Fight, Flight, or…

You may stumble across references to the “fight or flight response”. This is the common name for a theory first introduced by the American physiologist Walter Bradford Cannon who took advantage of the lax animal rights laws of his time to develop several famous theories that scientists still use as the basis for our understanding of the sympathetic nervous system (or crap your body does without you asking).

His theory describes a series of chemical reactions that happen in the body in response to stress; specifically an event which threatens survival. Some of these changes, include: increased blood flow to muscles, increased blood pressure, blood clotting speeding up, and muscle tension increasing. Cognitively, the animal has an increased perception of control (this is not actual control, just the belief that they have it) and distortion of their social processing which leads to two basic emotional states: anxiety or aggression. As the name suggests, these changes occur as the body and mind prepare to fight an attacker or turn tail and run.

Speaking from an evolutionary standpoint, it is believed that this response was designed to help the animal respond to acute stress. For example, running the heck away from a hungry lion which presumably will be an intense but short ordeal. This response was not designed to be a steady or constant state and perhaps given the description I’ve provided it’s easy to see how spending a long period of time in an environment which promotes constant stress could impact physical and emotional health.

When I first started researching this theory I thought about dog fighting. In order to prepare a dog for the ring, handlers do not allow them to live normal lives. They chain them in place, often near but out of reach of other dogs. They are forced to exercise, are beaten, starved, traumatized and antagonized. They train them to tear apart bait animals, taunt them with objects to encourage them to bite and yank, and deprive them of affection and healthy socialization. With no trust and affection dogs will either become aggressive to the point that they fight or they are deemed unfit and often neglected or killed. A wall and a hard place.

It’s a totally barbaric and I’m glad an outlawed “sport” in many areas, but it shows us that in the absence of love, support, and socialization and with the addition of trauma and stress the dog develops chronic aggression or anxiety; stuck in fight or flight, 24/7.

I have a rescue mutt. She is of uncertain origin, adopted as an adult. I know very little about her except that she was captured running wild in the backwoods of Ohio. When  she came home with us, it was clear she’d been through some things. When we would walk her through the neighbourhood she would lunge at other dogs snarling and barking. She was also skiddish if anything or anyone was behind her and would attempt to run away.

Nothing we tried stopped her from being a Tasmanian devil of snarling fury or a panicked rabbit darting away from a loud noise.

It was clear that on the leash she felt trapped and threatened, any dog that approached was out to get her. As a last ditch effort, I decided to take her to an off-leash dog park. My local park is not fenced and runs along a highway. It is also popular and almost always packed with dogs. It was sink or swim; I had visions of her running onto the road or getting into a bloody fight with another dog.

Neither of those things happened.

She didn’t revert to fight or flight. She acted like a dog: sniffed butts, played chase and didn’t run off. I trusted her and I guess she decided to trust me back.

Such a small thing, but so significant. Truthfully, she is still not perfect on a leash, she pulls and yanks me around although she is no longer aggressive. She is also still prone to flight if someone she doesn’t trust is behind her.  But, to me, she represents hope of change; that although she is fundamentally altered by her experiences it is possible to evolve beyond basic instinct.

So, what does this have to do with codependency and recovery?

Anxiety and aggression are both responses to fear. Many people with codependent traits grew up in dysfunctional families, some with addiction, abuse or neglect. Living in a constant state of fight or flight has conditioned us to fear (among other things) rejection, criticism, conflict, failure, vulnerability, and lack of control. We live in readiness, anxiety, and/or aggression because that’s our “normal”. We subconsciously expect the attacks and abuse to continue and maybe even believe we deserve it.

Anxiety leads to overthinking and drawing away from reality. It can cause us to get caught in those “what ifs”, which causes us to magnify and distort what is actually happening in our lives. And because we are used to bad things happening we probably don’t even realize we are stuck and out of touch. We have learned not to value our feelings and repress them which also helps to increase our anxiety, sticking us more firmly in the loop of fight or flight.

But, like my dog, we can learn to override our basic programming. We don’t have to keep doing those things that we had to do to survive. We can change. It is important to remember that as hopeless and stuck as we feel, there are choices beyond kill and cower. We can choose another path by working a program that helps us relax, restores our confidence, and teaches us to trust and let it go.

Simple, not easy, but priceless and worth the effort.

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