One Day at a Time

I am the product of generational wounds.  I learned the basics of relationships and behaviour from people that passed along their lessons. I know that my experiences as a child were not my fault, just as theirs were not their fault. A child is helpless and at the mercy of their surroundings and we do our best with what they are presented. A child doesn’t understand that what they are being shown is not healthy, or abnormal. They trust and accept, they have no other choice.

For a lot of years I blamed my parents and my family for my unhappiness.  And some of that was justified. It is okay and reasonable to be angry about the experiences I had as a child. To wish that I’d had an easier and more supportive ride.  To be frustrated that my current emotional wellbeing, as an adult, is a result of unlearning and acknowledging the good and bad of those experiences.

Anger has always been an easy emotion for me, and one of the few I excel at. There was a lot of anger and resentment in my childhood, and in the generations that proceeded that. My grandparents and their parents dealt with a lot of challenges – poverty, discrimination, war, and grief. There was little to no effective mental health medicine or treatment available to them.  The only choice was to continue on, and to their credit they did what they needed to do. And they tried to prepare their children for life by passing along those lessons, strategies, and mechanisms.

Those strategies did not include anything which would resemble emotional intimacy, compassion, or care. Those strategies included disconnection, isolation, force, desperation, resentment, addiction, shame and insecurity.

Like my parents, I don’t understand what it’s supposed to feel like to trust and love someone unconditionally and like the generations that came before me I spend a lot of time fighting the feeling of being less than, or unworthy of most things.

I admit that for the majority of my life I used these models as an excuse not to heal and to justify my own poor behaviour. I think the idea of letting go of that resentment kept me trapped for a long time. It is easier and more comfortable not to change.

I unconsciously look for people that reinforce those feelings of insecurity, resentment, and inadequacy because anything else feels uncomfortable. Anything else means that I have to admit that I don’t understand what healthy means and that I don’t know how to cope with normalcy. Anything else means that I have to look inward and admit that I am choosing to nourish my own misery.

I am fortunate to be in a romantic relationship with someone that does not have those shared experiences. That’s not to say his life has been without challenge, but he has never doubted that his family loves and accepts him. He has never accepted relationships, romantic or otherwise, were abuse has been a factor. He approaches all challenges with confidence, acceptance, and perseverance. He has faith that things will work out and he will be fine, regardless of what he is presented.

I love and admire this in him. And in my weaker moments I am jealous of him and I struggle to understand him. I debate how much to tell him about the specifics of my past experiences and the steps I take in my daily life to grow, change, and live a better life.

It’s interesting at this stage in my recovery that what stops me from blurting out all the shitty things in my past is not that I don’t trust him, or don’t want him to know… what stops me is that I don’t want to do to him what’s been done to me.  I don’t want him to feel obligations towards me because of what I’ve been through. I don’t want to make excuses for my behaviour.

I guess I’m writing this here to try and organize my thoughts, and to illustrate that recovery is an ongoing balancing act. Wherever you are in this process, there will be good and bad moments.  You will need to continue to grow, adapt, and be accountable. There are things that come up that don’t have a manual and there are no one size fits all solution.

I write this to remind myself to keep showing up.  I write this to remind myself that it is always ok to return to step 1.

Change in Uncertain Times

animal dog pet dangerous
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I’ve talked about my dog before on this blog.  She is a rescue mutt – sweet, loving, and scared of most things. She will startle at a pen falling off a table but shows absolutely no hesitation to go bolting off the deck into the night after an anonymous and unidentified shadow or noise. In these moments, she forgets she is afraid.

I have a similarly complicated and confusing relationship with change. Fed up with life and circumstances I can name an embarrassing amount of times in my life that I’ve bolted into the night, making impulsive and life changing decisions with very little foresight or appreciation for the consequences. I’ve cut people out, quit without notice, and generally acted like a wild and startled animal and not the intelligent homo sapien I am.

For my dog, those actions have resulted in several face-to-face confrontations with angry skunks.  For me, they have resulted in having to reinvent myself almost from scratch more times than I’d like to admit.

The irony of both our situations is that I believe we are both desperately trying to deal with paralyzing fear. Acting quickly, impulsively and desperately is often the only way for either one of us able to do anything without feeling our insecurities.

