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:

 

Amorphous Blob

*This comic was unknowingly sent to me by a dear friend after I’d drafted this article, it was too perfect not to include.  Follow this talented artist, here. Thanks M, you add so much depth to my days.*

From a young age I believed that self worth is measured in personal sacrifice. In other words, you always put other people’s needs first. On the surface this seems like a beautiful and romantic idea, although in the long run taking a bullet might be less painful.

I realize what I’ve been doing isn’t actually all that selfless. I do think that I generally have good intentions, but I’m motivated by the thought that people would value my contributions and reciprocate. Although I acknowledge it is normal to want to be appreciated for your efforts, my self worth is woven up a little too tightly in these outcomes. Whether intentional or not, it puts me in a position of martyrdom. Operating with so many expectations for other people’s behaviour is often disappointing. It’s also manipulative, which is an ugly word I don’t want anywhere near my name.

This approach has also disconnected me from what I want and need. I have trouble answering questions like: what would make me feel better right now? Where would I like to go next? What would I like to do? My programming tells me that what I want and need is irrelevant and unimportant and it takes a lot of concentration and quiet to try and tap into those thoughts and feelings.  After a year of trying to develop this awareness, sometimes I still can’t.

Undervaluing myself has also impeded my ability to express love in a healthy and meaningful way. I’ve never had clear boundaries to enforce. Without them my relationships eventually become strange amorphous blobs of resentment and stagnation. I send the message that I’m unimportant by not asking for what I need or asking then immediately folding because I feel shame for imposing. I therefore don’t get what I need and eventually feel taken advantage of and again can’t express what the other person can do to fix it to salvage the relationship. A vicious cycle that comes with a fragrant bouquet of unpleasant feelings, my focus has always been anger.

I focus on anger because it’s easy and familiar for me. When I’m angry I can be productive and aggressive. Anger motivates action and makes me feel powerful. Alternatively, sitting with any of those other drippy feelings makes me feel helpless, weak, selfish, useless and unmasked. I have illusions that anger hides my weak spots and resolves things quickly when in reality it just weakens (or ends) my relationships and leads others to (rightfully) conclude I’m imbalanced and a jerk.

If there’s no one else to blame? Easy, I rage on myself. This is the worst kind of anger; it erodes self-worth in an even more destructive way. It’s a lifetime of picking yourself last in gym class and then tossing yourself in a locker with an atomic wedgie.

If you don’t love yourself, you have absolutely no protection from the impact of other peoples impressions and thoughts. You are only capable of getting validation from outside yourself: you’ve given away your power. There is a marked difference between taking responsibility for your choices and bullying yourself.

In her book Daring Greatly, Brene Brown distinguishes shame and guilt quite simply as:

Guilt = I did something bad.

Shame = I am bad.

In my world, failure of any kind results in shame and I pass that judgement on to others when they disappoint me. Nothing is ever a simple mistake or a bad choice, it is some kind of reflection of value. Everything is personal to the hundredth degree.

I think society romanticizes the ideas of vengeance, anger, and aggression. The media, politics, and literature are all filled with protagonists who shoot first and ask questions later. I realize how confusing this messaging has been with my experiences in developing my identity.

Anger has helped me avoid vulnerability for years. I carry a lot of grudges and burn a lot of bridges. I play the viking in an effort to avoid being the victim. I operate under the faulty logic that it is better to hurt someone before they get close enough to hurt me. After I drive them away I carry that rage and rejection with me everywhere keeping my wounds open and festering, reminding me that I am unworthy of the things I am so desperately seeking. It has made it easy to get hurt again because I am not able to heal.

Before this year, I thought that forgiveness was weak and designed to make people feel better who probably didn’t deserve it anyway. And frankly, if I wasn’t about to forgive myself why should I forgive you? After all, we are all bad shameful people.

I realize that forgiveness isn’t just for the other person; it’s a gift and a remedy to shame.  Not only can it empower others to overcome their own roadblocks (and regardless of any action they may or may not take) forgiveness means that you don’t have to carry it with you. You can move forward a few pounds lighter. I realize that making bad choices does not make a person bad or shameful if they are committed to improving.

Forgiveness works because the cure for shame is empathy, it is a social wound and it requires a social cure. Shame inspires me to withdraw and isolate and I’ve started to overcome it by talking to people who understand what it’s like and don’t judge me. They accept me for my flaws and encourage me while I take all the right and wrong turns I need to take in order to resolve it. They let me practice boundaries, share my ugly moments, and still reach out to see how I’m doing afterwards.

