Detachment, Dissociation, and other “D” words

I always thought of detachment as a negative, it implied an inability to connect or a barrier to relationships. In my world, pre-boundaries, when you loved someone you blended together. Their problems were mine, and my problems… well, that’s the funny thing, my problems just kind of got shoved in a corner and forgotten about.

I was F-I-N-E.

Well, outwardly I guess I was fine.

My mask was good, I convinced the people closest to me that I didn’t need their emotional support or help. Hell, I wore it so long I even fooled myself. I thought I was bulletproof and, I kid you not, even joked that I must be a cyborg. People described me as strong, independent, high-functioning, intelligent and together. Nothing would crack me and I’d rather kill myself trying than ask for help. Challenges in my path were minor bumps unless someone else was reacting to them. That’s how I lived, desperate for connection but with no idea how to go about it without sacrificing myself. I wore my strong mask and pushed clumsily forward.

I’ve discovered that those things we bury don’t ever really go away, they just fester below the surface. All those needs I told myself weren’t important and those things I put off doing for myself just reinforced my low self-esteem. Over time it impacted my relationship with myself, with others, and how I cope with life in general.

I believe the correct psychological terminology is “dissociation from the self”. Thankfully a mild case in the spectrum of this condition, a coping mechanism in which I could avoid my painful inner dialog of self-doubt and worthlessness.

In hindsight, it’s no shock that I ended up in the relationships I did. People with codependent traits are subconsciously looking for validation, someone to sacrifice themselves for to give us a sense of value.  We are also often disconnected (or “dissociated”) from their own needs and feelings. We are primed and ready for dysfunctional connections.

“Is someone else’s problem your problem? If, like so many others, you’ve lost sight of your own life in the drama of tending to someone else’s, you may be codependent.” – Melody Beattie

There are those that would argue that this is passion. Throwing ourselves into what is important, sacrificing, putting ourselves at risk for what matters most. Maybe it is, but the impractical side of unhealthy passion is that eventually even the strongest fold; there is a point of burnout, because what we are trying to do is control someone that has their own entitlement and free will to make choices. Not consciously, not maliciously, but trying to influence their path and it isn’t ours to control.

Ultimately my sense of self was tied to an outcome I couldn’t possibly force and if you have any experience with addiction you know there are a lot of days that are total uncontrollable fails.

The real cosmic joke of the addict-codependent dynamic is that in trying to save the addict, the codependent actually contributes to the evolution of their disease. The addict is looking for validation too; and by saving them from the consequences of their actions, the codependent unwittingly sends the message that their behaviour is acceptable as they remove the addict’s incentive to examine their choices and consider another path. They are justified, or at least excused, to continue using.

Consider a classic example of enabling: the addict blasts through their paycheck and can’t afford rent. Enter the codependent, desperate to save their loved one from the loss of their apartment, to give them the money they are missing. As counterintuitive as it seems (to a codependent anyway), the right action here is also the one that on the surface is allowing the addict to fail, letting them figure out the solution to the money problem themselves and hopefully *eventually* realizing that their life would be easier without their addiction. It also allows the loved one to maintain some quality in their own life rather than surviving in the centre of a tornado of chaos.

I am not suggesting that passion is always a bad thing. There is an element of risk and sacrifice to anything worth having in life but the difference between healthy and unhealthy passion is detachment. It is accepting that sometimes you need to let go of the things that matter to you to in order to get to the best place. It is understanding that unhealthy attachment is living in fear that what you want will not come and that this fear creates a trap where un-fulfillment is accepted because the alternative is the loss of the person’s misplaced sense of self.

This can be especially confusing in relationships where “love” is incorrectly labeled as holding on to someone and caring for them in all ways possible. We know that detachment is necessary in relationships; it is what stops us from taking everything personally because ultimately you can’t control everything your loved one does. It is understanding that love is about acceptance, not control. It is about both people having enough room to grow, hopefully together.

