and community.

As a child, I had the perception that the discord in our household was because I was not smart enough, active enough, social enough, thin enough, whatever enough. Positive achievement and events were applauded and then backhanded with suggestions on how I could be better next time. Negative events were blown out of proportion and over time lead me to conclude that no matter what I did, my deficits were glaring and insurmountable. I don’t have memories of discussion being encouraged and I recall my efforts to express my feelings being shut down, often with physical barriers as people stormed off and left me.

Interacting in this way was confusing. I don’t think the intent was to make me feel inadequate and unloved, I believe if anything it was to encourage, toughen me up, and ready me for high achievement in the same way that has been done in my family for generations.

In some ways, I guess it did.

I am driven, independent and strong, but I also have a crushingly low opinion of myself and have a lot of trouble being vulnerable and open. To this day, I shrug off compliments and achievements and push myself to the next goal. It’s hard for me to relax without feeling guilty and I am more invested in what other people think than my own opinion of myself. I sometimes feel that people aren’t being sincere when they give me positive feedback, like I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop and for them to tell me what I could do to be better.

Although not a conscious choice, it has lead me to sabotage relationships with emotionally healthy people for fear that they would eventually see my flaws and reject me. I believe it has resulted in me choosing to maintain relationships with people who are also emotionally closed because it is more comfortable not to be seen.

Reflecting on my childhood, I was a good kid; I was smart, caring, and cute as hell. I wasn’t hard to love or deficient. Without understanding why, I’ve been angry for her for a long time. As I work through recovery, I’m also starting to feel sorry for the people who couldn’t show her that they loved her in a way she could have understood. Likely because they also had not received this message when they needed it most.

I feel compassion and gratitude for her for continuing to try to protect me by pushing people away and lashing out in anger. I’m sorry that a part of me feels the only way to survive life is to be perfect, invulnerable and alone.

As I patiently wait for my heart to accept what my brain knows I work on giving myself what I needed as a kid: understanding, encouragement, and unconditional love.

I tell myself I’m not hard to love now just like I wasn’t then.

Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger

I went through a period in my mid 20s where I was driven to exercise. I got a personal trainer, showed up at the gym at the crack of dawn every weekday and watched what I ate. At that time my sole motivation was vanity. I had no self-esteem and was convinced if I overhauled my physique men would like me and I guess by proxy I would like me.

Remembering this time is maddening for me now. Looking back at pictures, there was nothing wrong with how I looked. If anything turned off interest it’s that they could smell my insecurity and desperation for approval. I’m embarassed how much I cared.

Part way into this gym obsession a funny thing happened. I stopped caring so much, I just kind of naturally felt better about me. I stood up taller, I smiled more and before I even had any significant results people were attracted to me. I had a few of the best organically social years of my life. It definitely wasn’t perfect, but it was the most relaxed I’d ever been.

I didn’t put two and two together, but I see the same phenomenon at work now in my recovery.

A few months ago I started going to the gym again 5 days a week. Mostly classes, a lot of yoga. I notice on the days that I attend my brain gives me a break: I let go a little easier and lean into moments a little more fully.

I think I’m more aware this time because I started working on my mental fitness before I started back at the gym. I’ve always considered myself to be pretty open-minded when it comes to treatment of mental health issues (for others) but truthfully I was never all that willing to consider it for myself. However, after I bottomed out on codependency I knew I needed help and found a therapist. Having experienced it now, I would encourage anyone who is curious to at least try it. It’s awkward at times, hard, and emotional, but it’s worth it. With her gentle guidance I finally think I’m starting to understand what shaped me and what behaviours aren’t serving me anymore. I’m also starting to understand that vulnerability can be done in a safe way that doesn’t have to lead to more pain.

Something that comes up in sessions is that she asks me to describe a feeling physically. Now, before you laugh, think about it. Describe where you feel sadness in your body. Is it in your chest? Your stomach? Does it feel like pain? What kind? Now describe that. Is it like a hand squeezing you? Are you being crushed by a heavy weight?

You get the idea.

