Addiction, Recovery, and the Family

Think of your family as a circus troupe with its own mini structure. There is division of labour, responsibilities, and roles that are assigned to each member which determine the success of the overall machine. Like that travelling show, the ease of functioning, success, and longevity of the production depends on a number of factors, including: each member’s expectations, how they all communicate, how conflict is managed, and how all the members interact with the outside world.

Spending extended time on the road, performing and interacting with the public together will shape the personality and behaviour of each member. And likewise, any change in part of the troupe will affect the rest of the show. For example, if the ringmaster is very rigid and controlling, the rest of the members will respond by becoming less responsible to avoid conflict.

Now, consider the ringmaster has an active struggle with addiction. He starts to behave irresponsibly; breaks the promise he made to the acrobats to repair the trapeze because he used that money to support his habit, disappears for periods of time without telling the circus manager when he can anticipate his return, and tells the clowns they are fat and worthless. The whole troupe is affected by his choices and need to adjust themselves accordingly. Because of the nature of addiction, these changes usually happen slowly while the system makes small unconscious adjustments that add up over a long period of time.

Unfortunately, the effects of the addiction likely do not stop there. Overworked and stressed at not having a front man for the night’s performance, the circus manager takes out his anger on his wife and kids who in turn take out their feelings on others. The clowns, suffering from low self-esteem slowly develop their own chemical dependency issues. Lastly, one of the acrobats develops stress-induced insomnia and eventually injures himself on the job. I’ve seen addiction compared more than once to dropping a pebble in a still pond, perhaps you can see why?

Theories on the interaction of social experiences with the psyche form the foundation of psychology as we know it today. Although psychologists are still arguing about the exact way these experiences influence us it is clear that the family system has a profound impact on the subconscious (or the part of the mind which is just out of awareness but drives a person’s actions and feelings).

Living with addiction is living with chaos. It is nonsensical, ruthless, and unpredictable.  It is not unusual for people who live with another person’s addiction to develop their own mental, physical or emotional chronic and long-term health problems. I’m no exception – for most of my life I’ve struggled with a cocktail of painful emotions, not limited to: guilt, shame, anger, depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and fear. I’ve also suffered from several chronic health issues with no clear origin. Connecting with others impacted by family addiction has shown me that I come by this honestly; it is startling how many similar stories and challenges I’ve heard.

It has shown me that anyone from any socio-economic, cultural, or spiritual background can be impacted by addiction or by someone else’s addiction.

Like many people who have lived with addiction I didn’t understand why I would need to work on myself. After all, they have the problem, amiright?! I focused on fixing my loved ones because I thought that if they got over it my life would be f-i-n-e.

Sound familiar?

The truth about addiction is this: you didn’t cause their addiction, you can’t control it, but you can unknowingly contribute to it and further suffering. We do this mostly by not having appropriate boundaries and knowledge. The most common example of this is “enabling” which is defined as doing anything for the addict they could be doing for themselves if they were sober. The reason this is bad is that it could prolong the addiction by protecting the addict from the consequences of their actions and thus their incentive to consider a different path. Enabling also inadvertently sends the message that whatever behaviour it is acting on is acceptable. In our circus example, enabling would be making excuses for the ringmaster’s poor behaviour versus a healthy behaviour like supporting him in his recovery effort by helping him look up local support group meetings.

Recovery for the family of an addict is focusing on awareness and emphasizing the things you can control: your own thoughts, feelings and actions. It’s using those things to develop a life that is whole, healthy, and fulfilling. It is finding ways to enjoy the life you have that doesn’t depend on validation from the system you have no control over. It’s learning that sometimes you need to go through a certain degree of discomfort and pain to grow. It’s understanding that the best way to break the cycle of addiction is to learn how to prioritize yourself and allow others to make choices and feel their consequences. It’s embracing the importance of healthy connections and what they look like. It’s accepting that the best way to help someone is to support them in taking care of themselves.

 

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.

#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/.