Chasing Rock Bottom

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When we separated, I spent the first months obsessed with the idea of rock bottom. I read everything about addiction I could get my hands on, I scoured the internet for local resources and treatment facilities, I even helped orchestrate an intervention I had no intention of attending.

In the last throws of my heartbreak, my outrage and hurt at not being important enough to stop drinking, to stop hurting himself, I took desperate, loud, and dramatic action. I forced him out of our home, outed him to his family and friends, and robbed him of every last bit of dignity I could grab, and still somehow thought I could force him to get better.

Of course I told myself I had good intentions. I thought that he would die without me, that after so many years of me trying to control his drinking and saving him from all the consequences of his actions he would lie down in a gutter and surrender, or take out innocent bystanders while carelessly drunk driving. I was afraid and lost without him to obsess about. I was full of guilt at initiating our breakup and shame that the loss of our life together had not caused him to change his course.

I suggested to his mother that she organize an intervention. I sent her articles touting the success rates of well-prepared interventions. I even suggested an intervention consultant I found on the internet. I suggested the people I thought would have the biggest impact, I revealed what I thought were his biggest soft spots, and I didn’t sleep for days composing what I thought would be the most heartbreaking appeal I could muster… to be read by someone else.

I planned. I researched. I schemed. I continued to manipulate people in an effort to “save” him. Right up until the day of the intervention… then I waited.

And waited.

And nothing changed.

He told his parents that he would not be attending the treatment facility they offered to fund, that he would lead his own recovery. Then he signed a lease on a house he couldn’t afford, and started to systematically cut out the support system that had tried to intervene.

For the first time, I accepted defeat.

Although I was lost in a heavy fog at that time, it quickly lifted in the months after the failed intervention. The shame and the guilt resurfaced and I realized that I needed to stop trying to save others when I was drowning myself.

I found a therapist. I tried Al-Anon. I started this blog. I asked for help. And I realized that in trying to force another person into rock bottom, I found my own.

And unbelievably, I’m grateful for every ounce of embarrassment, pain, and continued effort to dig myself out of that hole.

There is another side and it’s fucking great.

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.