Maybe this comes easily for you, but it’s a truly alien concept for me. I’ve come to realize that my brain and body do not communicate very well and I have little emotional intelligence. I suppose that makes sense; if you are going to live a life where you need to ignore your instincts and trust people who don’t have your best interests in mind you can’t be connected to your body or your feelings. I’ve spent most of my life running from feeling and shunning any ideas of self compassion. I shrug off any discomfort in my body and pretend it’s not happening. The truly tragic thing about this is you can’t just numb the bad, it takes the joy with it. Regret is a fruitless exercise, but I can’t help but wonder how many happy feelings I’ve missed in my efforts to run from potential (not even realized) pain.

That’s why exercise, especially the kind that teaches awareness of the body and mind as a cooperative, is helpful for people in recovery. By design it rebuilds those weak synapses and recharges those connections. With practice you start hearing your warning bells. You recognize when you need to rethink your actions or detach from someone who doesn’t have your best interests at heart. You start to understand that your body is just trying to give you a heads up about what your brain hasn’t figured out yet. You feel everything more fully, the bad and the good, and over time develop calmness, awareness, and acceptance. You don’t need to numb, you understand that feeling is normal, it’s valid, and it passes in the fullness of time with or without your intervention. And without even trying others will intuitively notice this shift and relationships will also become easier.  I know it sounds like mojo, but I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried!

A year ago I wouldn’t have been caught dead in a yoga studio or a meditation class. I probably would have made fun of such an idea and anyone enjoying it. A year ago I didn’t understand why anyone would want to do something so vulnerable, let alone do it as a group. I just didn’t get it. Both yoga and meditation can be very personal practices, helping you feel grounded to the earth. Over the last few months I’ve started to prefer practicing in a group because in addition to feeling grounded I feel connected to the others in the space. It can be calming, energizing, and eliminates some of the social anxiety I sometimes feel making small talk with strangers. There’s no need to discuss personal details, you can just breathe and lean into the poses together.

I’m drafting this from deep outside my comfort zone. I went alone to a 2 day yoga retreat in the woods. This may not seem like a big thing, but for me it’s a huge deal. Since I was a child I have avoided trying new things that I wasn’t certain I would be good at or that would have put me in the position of being judged. I certainly would not have dreamed to take this sort of risk without the safety net of going with someone else. At least then I would be able to use inside jokes to hide my insecurity.

You know what? I’m actually having a good time. I tried snowshoeing for the first time, participated in a number of yoga and meditation classes with gusto, and feel the value of experience that isn’t numbed in any of the creative ways I’ve tried in the past. The people are lovely, the cabin is adorable, and the grounds are breathtaking. I even bought their vegetarian cookbook, the food is that good! I’m not even vegetarian.

I’m glad that rediscovering exercise has brought such unexpected gifts and adventure. I’m glad I know I can do things I want to do without waiting for someone to be available to join me. I’m grateful that I am getting the opportunity to retrain my brain to listen to my body, to relax, slow down, and understand that I don’t need to be perfect. It’s worth taking risks and being vulnerable for growth.

I’m grateful I finally understand the value of both my mind and body working together as allies and not adversaries.

A bit more about the benefits of yoga and meditation to recovery: Yoga for Addiction Recovery (Yoga Journal)

* * *

Just ’cause, 10 years later this is still my favourite workout track. Outside of the yoga studio, of course.

Why am I writing this?

I’m probably not alone in the fact that there have been a few events in my life that so drastically altered the course that there is no denying their significance. These stand out head and shoulders above other moments in that I can say with no insincerity that nothing was the same again.

Although I do not want to sensationalize the anniversary of the end of the relationship that I thought would be my last, I am aware that this date is approaching. I am determined to view it not as an ending but a new beginning thus exercising my choice to frame the present in the way that best suits and empowers me.

But still, I can’t help but reflect.

The night he left was one of the longest of my life. I couldn’t sleep. I didn’t know what to feel. I was in shock. We’d spent almost every day of 8 years together and I didn’t know what to do. We were really truly codependent and I was already feeling withdrawal.

