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?

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.

Karma, For Dummies

Being spiritual is not something that comes easily to me. I don’t remember ever having anything close to what could be described as blind faith or trust in the universe.

When I was in middle school, a Christian family moved in across the street in my very small town. They had a daughter about my age. We had nothing in common, but they were kind and generous people and… well, there weren’t a lot of local playmates for any of us to choose from.

The family held daily bible readings. We would be running wild in the yard and get called inside where the mother would read us a bible passage and a second reading geared more towards children, usually a cute story with biblical morals. I don’t remember this being an unpleasant experience but truthfully I don’t think I got any spiritual substance from the practice.  Even at that age I was incorrigible and my engagement was tied more closely to the post study snack rather than any real appreciation for the divine.

I remember the day we covered Genesis and the creation of the world. I asked about dinosaurs, evolution, UFOs, and how could we possibly be the only life in the universe. To the mother’s credit, she was patient and told me that she believed those 7 days did not flow through time as we experience it today. The world was new, in Beta test. Even an omnipotent being needed time and some test subjects. Maybe all those details were not captured by the mortals who pieced together the Holy scripture.

I didn’t buy her explanations then and continue to resist anything that can’t be explained with logic, reason, and proof.  Needless to say, there is a lot that happens in life that can’t, so I find myself trying to force things into simplistic and ill-fitting boxes or obsessively trying to come up with rationalizations for things that are not rational, logic for things that are in no way logical, and for proof where there isn’t any.

If I can’t neatly sort and explain things, you ask? I dramatically crumble into a depressed existential crisis.

I acknowledge that this is part of why I struggle with letting go. I need (want) to always understand the why; even when it’s not available or knowing doesn’t make me happy either.

In recovery I have been looking for compromise; for ways to help me accept and let go of the unexplained. One concept that has helped me is Karma, or the idea that there is a relationship of cause and effect in people’s action (or inaction). Rooted in Hinduism and Buddhism, this idea has also been compared to Newton’s Third Law (thank goodness, some science!) which postulates that every action has an equal or opposite reaction. In other words, the universe is keeping tabs and eventually everything evens out.

I used to think that Karma was a result of justice and judgement, reward and punishment, but now I realize it’s about being accountable for yourself. Karma is supposed to encourage you to own your actions, the way you treat others, and also to trust that others should be left to do the same. Karma teaches us to be calm, emphasizing intelligent, unemotional and logical action. This leads to acceptance of reality as well as peace, calm, and surrender.

Another thing that makes this idea attractive to me is that it is often tied to reincarnation. Although I’m not sure I believe in an afterlife, it does help to justify the idea of suffering. While you may not get to experience the return of energy in this life, you will in the next. Some even teach that lifetimes are like levels in a video game with each life subjected to a new lesson or obstacle to overcome. Failure results in repeating the level while passing leads to harder and harder tests until you finally face off against the big boss and are rewarded with enlightenment, peace, and ethereal rewards.

While I think it’s unlikely that I will ever formally practice religion, I do see the value of spirituality. Belief in the unseen and unexplained makes it easier to let go by suggesting things will be sorted out when I let go. And, more importantly, these ideas can inspire hope, trust, and motivation to continue in this age of uncertainty, distrust, and scarcity. Because really, we could all use that extra bit of inspiration to convince us to continue when it seems like there is no hope.

What does addiction look like?

When I met my former partner I was at a low point in my life. I was lost and unhappy in a job I didn’t like and surrounded by unhealthy relationships. I didn’t think I had anything or anyone I could count on and I approached most things prepared for failure. I had been let down enough times that I thought that was my destiny; to get close to what I wanted but never be able to hold on to it.

He was lost too and shared some intimate stories of betrayal and hardship. He told me I was beautiful and I believed him. He brought me flowers every week and showered me with attention and affection. I wanted to believe that he was the sweet, kind and thoughtful person who made me feel appreciated in a way I truthfully hadn’t felt before.

As time passed I noticed he drank frequently and in quantities that should have sent me running. We were in our late 20s and many of our friends and acquaintances were drinkers. I’d grown up thinking it was normal to have a drink after work or on the weekend and didn’t have any real understanding of the spectrum of addiction or the warning signs.

In hindsight, there were a lot of clues.

