Why Stay?

When I think back on my time living with alcoholics, one of the hardest things to be honest about is why I did so little to change my situation. I wasn’t happy for a long time and I stayed. Why?

When I met my ex there were a lot of early signs that he did not have his life or mental health together. He told me heartbreaking stories about his life prior to our getting together that he used to justify his choices, his mood, his behaviour.. a lot of things. I later found out that many of these stories were likely falsehoods, or at least severe exaggerations of actual events. I suspect, by that time, he had forgotten they were lies because they were so essential to the self-abuse he perpetuated in his own life. I also suspect I wasn’t the primary target for his deception: he was.

He told me that he was looking forward and made me feel as though I was helping him.

Truthfully I did not have great self esteem. I was recovering from my own life setbacks and was habitually hard on myself when things weren’t going well for me, or people I cared about, whether or not I actually had any real power over the outcome. The way he made me feel in those early days appealed to my ego. It made me feel empowered and useful. It gave me value that I was desperately looking for externally because I sincerely thought that’s where it could be found.

And so it started, the unfortunate attachment of my self-worth to his.

As time went on and he could not continue to sell his lack of progress with his prior excuses, the emotional abuse started. The interesting thing about emotional abuse is that it can be very subtle and hard to identify. It was only after I had some distance that I understood that my relationship was not normal, that most people don’t feel the way I did.

The most common type of emotional abuse in my life has been a form that I later learned is coined “gas lighting”. In gas lighting, the gas lighter undermines the gas lightee by denying facts, the environment or their feelings – essentially convincing them that their feelings or perception of events are wrong. For example, the lightee tells the lighter they are shirking their household responsibilities and the lighter refuses to acknowledge that’s happening despite all proof and logic to the contrary. I don’t think this is that uncommon and likely we’ve all done it to another in blind denial or self-preservation at some point in our lives when fact was inconvenient.. but this wasn’t an intermittent or occasional issue. Over time, this became most of our interactions with each other.

Truthfully, this had been a theme in my childhood as well. I came from a household where it was not okay to be upset and it was not unusual for me to be accused of being “too sensitive” or “too dramatic” when expressing my feelings. When I was a toddler, the dog next door bit me on the face and my recollection of that event is that my caregiver was more concerned about how the dog owner felt about the incident than my well-being. I thought it was my fault, that somehow my existence had warranted the attack. I didn’t realize, as I had more experiences like that one, that I began to distrust my perception of the world. I often feel guilty or self-conscious for having feelings, even when they are legitimate. I’m the kind of person that would gladly accept that I somehow asked to be punched in the face, rather than make someone else feel bad for their own lapse in judgement.

By the time I met my alcoholic partner I was well primed to hand over my self-respect and take the blame for the challenges in our relationship. So, as painful and embarrassing as it is to admit, I felt like I deserved it. I deserved to be unhappy. I deserved to be trying to pick up the pieces of a broken relationship without any help. I deserved to be suffering… so why would I empower myself to try for anything different?

I couldn’t leave without taking an impossible blow to my ego, and I didn’t have much ego to spare since it was my fault and I deserved it.

The worst part about all this for me is that I feel that the easiest way to frame these events is as a reflection of my personal weakness, validating my lack of worth.

But I’ve come to realize that the easiest way isn’t always the best way to live with something. I understand now why domestic abuse victims are now commonly referred to as survivors. While it may not make sense to most why I made the choices I did, I know that what I did was the best I could do with the tools I had at the time. I know that I’ve made it through things that other people would not, and that my past is not a reflection of my weakness but as a pillar to my strength of perseverance.

2020 Memorandum

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As 2020 winds down, I think regardless of where we find ourselves at the end of this unprecedented year we can all agree this is nothing like we anticipated it would be.

For me, this year has been equal parts good and bad. I’ve struggled with relapse of depression, anxiety, and lack of focus. I’ve been insecure, uneasy, antsy, fearful, and helpless. I’ve struggled to maintain structure and commitment to self-care and taken way too many liberties with food, substance use, and lack of exercise. I’ve gone from fear of missing out, to fear of going out, and back again a few times. I’ve struggled to maintain contact with the people I love and the activities I know ground me and contribute to my emotional, spiritual, and physical wellbeing.

I’ve lost sight of the big picture and reduced too many things to emotional extremes. I’ve drowned in political, health, and existential crises and struggled to find myself again. I’ve spent far more energy on the things I can’t control, and not nearly enough on the things I can. And, despite knowing better, I did a lot of this without asking for help.