Since starting my recovery, I’m trying to act with more vulnerability, compassion, and forgiveness; both for myself and others. I’m trying to develop boundaries and be more mindful of my motivations and expectations for results beyond my control. I’m also trying to be more authentic and transparent in communicating my feelings and needs. Based on my experiences I think this is far better expression of strength and bravery. This approach requires honesty, awareness, vulnerability, responsibility, and maturity which are infinitely harder than manipulation and jumping for the throat. Acting this way opens you up to both rejection and acceptance based on your authentic self. This is terrifying to someone like me who struggles with confidence and worthiness in relationships but it is ultimately worth the risk for better quality connections.

I’m also working on my shame resilience by talking to myself with the same compassion I would give to someone else who is flatted by shame: “I’m human. I made a mistake and it does not define me”. I feel my feels and when I’m ready, when shame is manageable, I dust myself off and step back in the ring a little more prepared.

I’m getting better.  Like everything else we’ve discussed, change takes time, patience, and effort. If it was easy, no one would be struggling.

I am hopeful that participating in my own emotional renaissance will help me do my part to contribute to a kinder future. But if no one else joins me, that’s ok too. I’m just happy to be moving forward with a little less shame and a little more confidence and resilience.

* * *

I highly recommend checking out Brene Brown. Her research has changed the way I think in a lot of beautiful ways. This entry is inspired heavily by her research and writing. There’s no wrong way to experience her: audiobooks, print, or Ted Talks. But do yourself a favour and check her out: https://brenebrown.com/.

A little something to get you started:

 

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A little bonus soundtrack suggestion from one of my all-time favourite bands:

Melody Beattie (& Grief)

If you’ve done even a simple internet search on codependency or families of addiction you’ve probably run across the work of Melody Beattie. Beattie has survived addiction (both her own and in her relationships), abandonment, abuse, divorce, and the death of a child. Whatever you’re going through, there’s an excellent chance she can relate on a very personal level.

In the 1980’s she brought the term “codependency” into the mainstream as a description for caretaking and related behaviours that are commonly found in those of us who have been intimately involved with addiction. Often the development of these traits go back to childhood, and I am certainly no exception. I come by my challenges honestly, substance abuse is not unheard of in my family and neither is caretaking. Beattie helped me to see the parallels between my own behaviours in my relationships and those of the addicts I’ve been involved with and their substances of choice. I understand that on both sides these behaviours are a byproduct of unmet needs and desperation to find comfort outside of ourselves.

Her book Codependent No More is argued by some to be a handbook for recovery and I will say not a bad place to start; although I do recommend seeking out the New Codependency which is updated with more current trends, language, and cultural influences.

As part of my current routine, I attempt to start my day with journaling and reflection. This includes Beattie’s books: the Language of Letting go and More Language of Letting Go. Both are books of short daily meditations, the latter sometimes includes activities to supplement the reading. I find this routine is helpful in developing my awareness by giving the ideas context in my own life.

As I’ve come through the last year I’ve found one of my greatest challenges to be grief. Given what I’ve learned about addiction I feel there is a decent chance that if you are reading this, you’ve probably suffered from grief as well. It seems to be an unfortunate and inevitable byproduct of the ravages of addiction.

Grief is not something I would have generally allowed myself to feel in the past. Historically, my sole coping strategies for grief (and everything else, really) were to get busy and/or walk it off. I do indeed come by this honestly; there is a family legend about how my Great Grandmother avoided spending her son’s last day with him before he was shipped off to war because she had promised to bake pies for the church. When we’ve told this story as a family it was always as a joke of extremism but with an air of admiration for how bulletproof she was. It wasn’t until I started therapy that it was suggested to me that she may have been avoiding her grief at the potential loss of her son. It was strange to me that I never considered that might have been her true motivation, and also shocking developing awareness of how often I’ve “dealt” with things by pretending I’m bulletproof too.

Learning how to grieve has been a tough and ongoing process. There have been times where I’ve felt like it was over only to be slammed back into the depths of it like I had made no progress at all. I know this has been hard on my friends and family and their patience; but – grief is personal, it takes time and it’s an inside job. I wish I could tell you there was a shortcut.

I’m sorry that other people can only provide gentle support and no one can “save” you from grief. Understand that another person’s efforts will only band-aid the issue and it will rise to the surface again years later. The universe has a tricky way of continuing to present us with the same problem in a different wrapper until we solve it the right way. It’s your choice when you face that reality or not.

While I will not comment further on timing and process of healing from grief, I will say that being active, adaptable, and aware in your recovery are universally important. I doubt very strongly that true recovery exists without effort and much like improving physical fitness; sometimes (although our strategy has been working) we plateau and need to try something new or push a little harder. But, given the difficulty of this process, understand that it is done in our own time and does not benefit from impatience.