In the midst of all the pandemic restrictions, collective mental health crisis, and general world upheaval I’ve been approached with and accepted a job offer. Most people that know me well agree that this is an overdue and largely positive move. They reassure me that I am making a good decision and remind me of how much in my life has changed for the better over my last two years of getting vulnerable and uncomfortable…

But – I’m full of doubt and apprehension.

I am faced with the uncomfortable truth that I rarely feel good about my decisions. This is not about the lack of guarantees, the uncertainty, or any number of things that I believe are normal to feel in the face of change.  This is, like many things, another opportunity to examine how old habits are no longer serving me.

Even as a young and idealistic Jess, I didn’t get a lot of unbiased encouragement. I was lead to believe that even the most simple of personal needs or aspirations were selfish and somehow wrong. That things that were about me actually had a larger and more significant impact on others. I’ve spent most of my life believing that I am unable to do things myself, or rely on myself to make good decisions.

As a final carrot to stay at my old company I was offered a mentorship from a leader who told me they were sorry that I was uncertain of my value to the company and wanted to lead me to greater potential.

I know, right?

They could not have picked something that would be more attractive.

Screw money and title, VALIDATE ME and save me!!!!!

In lamenting this new offer, I was whining to a good and supportive friend, ripping apart (yet again) my decision to leave and leap into the unknown. He said, “you’ve always had to make it on your own, when somebody finally comes along to help it’s understandable that it should be both very strange and very attractive.”

It was like being slapped across the face.

I realized that I was being offered something abstract and that tying my success and perceived value to any one person was another attempt to fill the gaping void I’ve been clogging with food, alcohol, and emotionally unavailable people for the majority of my life.

It was a reminder that believing I’m not capable of things on my own is no longer an appropriate way to survive.  It was a reminder that I don’t accept that kind of emotional abuse anymore.

So here I am, sitting in my last few weeks of work ready to run and leap off of the deck into the dark again.  Truthfully, I’m still scared shitless, but at least I’m confident that I’ll make my way through it this time; as I always have before.

Waiting for Worth / Worth Waiting for

girl wearing black and white striped dress sitting on stair
Photo by @thiszun (follow me on IG, FB) on Pexels.com

They say that the things that make it into your long term memory are significant.

I believe this to be true.  I don’t remember every mediocre cup of coffee, single-serving elevator friend, or my last 3 postal codes, but going through the recovery process has given me a unique appreciation for the stuff that I do remember, especially those events which have survived decades of trivia, service centre queues, and other mundane memory wasters.

Memory is a funny thing. If you ask two people to recall the same events, they will likely produce different details and maybe even bicker about the minutae of the conversation, the time of day, or the weather but ultimately the details don’t always matter.  Truth is somewhat fluid. What is true for me, may not be for you and vice versa; but how your brain files and tags your experiences is incredibly important for how you construct your image of the world around you. So – for everyone’s personal experience, how they recall something is often more important to them than the factual events.

This is part of the reason why I try not to get too specific in my writing. I’m conscious and fearful that I will inadvertantly hurt someone else by casting them in my recollection of events that are skewed to my own bias… but, I’m going to try something different today.  I wanted to write about one of my earliest memories.

When I was about 8 years old my family sat down to dinner. This dinner wasn’t special, or celebratory, it was just your average meal. During the dinner an argument erupted. My father was upset about something my brother was doing and it escalated ending in my brother crying, my mother consoling him, and my father storming off.

I remember feeling shocked, confused, and scared. My 8 year old brain was already worried about people getting hurt, abandoning me, of catastrophic events. I was already skeptical that things would just work out, because in my experience they often didn’t. There wasn’t alot of fighting in my household, but there also wasn’t a lot of resolution. We all struggled with communication and often when bad things happened we all went to our respective corners to “deal”.

My “normal” was a low baseline of tension at all times. I understand now that I didn’t have a consistent model for developing emotional skills.  My parents tried their best, but I don’t think emotional nurturing and protecting were gifts they had to pass along. If you’d asked me at that time, I would have told you that “home” was where I felt “safe” and “loved” knowing somehow that those were  acceptable responses but I don’t think I really understood what those concepts meant.

In that moment, watching my daddy storm off, I was worried that he had gone for a walk and wasn’t coming back.

I remember sitting in the garage waiting for him.  I don’t really have any concept of how long that was, but to my 8 year old brain it was an eternity. All that time I was imagning these horrible things that would happen to him and the chaos that would occur when he didn’t return. When he did finally reappear, he stormed past me and into the house.  He didn’t acknowledge me, he holed himself in the basement and coped in the only way that he knew how.

