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.

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.

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

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?

* * *

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.

#BellLetsTalk: Stigma

A break from our regularly scheduled programming to have a very important discussion.

Today, January 30th, is Bell Let’s Talk Day and I love this initiative.  Since this campaign started in 2010, over $100 Million has been donated to mental health organizations. Getting involved and helping to generate funding is as easy as watching the company’s Let’s Talk Day video and continuing the conversation using social media. The company generously contributes 5 cents for every qualifying action.

Mental illness is more common than we think. The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) estimates that in any given year 1 in 5 people in Canada will experience a mental health problem or illness, and that by age forty 50% of the population will have had a mental illness. Suicide is one of the leading killers of people under 40 accounting for 24% of all deaths among 15-24 year olds, and 16% among 25-44 year olds, it is also 4 times more likely in men than women. The economic cost of mental illnesses in Canada for the health care system was estimated to be at least $7.9 billion in 1998 – $4.7 billion in care, and $3.2 billion in disability and early death with an additional $6.3 billion spent on uninsured mental health services and time off work for depression and distress that was not treated by the health care system (https://cmha.ca/about-cmha/fast-facts-about-mental-illness). Simply put, the cost of mental illness is huge by any measure.

When it comes to addiction, the red flag behaviours are engaged in by many people. Some argue that addiction is part of the human condition and this is certainly supported by the examples we see in people of all backgrounds and socio-economic standing. Addiction doesn’t care if you are rich, educated, have great bone structure, or you are a really amazing accordion player.

Be honest and think of all the times in your life you (or someone you love) have tried to cope with feelings through substance use, sex, food, relationships, exercise, or even aggressive cleaning; that is compulsive behaviour, the backbone of addiction. While many are fortunate that they don’t graduate to full addiction (whatever their “drug” of choice), it is important to underline that we are all cut from similar cloth and the line between problem behavior and addiction is paper-thin. Use this knowledge to remain compassionate, both to yourself and others.

The content of this blog represents only a handful of the mental illness challenges that people face. It’s ok to not be ok.  It’s ok to seek out help and be kind to people who are fighting their own ghosts.

I can speak from experience on the harming effects of stigma. Negative reactions to differences and other people’s challenges are ingrained in our society. We are all too quick to dismiss, blame, and judge.  This can make a person feel ashamed and unwanted; it can cause them to hide their problems and not seek help.  Once in treatment it can delay progress, it can affect them while they are healing and long into their recovery.

Bell’s campaign suggests the following actions to help reduce stigma:

  • Treat everyone with respect
  • Be warm, engaging and non-judgmental
  • Challenge stigma when you see it
  • Watch your language
  • Learn the facts about mental health and illness
  • Help raise awareness about mental health

While we need to understand that we can’t and shouldn’t force people to do anything they aren’t willing to take on, eliminating stigma is a great step in empowering them to seek help.

To learn more, visit: https://letstalk.bell.ca/.

 

Don’t Look Back in Anger

I have a natural inclination to flagellate myself with what I perceive are my failures. I dwell on things far too long, carry them around with me like overstuffed luggage, and obsess about them long after the point where it is constructive.

I’m not sure exactly where this comes from but I process things intensely.  This is probably what makes me excellent at jobs that require attention to detail and drives my perfectionism. It also makes me vulnerable to the narcissistic tendencies of people. I’m all too willing to look at things from another person’s perspective and take ownership for their actions, even when it doesn’t make sense for the blame to rest with me.

I remember an occasion fairly soon after we moved in together where I stumbled across my ex’s credit card statement. The card was maxed and he hadn’t made a payment the previous month. This was a surprise to me because at the time he was contributing to our bills and I didn’t realize that this was at the cost of paying his own. I didn’t know that as a result of his illness he was unable to multitask and he was in a constant state of trying to juggle his commitments while only ever getting one ball in the air at a time.

When I confronted him about the statement and implications thereof, he accused me of invading his privacy and being controlling. I’m not proud to admit that I folded like a house of cards. I accepted that I was a bad partner and that he had a reason for hiding things from me: he was justified and I sucked.

For the record, I was controlling. Not at first. I never thought I would be the kind of person who would try to change someone else (and also for the record I am not interested in ever repeating that experiment), but my controlling seemed to intensify over time as I invested in our relationship and there continued to be crises that he seemed incapable of handling. Among other things, I desperately tried to take over his finances. I told myself that it was for us, his credit needed to improve. We needed to be in better financial standing in order to buy a house, start a family, travel, and hopefully someday retire. Now I recognize these were things I wanted, not things we wanted and I didn’t stop to really examine why it might be that he couldn’t handle basic problems.

Truthfully, I acted in fear. I know I was desperately clinging to the idea that we had a future and it looked something like what I thought everyone else around me had. I treated him like a child and tried to manipulate him into being the person I thought he could be.  It didn’t matter how good I thought my intentions were, it was wrong.

I felt a lot of shame.  Shame that I couldn’t make our relationship work. Shame about how I acted. Shame that I was somehow not good enough for him. Shame about the things I was hiding from my friends and family. Shame that all my efforts did nothing but make both of our lives worse… Shame is debilitating.  It holds you in the past and prevents you from moving forward.  It keeps you afraid and hiding.  Shame keeps you from being vulnerable in a good way, a way that allows you to build healthy connections.

For most of my life I have been consumed by shame. I have memories from childhood where I thought I was a disappointment to people I loved and to myself. It didn’t matter what I achieved, I focused on the negatives.  Shame made me a prisoner and a victim. Today, as much as I don’t love aspects of my past, I understand that if I hadn’t made the choices that I did, lived through those tragedies, made those mistakes, I wouldn’t be me. And that would be tragic too.

It is important to realize that there has never been a single other person like you. You are amazingly unique and you see the world in a way that no one has been able to before. You are loved. You are special. And you wouldn’t be half of those things without your messy past and collection of scars.  Don’t be ashamed, be proud. You survived and you are better for it. You have the gift of being able to choose how you frame your memories and your perspective of the world around you.

The past isn’t something to regret.  It is something to be revered.  It makes us interesting. It builds us up and forces growth if we are open to accept the lessons it presents us.

There are days when I am impatient for the things in my life that I know are coming. Those good things that I’m working to be ready to receive. I know that receiving opportunities in the present or in the future means accepting the past and not letting it dictate actions and reactions. Just because I made those mistakes doesn’t mean that will always be the case. The past does not need to be an excuse to limit the future and the range of choices available.

Try to cut yourself some slack! Don’t compare yourself to others or let their criticism get to you; I guarantee what they are showing you is not the whole story of their life and (even if it is) it does not mean that you are superior or inferior to them in any meaningful way. Like it or not, we’re all stuck on this rock hurtling through space together and most of us are totally making it up as we go. Understand that failure is not the opposite of success, they are part of the same process. If you are taking chances and trying to lead a full life you will encounter both and neither should be discounted as they both have valuable things to offer.

While you may not be a fan of Noel Gallagher or Oasis, the lyrics of the song of the same title of this blog (no coincidence) seem to resonate here. It may not have been his intent, but I choose to take from Noel a message of empowerment.

Although no longer the object of his affection, I am Sally who is finally recognizing that I need to get out of my head, loosen up, and let it go.

At least today.