Need more reasons why detachment is a good thing? It is required not to over-generalize our experiences and carry them around with us like overstuffed emotional baggage. It allows us to learn from those experiences and leave them behind. It is important because it allows us to take a step back from ourselves so we don’t confuse our thoughts and feelings and act impulsively; it allows us not to disassociate but to understand that sometimes thoughts are just that, they are not absolute truths.

Gratitude

Some days just suck.

I burn the toast. The dog saves all her farts for the long winter car ride. Flat tires, computer issues, dropped my phone in the toilet, milks gone bad, who ate the last cookie?!?

The universe appears to give me an enthusiastic middle finger as I wallow in a sea of small annoyances and disappointments. Or if I’m especially unlucky, large seemingly insurmountable problems surface to drown me in suck.

As cheesy as it sounds, on those days I’m starting to put more energy into exploring gratitude; expressing appreciation for what I have, not what I want or think I need. I work at eliminating phrases like “I’ll be ok if…”, “I’ll feel better when…” because more often than not, these “if’s” and “when’s” involve events beyond my control.

The last few weeks have been especially trying. I’m working on answering a question involving a large life change which has no clear answer. Both the “yes” and the “no” have very heavy and very different pros and cons. I am confident that either way I will be able to forge ahead and neither outcome will be fatal, but I’ve never been that great at uncertainty.

Gratitude starts with an acknowledgement that life is good and rewarding. I remind myself that I live in one of the safest and most affluent countries in the world. That I have great friends and family. That I have a job, free time, a lovely canine companion. I have enough to eat and opportunities that a lot of the rest of the world does not. And – well, I’m alive, so there’s still time to change the things I’m not crazy about. That’s pretty rad.

I try to mix it up. I journal about gratitude. I speak it aloud to myself in the car. I’m social about it: I tell good friends about what I’m thankful for; especially if that is thanking them for their support.

When I take these moments, I find that it does work. I generally have less lows, I sleep better, I find it easier to practice compassion and kindness, and I feel healthier. I’m also able to rationally approach my problems and have constructive conversations about them where I am not defensive.

For the last week, as I’ve been wrestling with that life question, I have been kicking gratitude up a notch with some trust. I wake up with the exclamation that “everything I need will be provided today” and I repeat this to myself at intervals when doubt starts to creep in. I’ve even set myself a reminder that displays that message to me in the afternoon as a reality check.

Although I still don’t have an answer to my question I am confident that it will be revealed to me in the fullness of time. Until then, I know that I will get what I need, even if it doesn’t look like what I want or what I think I need.

Try not to worry, time cures all and is one of the few things in life that is totally reliable.

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.

Rock Bottom

Everything hit the fan and I was a mess. When I ended our relationship I didn’t expect him to go so easily. I honestly thought that if I gave him a shove he would wake up and fight to keep our life together, such as it was. My denial and ignorance was that deep. Although it kills me to admit it, I thought that the situation would unfold like a movie: he would quit drinking, things would be “normal”, happily ever after… and maybe a white horse would show up!

I spent the first month of our no-contact separation obsessing about what he might be doing, conspiring with others to stage an intervention, and holding on tightly to the idea that he would come to his senses and realize what he was missing.

There was an intervention and it made no impact. Although I was not present at the event from what I am told about his reactions and behaviour it is likely that he showed up drunk and it was doomed before it started. No one involved knew what they were doing but we were beautifully united in the shared belief that we would save him. We had good intentions but that’s about it.

It was a nice dream.

The sad reality of these things is that it’s really hard to change. Even when you don’t have a substance use problem it’s really hard. In most cases the behaviour we see is just a symptom of some underlying problem: “I use drugs to self-medicate my feelings of anxiety” or “I’m caretaking the alcoholic because I feel I don’t deserve any better”. Often what drives us to do these things is ugly and shameful so whether we are conscious of the reason or not it’s hard to imagine acknowledging and dealing with it. Add a substance into the mix and awareness becomes exponentially harder. It’s no longer a choice to stop, it’s what we need to do to survive the soundtrack in our heads.

