Cookie Monster

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In today’s hipster world, you’d call me a foodie. I plan my day around what I’m going to eat. I enthusiastically seek out new ingredients, inspiration, and rarely take shortcuts with pre-packaged products. My boyfriend jokes that every day in our house is like eating in a restaurant. I cook mostly by feel, and by what’s available. I use recipes only as a starting point, substituting based on what I have or what’s in season, and I rarely measure the components. As you can imagine, this makes it hard to replicate my successes, and we rarely eat exactly the same dish twice.

It’s my creative outlet. I see food as an art form; however, unlike most art one of the things that I find most satisfying is its impermanence. It exists in small servings, for a person to enjoy and then it’s gone. And if we’re talking about my kind of cooking, it may never be the same way again.

When I was a child, I used to tell my parents I needed a cookie, often when I felt upset. I saw food as a mechanism to comfort myself, showing early signs that my ability to soothe and cope depended on my environment and didn’t come from within.

One of the things my family did consistently was eat well. I remember a real emphasis on dinners together into my adolescence. We would wait for everyone to get home and sit down together to excellent food as a family. I think in a way I saw that as a constant in an otherwise unpredictable environment.

The downside of family dinners was that the addict in my household did their best drinking in the evening. I remember hearing the first beer pop when I got home from school as they started preparing our meal. By the time the whole family was home hours later, they were often well into their nightly drinking and my anxiety would build as we sat down together. I remember watching everyone closely, trying to mitigate and control the conversation so that the meal wouldn’t end in someone storming off and/or saying something hurtful.

Sometimes dinner was pleasant and there was no fighting, other times our drinker seemed to be looking for any reason to fight and storm off, to retreat to the basement and be alone. I remember fights based on things as small as the amount of gratitude we articulated for the meal. As I got into my mid-teens, my relationship with this person deteriorated. I know that I egged on a lot of fights – I tried to anticipate their mood swings and disagreed with them on purpose… I think trying to take the brunt of their rage. I won’t saint myself and say it was totally for the greater good, I think over time I accepted this as my role and I got some perverse satisfaction out of trying to incite their anger. In my mind, if it was going to happen either way, it might as well happen because I chose it.

Around that time, I also started taking a more active role in food preparation for the family. In my ignorance about addiction, I felt that if I removed that stress from my addicts life, and they could just enjoy the food there would be less conflict. There wasn’t less conflict, it just changed. Instead of fighting about how we didn’t appreciate their effort, they smashed around, angry at me for leaving too much mess in the kitchen or wasting ingredients.

Despite this animosity, I did find enjoyment in the process of food preparation. It was something that I could control – with effort, attention, and focus I could prepare a nice meal. Even if I couldn’t control how it was received.

It’s interesting thinking back on my history with food knowing what I know now about addiction. I understand the addict in my life was living with their own demons and was not able to be invested in my experience in the way I deserved. The number one in their life was always alcohol, everything else was secondary. It was a higher priority to be justified in drinking than it was to have a nice family dinner.

Even with this knowledge, I am aware of the residue this has left on my subconscious. I assign more value to quality of food than most people I know, I think because for a long time it was a reliable and accessible comfort mechanism. The way I prepare food has also been altered. I can’t help but clean as I go, leaving less dishes and inconvenience for anyone that cleans up after me; I also feel profound shame if I have to throw out food.. still on some level anticipating a conflict that doesn’t come.

But we do eat some pretty epic meals.

Easy Does It

Almost three years into active recovery, I will admit there are still some parts of this process that I find highly frustrating and confusing.

First and foremost, how to be appropriately vulnerable. I grew up in a household where even the smallest of grievances warranted big emotional reactions. Failure to clean the kitchen properly, not showing excessive gratitude for small gestures, or not abiding the smallest rules were all excuses for us to express our unhealthiest and most dramatic coping mechanisms.

I learned to overexplain myself because I hardly ever felt heard. I learned to be hypervigilant and controlling because my environment wasn’t reasonable or predictable. I learned to fear the unknown, because the known wasn’t a “safe” space. I learned to hide and doubt myself and my feelings, because they were often criticized. I learned to be attracted to and vulnerable with people who were often not worthy or safe for the simple reason that their unsafe characteristics were familiar to me. I learned to be angry, because that was a common behaviour in my household.

Vulnerability is a very confusing and scary concept for a person like me. In recovery, I also understand that not learning safe and appropriate vulnerability perpetuates a lot of that aforementioned list of unhealthy coping mechanisms. But I also understand that doing it unsafely through oversharing, sharing too quickly, sharing to much, or sharing too little all have negative consequences too.

So how do you balance vulnerability? I’m still fumbling through this idea.

The second biggest hurdle for me is learning how to appropriately help people I care about. For most of my life I’ve watched people around me try to save and bail out people from the consequences of their actions. In other words, I’ve watched people model enabling.

I understand now that standing in the way of people feeling the consequences of their actions is disrespectful, demeaning, and unhelpful. It is treating someone like a child and robbing them of the ability to learn from their mistakes and develop confidence in their ability to turn their situation around.

In my household, enabling was often combined with a lecture, disappointment, disapproval and a healthy serving of shame. Not only did I watch people get saved from learning valuable life lessons produced from consequences, I watched them get bullied into feeling incapable of handling the next hurdle in front of them.