He kept changing jobs because he was being singled out, treated unfairly, and overlooked for promotions; the same explanation for several lateral moves. He grew apart from his oldest friends, saying they were always unavailable as they slowed their partying and started families. He missed payments and was caught driving without insurance and an expired license, blaming someone else for misplacing the registered letter informing him of the cancellation. There was often a justification for whatever crises arose, and they almost always involved the negligence of another person. I wish I could tell you I called him on the inconsistencies in his stories, but instead I enabled him; in the last example by paying the hefty fine he received.

He used subterfuge to work late and to stay home alone instead of doing things we had planned together. I started catching him in little and then bigger lies about where he was, money, and other things. I’ve since learned that a lot of what he told me about his past was not truthful, but the only part that shocks me now is how consistently and effortlessly he could lie, as easy as I can breathe. Eventually, he became more erratic, secretive, and adept at deflecting my concerns and manipulating me by pushing my buttons and accusing me of doing things that made him unhappy.

There were many excuses to drink. Often something was annoying him that justified coming home, flipping on the tv and eventually passing out on the couch. If I gave any indication that I was having a bad day, there was a bottle of wine waiting “for me” that he had already been opened and sampled.

His sleep patterns were always strange but became more irregular. He was napping all the time, which he justified with his physical job and inability to sleep through the night. He was often groggy and moody in the evening but sweet, disarming, and apologetic in the morning. I even remember a period where I believe he attempted to cut back himself. Our bed was soaked with sweat and he would twitch randomly throughout the day.

At several points in our relationship I found empty bottles hidden around our living space; sometimes he offered weak excuses, other times he ignored my questions entirely as if I didn’t exist. His personal grooming suffered and he showed less and less interest in me. He withdrew and so did I as it became harder and harder to make excuses that others would accept. I didn’t understand what was happening, but I believed that there was something wrong with me. That I was crazy and somehow causing his mood swings, his lying, and his lack of interest. Slowly and insidiously the sweet and kind man I loved was replaced by another person. In the last year of our relationship I would call him Jekyll and Hyde not realizing how appropriate that comparison was.

I hid what was happening from our friends and family. I sacrificed what I wanted and gave up a job I was passionate about because the money was erratic and I couldn’t count on him to make contributions to our bills. I neglected myself, my needs, and over time became obsessed with him: what he was doing, what he was spending, and trying to solve the mystery of why it always felt like my life was falling apart.

The worst part is that although he was not a good partner, I wasn’t either. He didn’t ask me to do any of the sacrifices I made. I chose them. I tried to control and change him by belittling him, begging him, giving him empty ultimatums, and bribing him. And when none of my tactics worked and I couldn’t control the relationship that would not live up to my expectations I grew bitter and resentful.

I gave up and became a husk of a person. I hated myself. I stopped taking care of me, I gained weight, avoided people, and I sunk into a functional depression. I worried all the time and I drank more than I knew was safe for me both to cope and because it seemed to be the only time he was interested in spending time with me.

Believe it or not, shouldering it all was easier than believing that I was the other woman. That I had interrupted his relationship with something he loved more than he would ever love me. I recognize now that he was an addict when I met him; I didn’t cause it and I couldn’t change it but it wasn’t for lack of trying.

As I write this now, I am grateful for the power of truth and acceptance. I’ve sat down to do this post several times since starting the blog and this is the first time I’ve made it through without tears, overwhelming embarrassment, and (I hope) without casting blame. I finally accept that as personal as everything that happened seemed, it wasn’t. We both made choices that served our own unhealthy agendas and there were consequences. The empowering thing about owning that, even if it lead to mistreatment and victimization, is the knowledge that I can make different choices going forward, I have that power. I’m also able to keep working on the process of letting go by acknowledging that although there is grief for the loss, I understand that the relationship was not healthy for either of us.

If you suspect that someone you care about is struggling with addiction, I encourage you to educate yourself. The correct way to help an addict or someone in a relationship with an addict may not be what you think. Addiction is a complex disease and its effects can ripple outwards for generations. You need to understand that so little about what is happening with the person or people you care about is logical or easy. You need to be ready for the reality that giving up the substance is just the first step in the long, difficult, but worthwhile process of recovery. You need to understand that some people never recover and what that means for you.

Addiction is a dangerous and progressive deadly disease. It’s so important that we help each other in recovery by example and by sharing our stories.

I recomend using your favourite search engine to look for local addiction resources. I guarantee there are people and groups that can help, including Anonymous groups for addicts and families of addicts, rehabilitation centres, intevention councillors, phone hotlines, and crises centres to name a few. I have also seen free online support groups and consultants. Help is closer than you think.

To get you started, here is a good article from MedicalNewsToday.com which discusses some of the common symptoms of substance addiction.