I wanted to share with you part of the entry for February 11 entitled “Grief” from Beattie’s book, More Language of Letting Go:

This much I will tell you about grief: if there was ever a second, a moment, when you suspected you knew you had been betrayed at the deepest level by someone you adored, and a splintering pain began to shred your heart, turning your world grimly unbearable to the point where you would consciously chose denial and ignorance about the betrayal rather than feel this way, this is one-millionth of what it feels like to grieve.

Grief is not an abnormal condition, nor is it something to be treated with words. It is a universe, a world, unto itself. If you are called to enter this world, there is no turning back. We are not allowed to refuse that call. Grief is like nothing else, with the possible exception of the pounding waves of the ocean. To the untrained, casual eye, each wave looks the same. It is not. No two are the same. And each one washes away the old, and washes in the new.

Gradually, almost imperceptibly, whether we believe it or not, we are being transformed.

You can find more information about Melody Beattie on her website; including her blog, daily meditations, and information about her books.

Learning to be Present

I’ve touched on this idea in a few of my previous posts, but I feel like it deserves some more cowbell.

Up until recently I would have identified my predominant traits as cynical, jaded, and salty. My natural reflex when looking at any challenge or situation is to speculate on all the things that can go wrong, obsess and worry about them, then try to come up with a million different ways to “solve” any potential outcomes. I’m so good at thinking the worst that my current job involves a heavy risk management component: I get paid to imagine disaster and try to avoid it in order to save my employer the expense of having to pay for those losses.

There is a quote floating around from Lao Tzu I’m sure you’ve encountered. It has been made into about 5 million memes:

If you are depressed you are living in the past.
If you are anxious you are living in the future.
If you are at peace you are living in the present.

It doesn’t matter how many times I run into this quote it always hits me with the same intensity. Tzu was a really smart dude and I totally agree with this assessment of mood and time.

The past can be depressing for a lot of us because of how we relate to it. Often looking backwards means yearning for things that are gone or wanting to change things we have no control over. Of course that’s depressing, it’s impossible to change it or get it back! Further, if you are living back there, it’s really tough to see what’s right in front of you right now. The fat lady has sung, we need to let it go.

The future can cause anxiety because we are looking into an abyss of possibility and the unknown. There is no way to guarantee that anything you are doing right now will work out the way you want it to. You might not get that promotion, you might not get a second date with that really cute person you like, and you might have a heart attack tomorrow on your morning jog. Trying to control the future or grasp for guarantees is a trap, it’s an impossible task that will almost inevitably end in disappointment and shame. Holding on so tightly to anything doesn’t mean you get to keep it. Darling, you have no control over anything but your own actions, thoughts, and feelings. Let it go.

Right now is literally all that we have. It’s concrete and interactive: you can touch it, smell it, feel it, taste it. Everything is right here, a buffet for your enjoyment! Your relationship with the present is paramount because what you are choosing to do right now has an impact you can experience on all levels. If you are living in this moment, you are really living. This is where you can feel genuine, authentic, and fulfilled.

I’m still working on developing the skill of being present. It takes time and it is normal to not be perfect. I imagine even the Dalai Lama, in his expansive mindfulness, has moments when he slips into one of those past or future traps. It is normal to be nostalgic and also to hope and work towards good things in the future. Neither of these things means that you are doing something wrong, it just means you are human. And let’s be real, it’s hard to accomplish things if you don’t plan or acknowledge the consequences of your actions.

There are a few things I’ve found help drag me into the here and now when I’m feeling depressed and/or anxious.

First, I’m trying to develop a better relationship with my past. Instead of being depressed, shamed, or yearning I try to be grateful and look at things as a lesson. With all the bad that’s happened came good. I try to focus on the good and also try to accept the bad and explore what I learned and how I can use it to work towards something better. I respect the actions that got me this far but I understand that growth needs adaptation and flexibility. I try to own my mistakes, make amends, and let it go. I try to be gentle and understanding with myself during this process. Some days I do better at this than others, and I understand that’s ok too.

Second, I try to keep worrying about the future for work. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have goals or that I blindly accept risk but I try not to get obsessive about it. I work at gratitude for where I am right now. I understand that even if I’m not where I want to be there is beauty and satisfaction in laying a strong foundation. Limbo isn’t popular, but it’s where we build and regenerate, it’s 10,000% necessary to spend time here to get somewhere different. There is happiness in the potential of a clean slate and a fresh start. I work at trying to do the best I can right now and trust that things will work out as they should, even if that’s not exactly what I think I want and it doesn’t look like what anyone else has.