Plus: most of us are stubborn, entitled, and we don’t really feel that we should be inconvenienced by the effort and discomfort of changing ourselves. We would rather argue and push the environment to change to suit us. This is a losing battle: the environment will always try and revert back to what it was before we started imposing ourselves on it. The mountain did not come to Muhammad, he had to drag his butt there.

I believe this is where the concept of “rock bottom” comes from. It’s an emotional state where the person believes that they have nothing else to lose and no other choice but to change. Maybe we need to reach this point because wherever we are is so familiar (even if it’s crappy) and that’s more comfortable than a courageous leap into the unknown. We must know on some level that it’s not enough to stop whatever we are doing to numb ourselves, we need to be ready to deal with the oozing wound underneath. Rock bottom looks different on everyone and it’s not uncommon to have to go all the way there in order to consider a different course of action. Sadly, not everyone is lucky enough to find their rock bottom.

I’d love to tell you that acceptance came quickly after the failed intervention but it did not. I continued to feel furious, abandoned, rejected and victimized. I obsessed and schemed new ideas to get him to treatment.

Until I got sick.

I literally made myself ill with stress. My back went into spasm and I was ordered to take a week off work to do nothing. Literally nothing. No position was comfortable: I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t lie down, I couldn’t walk any distance. Laughing hurt. Crying hurt. Everything hurt. Because of an existing medical condition I was limited in the medications I could take to treat it. With a heating pad I could sit stiffly with discomfort, so I sat. In full awareness and pain, I sat.

I eventually asked myself: “if you aren’t willing to look at yourself and change, how do you think you are going to get anywhere? Girl, why do you think you can drag someone else’s limp body there too?!”

Truthfully it had dawned on me a few times before this that there was something wrong with me too but I quickly buried that in the backyard where I thought it belonged. I chose to take the survival strategy that had “worked” for me my whole life and focused on other people instead of looking at my own issues. But now, with nothing else to do, I realized that I was going to kill myself if I didn’t smarten up.

This was my rock bottom moment and probably one of the greatest gifts the universe has ever given me. It slapped me right in my stubborn back.

I realized I’d been living at the bottom of a well. From there I could see sunlight, bright blue sky, fluffy little clouds, and it looked to me like a Bob Ross painting. I wanted to be there among the happy trees, frolicking in the meadow… But, after all those years at the bottom I was atrophied. That week I finally realized that just surviving at the bottom of a well is not living. In total defeat and with no more excuses I started inching my way up.

Now, let me preface the next part by saying I am not qualified to give advice or make recommendations on what may be right for you, but: it is no accident or coincidence that there are similarities in the steps of most recovery groups regardless of what led you to one. Although I admit that I am not a member of one of those groups I do think there is value in 12 Step Programs and is one option that has saved countless people.

For families of addicts, the first step is always some adaptation of:

We admitted that we were powerless over others and that our lives had become unmanageable.

This idea is liberating to me. It gives me the freedom of letting go of my self-imposed responsibilities to others and to accept the impossibility of those tasks. It reminds me that all I really have control over is myself and it allows me to climb out of the well. It lets me off the hook and allows me to take care of me.

As a lifelong fighter, survivor, and self-proclaimed stubborn pain in the butt I can vouch for the relief and new beginnings that can be found in surrender to a lack of control over anything but myself. If you’ve tried everything else, what do you really have to lose?

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A little bonus soundtrack suggestion for this entry. Zevon was very ill in 2000 when he wrote this song. In 2002, he discovered he had terminal lung disease and died the following year. I think Zevon did a good job at putting us all on the same playing field and reminds us that we all have blind spots.

Plus he really nailed the camel’s back here:

“Let me break it to you, son”
He said, “The s**t that used to work-
It won’t work now.”

In case it is not clear, please note the lyrics are [explicit] and it is suggested you skip this if you are sensitive to this language.