I stayed up all night researching addiction, reading blogs and watching YouTube and Ted Talk videos about people, their addictions and their relationships with addicts. Until I stumbled on this video:

That night I must have watched this video a half a dozen times in a row. I didn’t want to believe that there would be no reconciliation in my case but something about Stacey’s story made me feel better. She is intelligent, poised, and insightful. She isn’t stupid or pathetic (like I felt) and she has a similar story. I liked that she offered her experience in a way that was honest, open, and vulnerable. She owned it in a way I couldn’t imagine after so many years hiding.

In my loneliness, shame, and self-loathing Stacey gave me hope.

I didn’t do anything with what she shared immediately but I kept revisiting this video over the weeks that followed and eventually, when I was ready, I did get help. Stacey gave me a lifeline. She opened an empathic space and presented me the opportunity to find my own way. If you ever read this: thank you, Stacey! You da bomb.

Truthfully, I don’t believe there is a perfect formula to fix this kind of pain. I think we all create our own recovery programs and I’m not going to judge you if your process is different from mine. One author recommended (I can’t recall which, sorry) that we treat recovery like a buffet and sample all the available strategies and information but only go back for more of what “tastes” good. We will all get there in our own time with patience, acceptance, and understanding.

It is my hope that my story can help hold an empathic space open for someone else who feels as low and hopeless as I did. I also hope that through owning my story and writing about it I will be able to own the ending and make a better one than I would have ever considered for myself in the past.

I don’t know you but I sincerely hope that you don’t give up. You didn’t deserve what happened to you and we both know you are doing the absolute best you can to make it better. Wherever you are right now is exactly where you need to be to get where you are going. You are worthy and deserving of love, peace and happiness.

#BellLetsTalk: Stigma

A break from our regularly scheduled programming to have a very important discussion.

Today, January 30th, is Bell Let’s Talk Day and I love this initiative.  Since this campaign started in 2010, over $100 Million has been donated to mental health organizations. Getting involved and helping to generate funding is as easy as watching the company’s Let’s Talk Day video and continuing the conversation using social media. The company generously contributes 5 cents for every qualifying action.

Mental illness is more common than we think. The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) estimates that in any given year 1 in 5 people in Canada will experience a mental health problem or illness, and that by age forty 50% of the population will have had a mental illness. Suicide is one of the leading killers of people under 40 accounting for 24% of all deaths among 15-24 year olds, and 16% among 25-44 year olds, it is also 4 times more likely in men than women. The economic cost of mental illnesses in Canada for the health care system was estimated to be at least $7.9 billion in 1998 – $4.7 billion in care, and $3.2 billion in disability and early death with an additional $6.3 billion spent on uninsured mental health services and time off work for depression and distress that was not treated by the health care system (https://cmha.ca/about-cmha/fast-facts-about-mental-illness). Simply put, the cost of mental illness is huge by any measure.

When it comes to addiction, the red flag behaviours are engaged in by many people. Some argue that addiction is part of the human condition and this is certainly supported by the examples we see in people of all backgrounds and socio-economic standing. Addiction doesn’t care if you are rich, educated, have great bone structure, or you are a really amazing accordion player.

Be honest and think of all the times in your life you (or someone you love) have tried to cope with feelings through substance use, sex, food, relationships, exercise, or even aggressive cleaning; that is compulsive behaviour, the backbone of addiction. While many are fortunate that they don’t graduate to full addiction (whatever their “drug” of choice), it is important to underline that we are all cut from similar cloth and the line between problem behavior and addiction is paper-thin. Use this knowledge to remain compassionate, both to yourself and others.

The content of this blog represents only a handful of the mental illness challenges that people face. It’s ok to not be ok.  It’s ok to seek out help and be kind to people who are fighting their own ghosts.

I can speak from experience on the harming effects of stigma. Negative reactions to differences and other people’s challenges are ingrained in our society. We are all too quick to dismiss, blame, and judge.  This can make a person feel ashamed and unwanted; it can cause them to hide their problems and not seek help.  Once in treatment it can delay progress, it can affect them while they are healing and long into their recovery.