I understand now that everything that happened that day had very little to do with me, but I also understand that I wasn’t equipped to handle this stuff without guidance. Kids need direction, structure, and communication. We aren’t born with the skills to deal with complex emotional themes. I think that’s part of the reason we remain dependent on adults for so long. It’s like the universe is hoping that by making kids physically dependent for such a long period, they will have an opportunity to develop emotionally during the same time.

Unfortunately, in the absence of other information, my brain chose to store my narrative of that day as a message that I wasn’t important enough to care about. My child brain just couldn’t come up with a more plausible reason why my dad would storm past me, waiting for him.

For those of you that have now started to obsess and worry about your childs’ experiences and any traumatic events I’m pleased to tell you that for most people one traumatic or negligent moment will not give them low self esteem. Unfortunately for me, this was only one such event that would happen in my childhood to support this narrative.  I was a shy kid, I struggled to make friends, I had the unfortunate experience of many of them moving away for a variety of reasons in those formative and tough years.  My parents both commuted, holding long work hours and I spent a lot of time alone or with babysitters who ensured my safety but didn’t do much to interact with me. Admitedly, the downside of being in a small town as a kid was that I was isolated. I didn’t have a great variety of experiences outside of what was happening in the household.

I understand now how important those childhood experiences are. In my adulthood, I still struggle with the idea that I am worthy, worthwhile and enough.  I still worry that people will suddenly abandon me, figure out that I’m a worthless fraud, and my mind often wanders to the catastrophic. Slowly, as I unpack my past, and am patient and compassionate with those experiences, I’m able to start re-writing those narratives.

Regardless of what happens next in my life, I am monumentally grateful for the opportunity to believe that I am more than I thought. I understand this is not a gift that everyone gets and for the first time in my life I’m able to look back without regret. If I hadn’t been pushed to the point where I had nothing else to lose, I never would have started the work to be better.

Should you find yourself in that place of dispair and worthlessness, I see you.

Everything is temporary.

“Normals” and me.

red neon signage
Photo by Daria Shevtsova on Pexels.com

Recently I had a long conversation with a friend also in recovery.  The conversation was about the challenges and benefits of being in relationships with people not in recovery.

We affectionately refer to people who do not have similar challenges of trauma and recovery as “normals”. I understand that this terminology may seem self-loathing or judgmental to others, but that is not the intent. We’ve both reached a point where it is possible to joke about our challenges and not take ourselves and others so seriously. In our context “normal” is a convenient descriptor for those in our lives who find some of our challenges difficult to understand or relate to for the simple reason that they do not have those shared experiences.

I see having more people like this in my life than ever before a good marker for my own mental health. I believe there is truth to the fact that you are more likely to attract people to you who match your frequency (for lack of a better word). I see it as encouraging that I am interacting with more “healthy” people, hoping that it also suggests my mental health is improving.

However, there are also challenges in these relationships. I know I’m not alone in that change is an ongoing process and that self-improvement takes daily effort and attention. There are times that I revert back to my old behaviours, thought processes, and difficult belief systems. In those moments, the differences between myself and the “normals” are underlined. There are times that I need space and time to override my instincts and approach my interactions thoughtfully and compassionately.

It is painfully difficult to explain this process and the “why” it came to be with people who haven’t had this challenge or experience. I’ve noticed that although many of these newer connections care deeply for my wellbeing, constantly explaining my status to them also drives them away. It seems to present me as this deeply sensitive being and makes them wary of interacting with me. It makes them self-conscious of their interactions and suggests I need more special treatment than I do.  Often the only special treatment I need is a few moments of compassionate time and space.

I realize that mentally healthy people do not need to constantly bring up their past as a justification for their present actions.  They exist and they appreciate the moments as they come with confidence, humility, and presence.

Among other things to come from this open discussion was our attempt to approach explaining what recovery from codependency is like to someone with no relatable experience.  It came out something like this:

“A long time ago, before I was able to defend myself, a person I cared about very much told me lies about myself. I believed them and, until recently, built my life based on those misconceptions of myself and what I thought I deserved. I chose people, places, and things that enforced those ideas and rejected anything that suggested it may not be true. Some day I would like to be like the happy looking people in the coffee commercials, but currently I’m more like the mucous in the Mucinex commercials”

Good thing most colds are curable.