In most family groups related to addiction they will introduce the concept of “staying in your lane”. Essentially, this is an attempt to lay the foundation of encouraging people to mind their own business, allow people to choose their own path, and *most importantly* put more focus on their own steps and less obsession on others.

So how do you help someone who is asking you for advice without bullying them and still remaining in your lane? Still working on that too.

One day at a time.

Chasing Rock Bottom

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When we separated, I spent the first months obsessed with the idea of rock bottom. I read everything about addiction I could get my hands on, I scoured the internet for local resources and treatment facilities, I even helped orchestrate an intervention I had no intention of attending.

In the last throws of my heartbreak, my outrage and hurt at not being important enough to stop drinking, to stop hurting himself, I took desperate, loud, and dramatic action. I forced him out of our home, outed him to his family and friends, and robbed him of every last bit of dignity I could grab, and still somehow thought I could force him to get better.

Of course I told myself I had good intentions. I thought that he would die without me, that after so many years of me trying to control his drinking and saving him from all the consequences of his actions he would lie down in a gutter and surrender, or take out innocent bystanders while carelessly drunk driving. I was afraid and lost without him to obsess about. I was full of guilt at initiating our breakup and shame that the loss of our life together had not caused him to change his course.

I suggested to his mother that she organize an intervention. I sent her articles touting the success rates of well-prepared interventions. I even suggested an intervention consultant I found on the internet. I suggested the people I thought would have the biggest impact, I revealed what I thought were his biggest soft spots, and I didn’t sleep for days composing what I thought would be the most heartbreaking appeal I could muster… to be read by someone else.

I planned. I researched. I schemed. I continued to manipulate people in an effort to “save” him. Right up until the day of the intervention… then I waited.

And waited.

And nothing changed.

He told his parents that he would not be attending the treatment facility they offered to fund, that he would lead his own recovery. Then he signed a lease on a house he couldn’t afford, and started to systematically cut out the support system that had tried to intervene.

For the first time, I accepted defeat.

Although I was lost in a heavy fog at that time, it quickly lifted in the months after the failed intervention. The shame and the guilt resurfaced and I realized that I needed to stop trying to save others when I was drowning myself.

I found a therapist. I tried Al-Anon. I started this blog. I asked for help. And I realized that in trying to force another person into rock bottom, I found my own.

And unbelievably, I’m grateful for every ounce of embarrassment, pain, and continued effort to dig myself out of that hole.

There is another side and it’s fucking great.

The Worst Part

young troubled woman using laptop at home
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I’ve read a few articles on the ongoing psychological impact of social isolation resulting from COVID. While the long term and actual effects of the unprecedented civil order to maintain distance from strangers and loved ones outside the household are still under investigation, I personally don’t know a single person who isn’t impacted and off balance.

Recently, like some kind of competition that no one wins, my connections have started speculating more and more on the “worst part” of COVID-life.  These reasons stem from the mundane and shallow to the seriously sad.  What I will say, before sharing my own “worst thing”, is that whatever challenges you are facing are valid and real. I understand the daily struggle that comes from being committed to doing the right thing, even if it is painful. And – regardless of your level of comfort with the idea of catching and surviving this disease, most of us understand the big picture of why we are taking this measure… we don’t want to hurt others.

My partner and I live in a century home in a small town in Southern Ontario which we moved into weeks before the world shut down.  Like most old houses, there have been challenges with foundation deterioration and one of our first actions on moving in was locating a contractor who could help reinforce the 100-year old joists in the basement. Unfortunately, due to this settling, the ceiling in a few of the older untouched rooms have sagged and adjusted with the home. Busy with other more critical tasks, we’ve been putting off addressing this damage.

Yesterday, we were sitting inside.  It was raining, a National holiday, and we’d exhausted all the low-hanging Netflix fruit (#fuckcarolebaskin).  Our couch time has increased steadily over the last few months as we’ve tackled all the house projects we can complete without assistance, are unable to easily acquire materials, and struggle with the tumultuous Canadian spring weather.

Mid-afternoon, after a few quiet hours of mucking around on the Internet, he turned to me and asked if I would like to demolish the ceiling in one of these rooms. I agreed and he quickly started collecting crow bars, masks, garbage bags, and other materials to complete the task.

For the first time in days we laughed easily, conversation flowed, and we enjoyed each other with a lot less effort than we have since the stress of pandemic entered our lives. It occurred to me that the worst part of this situation for our relationship is not the lack of services, restaurants, the financial strain, or the anti-aphrodisiac effect of wearing the same track pants for weeks on end.  It is the lack of spontaneity. Without personal choice and options, it is like the volume is turned way down and a grey fog has settled. Every day is almost exactly the same and while that same is much better than it has been in the past, without the ups, downs, and outside influence, it lacks perspective. I have trouble appreciating how amazing my life is compared to how it was when this blog started.

With that in mind, I remind myself to be grateful, humble, and compassionate. I remind myself to widen my tunnel vision, challenge my narrow perception, and acknowledge how far I’ve come.

I also want to ask you for inspiration; what is the worst part for you and how are you coping?