Bell’s campaign suggests the following actions to help reduce stigma:

  • Treat everyone with respect
  • Be warm, engaging and non-judgmental
  • Challenge stigma when you see it
  • Watch your language
  • Learn the facts about mental health and illness
  • Help raise awareness about mental health

While we need to understand that we can’t and shouldn’t force people to do anything they aren’t willing to take on, eliminating stigma is a great step in empowering them to seek help.

To learn more, visit: https://letstalk.bell.ca/.

 

10 Month Reflection

10 months ago I abruptly separated from my partner of 8 years after the shattering revelation that he was hiding an alcohol addiction from me.

What they don’t tell you about recovery is that it doesn’t happen in a straight line. Grief is a process and it is not linear; it is more accurately portrayed as a spiral or zig-zag.  There are days when I feel invincible/bullet proof and others when I feel like shattered glass. Some days I am confident in all my actions, and others where it seems like a miracle that I got out of bed.  You get the idea.. these mood swings go back and forth like a pendulum.

When it first ended I was angry.  Once I got past blaming him for causing me pain, I had to look inwards and examine the actions and decisions that led me to that point. I finally realized that, like the addict, I was trying to fill the holes in myself. Instead of alcohol I used someone who could never really love me back. I allowed the pain and I caused more. I had to accept that no one else could save me; just like I couldn’t save the addict.

I reminded (and continue to remind) myself several times a week that the important thing is the intent to move forward.  The intent to be a bit better than the day before… even if that difference is almost indistinguishable.

Recovery is lonely. Even in the company of people with similar experiences I have trouble connecting. After an extended period of discounting my feelings, my needs, my intuition and taking responsability for more than my share I have to learn who I am. Those compromises were required for survival; they are the only way I made it through the days of broken promises, secrets, emotional abuse and outright lies. If I had been in touch with what I was feeling, I would have had to save myself years before.

I lost myself and I realized I didn’t love myself anymore, even scarier: maybe I never really did or why would I have gotten involved with someone like that? I became aware of my feelings after ignoring them for years, but truthfully still sometimes struggle to understand what they mean or where they come from.  Sometimes it takes a lot of effort and awareness to stop those negative programs from running.

I still have trouble feeling genuine and letting go enough to connect.  I’m scared of most kinds of intimacy… and not because I’m worried that someone else will hurt me (although there’s probably some of that too), I’m scared I can’t trust myself to stand up, to protect myself and recognize when I’m being mistreated and taken advantage of.

Most people don’t get it. They suggest jumping back into regular life and throwing myself into meaningless and impulsive actions and relationships.  But truthfully those kinds of things, although they have been effective in the past as a distraction from modest pain don’t seem to work here.  They underline the insecurities and my dysfunction.  They make me feel anxiety. They make me realize how thin the facade is, how I try to hold on to every experience with a vice grip because deep down I feel like the universe is lacking and I’m undeserving of the crumbs of happiness that are available. It reminds me that I’m held together with scotch tape and rubber bands as the flesh beneath scabs over.

Most people don’t understand because they have no reference point.  They don’t understand the helplessness of watching someone you love prioritize hurting themselves.  They don’t get the guilt and shame that comes with finally choosing to act on your own behalf. They don’t understand what it’s like to realize that you need to abandon someone in order for them to stop from drowning you. To realize that they will continue to push you down to keep themselves afloat despite all the times they’ve told you they love you.

Sharing any details can inspire judgement: why would you put up with that behaviour so long? What do you mean you didn’t see it?  Or perhaps worse: how could you desert them?

To be honest, I haven’t shared the worst stories.  The lesser ones are too much for most people to hear without blame or pithy commentary… rationally I understand that what other people think shouldn’t matter, but it does.  It’s hard to let go.

I had to accept that while I didn’t deserve or cause the problem, I alone am responsible for what happens to me next.

And that friends, is both empowering and terrifying.