Mostly I just try to stay present. I try to appreciate the interactions I have because I am fortunate enough to be having them. I work at sucking all the detail out of whatever I am participating in and I try to lighten up and be the best version of myself in the moment. I  work at trying to forgive myself quickly when I don’t do as well as I think I should or I can’t help but shrink into anxiety or sadness. I know that eventually it really is going to be ok if I believe that to be true.

But most of all I try to be my own best advocate, live and let live, let go, and trust the process. I understand that the key is to believe and trust in what I can’t yet see or imagine, as cliché as it sounds, that’s where the magic happens.

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Today’s soundtrack comes from Pearl Jam.  In recovery following years of drug addiction and one of the last surviving great grunge frontmen, I can’t think of many people who would be able to capture this week’s theme like Eddie Vedder.

You can spend your time alone redigesting past regrets
Or you can come to terms and realize you’re the only one who can’t forgive yourself
Makes much more sense to live in the present tense

The Gauntlet

When February hit I became acutely aware of how rough the last couple months have been. The passing of holidays can bring joy for some but for others serve as a reminder of what we’ve lost.

Speaking from my own perspective, this comes from awareness that I’m not feeling what I “should” be feeling on those days. I’ve been fairly candid about the trashheap that my previous relationship was becoming but there are things that I miss.

On Thanksgiving, while I was happy for my coworkers, friends, and strangers discussing their family plans I found myself missing my former inlaws. They welcomed me completely from the beginning of our relationship, including me in all functions and activities. In many ways I was closer to them than my own family. I missed being “auntie” to my niece and nephew, and my surrogate aunts, uncles, cousins, and siblings. I struggled to act as if I was grateful.

Christmas brought another round of pain. For the first time in 8 years I didn’t bake pecan pies or camp out at my mother and father in laws house and watch them wrestle with the android box. I had trouble getting up any excitement for gifts or gatherings. I actually volunteered to be part of the skeleton staff at work so I could limit my time spent at home and therefore the amount of time I had to act as if I was joyful.

New Years was our former relationship anniversary. Although a girlfriend came over and got me laughing, it still hurt. Truthfully our last few years had been pretty miserable, but it was an effort to act as if I was happy to be celebrating the passage of time alone.

Valentines Day; as I listened to my coworkers gush about the plans their significant others had made for their evenings I felt lonely. He was less and less attentive as our relationship went on but it was the first time in years that someone didn’t tell me they loved me, even if it was only lipservice. But still, I acted as if I was happy to be single.

Last weekend was Family Day (a holiday in some provinces in Canada). I remembered happier times we spent up north together roughing it at the cottage with no creature comforts in the bitter cold. I can still smell the cedar, the fireplace, and remember when I actually enjoyed spending time with him. This year I had to work and it was tough to concentrate and act as if I wasn’t lost in my thoughts.

Reflecting on all those days I will say that none of them were as bad as I thought they would be. There were sad moments and I let myself feel them, but I didn’t lose myself to grief. I need to give myself credit for an overall improvement in my coping strategies since the fall.

Between Thanksgiving and Christmas I did a lot of unhealthy things to try and distract myself from my pain. I played some old unhealthy behaviour programs and made some bad choices trying to rush things I wasn’t ready for in a subconscious effort to feel anything other than sad and anxious. Worst of all I hit pause on a lot of the routine I had been developing that was helping me get right again. Around New Years I took a step back and restarted my routines, I started this blog, and before I knew it I was on track again; more level, less emotional peaks and valleys, and more accepting of the good and the bad.

I guess the point that I’m trying to make here is that all things pass, things have to end to make room for new things. It’s ok to not to live up to your or someone else’s expectations for the day. It’s ok to grieve. It’s ok to take your time and be patient with yourself. Loss of all kinds hurt, what you are feeling is normal. It will pass, it will get easier, but you need to be honest with yourself and go through the process. If something feels bad, take a step back and self care. If something feels good, try and let yourself lean in and enjoy it. But most of all, just be accepting of where you are right now and love yourself anyway. You can’t force change, it will come in its own time.

And please, give yourself a hand for surviving the holidays.  That was a marathon and you made it!

* * *

I’m a big fan of this new release by Dan Mangan. To me it speaks of hope and excitement about uncertainty; rising from the ashes. I hope it speaks to you too.

And hey Steven, how’s Sally?
How’re the peaks and how’re the valleys?
And I’ve been down some, but I’ll rally
Have you found something to sink your teeth into?
Keep it even, keep her happy
Don’t be afraid to love her madly
‘Cause she will steer you and keep you afloat
As you row that boat until you both let go someday

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)

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