Going in to 2021, I want to restart and get back on the bandwagon. And what better place to start than some gratitude. Here’s some of the things I am most grateful for in 2020:

  • Early in the year, I celebrated by 37th birthday with the purchase of a new home, in a new town, while in a relatively new romantic relationship.
  • In May I made the difficult choice to leave a company where I had been employed for 5 years to take a chance on a new role despite the discomfort of completing this entire transition remotely.
  • This summer, despite my fears, I disclosed one of the most shameful events in my life to a dear friend and my boyfriend. I hadn’t spoken of this event outside of therapy, truthfully believing it would make me unlovable. I’m humbled to report that my fears were unfounded, at least where it matters most to me.
  • Through over-the-fence distanced interactions I’ve started to know my new neighbours. After years of avoiding small town life, I’m reminded of the great aspects of community. Again and again I’m amazed of the large impact of small kindness – to someone thoughtfully bringing a parcel in from the rain and rushing out to deliver it by hand when you return home, to helping you haul fallen leaves from the large maple in your front yard, to delivering a couple extra date squares because they felt the urge to share.
  • I’ve also been inspired by my small community’s efforts to encourage local shopping, dining, and artisan support in the absence of the town’s usual glut of tourists through campaigns, events, and good old fashioned coming togetherness (Is this a word? Is now!).
  • I’ve been privileged to be trusted with a few friends’ low moments and vulnerabilities and am slowly learning how to help people in a way that’s healthy for us both.
  • In the summer, my boyfriend took me on my first backwoods camping trip in almost a decade. Despite the irony of escaping the isolation of our home with backwoods isolation, we survived, we thrived, we ate great food, and we had a pretty great adventure.
  • Over the last 8 months of pandemic, my boyfriend and I have been putting our touch on the home we purchased – painting, renovating, landscaping, and building something really special and uniquely us. I’m grateful to be enjoying these moments with someone that inspires and supports me in so many amazing ways.
  • Although my relationship with my family is far from perfect, I feel that this year has challenged me to improve my communication and I am enjoying interacting with them more than this time last year. I’m encouraged that healing is possible.
  • Recently, I was approached with another great employment opportunity which represents exponential career growth. Despite the mixed emotions of changing jobs again in the new year, I’ve accepted and am looking forward to another new start in 2021 with equal parts excitement and trepidation. I’m grateful for being blessed for the first time in my career with so many good options.

I feel like a lot of my life has been framed in extreme thoughts. Things were largely good or bad (more often bad, if I’m honest) and not allowed to be grey.

Climbing back up on the recovery horse I remind myself that life is unpredictable and strange. Despite our best effort and planning things don’t always turn out as we planned. Life isn’t perfect, but being adaptable and open to change makes it a lot more live-able.

Enough.

woman and man sitting on brown wooden bench
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In February of 2018 my then boyfriend asked me to marry him. We were walking in the off-leash dog park near our house and he thrust his grandmother’s engagement ring at me, and said simply “will you?”.

He told me later that he had hoped to ask in Niagara Falls.

I had put an end to that plan when we’d gotten into a huge argument when he suggested going away for my birthday. It was just after Christmas, I was looking at a mountain of credit card debt, the mortgage and other bills looming, and obsessively looking over our bank records, I knew his contributions were almost non-existent.

He had told me he wanted to take me away for the weekend and I melted down. I shamed him for even considering spending money.

We had been together for 8 years at that point.  Truthfully, most of it not great. There was very little trust on either side and neither one of us seemed capable of supporting the other in any idea. We bickered constantly and had almost no intimacy by any stretch or definition of the word. Our relationship was full of lies and shame and we were both in deep denial of his illness.

He had graduated to drinking in secret. He slept at irregular hours and it was not unusual for his behaviour to deteriorate; he said inappropriate things, stumbled around, and slurred his words. I had forced him to go to the doctor, insisting that if he was not abusing substances there must be something deeply wrong. The doctor said that his sleep patterns could be the catalyst for the strange behaviour and suggested more discipline in his daily routine.

He, of course, did not follow any of the doctors suggestions and responded to my nagging by insisting the doctor was a quack and he was fine. He told me that I was a fool, a nag, and that I should mind my own business.  He was right on most of those points, the doctor did not identify the problem… and by that time, I wasn’t able to focus on myself at all, I had become obsessed with how to turn him into the person I thought he could be.

I initially said “yes” to his proposal. I had been waiting for it, couldn’t believe we’d been together so long without that commitment.  I said “yes” because I thought that was the clear next step towards the kids I thought I wanted with him, the “ever after” I imagined where he was alert, available, and we were no longer adversaries.

On the walk back from the park, all kinds of thoughts came flooding in: the lies, the financial hardship, the person I had become over the time we had been together… When we got back to the house I rescinded my acceptance of his proposal, telling him that I couldn’t think of marrying him as things were between us.

He told me he would do anything to keep the ring on my finger.

I suggested we work on things, and hoped that he would ask again.

Over the next month, he moved the heirloom ring around the house – I’m not sure if that was to punish me, or because it was painful for him to see the symbol of my rejection; probably both. His behaviour became more erratic and I spent an increasing amount of time worrying about where he was, what he was doing, and imagining all the things that would happen to him. In my paranoia, I became worried that he would dispose of the ring, and worried about the impact that would have on his mother.

Then, one Sunday in March, he drank himself into a stupor and passed out on the couch. In a strangely empowered moment, I got his keys, and decided to search his car for the ring.

I found chaos. His car was full of garbage – fast food containers, clothing, cigarette packages, other unidentifiable mess. And then I opened the trunk and found it full of empty vodka bottles.

I remember staring at the contents of the trunk, of the first irrevocable proof of his addiction, and wondering if I could just close the trunk and imagine that I could forget what I had seen. I remember standing there, trying to think of any other explanation for why they were there…

And then I realized I was sick too.  I called his brother and begged him to come and get him.  I packed a bag for him, and waited.  A few hours later, they coaxed him, half passed out, into the car and took him away.

I’ve only seen him once since then, in a bank parking lot about a month after I forced him out of our house. Already skinny, he’d lost more weight, his skin was grey and he looked more ill than I remembered. I wondered if he’d always looked that way and I hadn’t allowed myself to see it.

I spent the first year working through my belief that there was something missing from me which should have inspired him to get better. It took me that much time to realize that while there were things that I could have done better for both of us in light of his addiction, there was nothing I could have done to make him stop before he was ready.

It took me that long to accept that we were not meant to save each other.

Fear, Shame, and COVID-19

woman in green and white stripe shirt covering her face with white mask
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Heading towards the fourth month in Canada of social distancing, the seriousness of COVID-19 has not diminished and the mental health impacts of being socially isolated are starting to become more apparent.  My neighbours, and even myself, have started to take more risks when it comes to the regulations: more “driveway” and social distance visits, more justifications to expand the circle, and more attempts to inject some normal into our lives.

The conversations around this disease are starting to shift as people are making large efforts to be sensitive to everyone else’s needs, comfort level, and risk factors while balancing their own need to get back into more natural social packs.  Historically I would describe myself as more of a “lone wolf”, favouring small and intimate connections over large packs, but this experience has taught me that my need for human connection is stronger than I imagined. I’ve found myself lingering longer with friendly frontline workers, talking about the weather or any other non-COVID topic they are willing to engage in through plexiglass on my supply runs.. and after seeing a few friends for a backyard social distance visit for the first time since this all started last week, I am more aware than ever that I need good people around me to feel balanced.

Something interesting that I am noticing is that most people seem very hesitant to admit that they feel any fear over infection.  Most cite a loved one, roommate, or contact as the reason for their lack of contact: “I’m okay, but so-and-so is so uncomfortable so I stay away”.

I’m not saying that we should lift any restrictions, the threat of this horrible disease is still very real with no cure or vaccine close on the horizon.  It is still important to do our part to ensure the safety of the population and no one should feel more uncomfortable than needed or be placed at unnecessary risk. But – what I find interesting about these ongoing discussions is they indicate a very real problem: there is shame associated with being afraid, and shame keeps people from talking about fear.  I say this because in some of my conversations the same people are blaming each other for being afraid. I suspect this is not always miscommunication, but more likely a reluctance to admit their own fear.

I find this especially sad, because I believe most people genuinely want to do their best for others.  If there is something I can do (or not do) in order to make you more comfortable and at ease in your interactions with me, I would be happy to do my best to accommodate. But – if those conversations don’t happen, I don’t know how you’re feeling and I can’t do my part to help you feel better.

I also understand that admitting fear is not an easy thing to do. I grew up in an environment where it was not okay to feel negative things. It was wrong to be scared, to require reassurance or accommodation. To this day, admitting I need something is still peppered with shame… but, I will say, that “normal and healthy” people do not make you feel worse for having a negative feeling. It is okay and normal to be scared, and it is worth pushing through the discomfort of shame to have better quality connections, especially in this time where connection is more challenging than it has ever been before.