Why Stay?

When I think back on my time living with alcoholics, one of the hardest things to be honest about is why I did so little to change my situation. I wasn’t happy for a long time and I stayed. Why?

When I met my ex there were a lot of early signs that he did not have his life or mental health together. He told me heartbreaking stories about his life prior to our getting together that he used to justify his choices, his mood, his behaviour.. a lot of things. I later found out that many of these stories were likely falsehoods, or at least severe exaggerations of actual events. I suspect, by that time, he had forgotten they were lies because they were so essential to the self-abuse he perpetuated in his own life. I suspect, I wasn’t the primary target for his deception: he was.

He told me that he was looking forward and made me feel as though I was helping him to move forwards.

Truthfully I did not have great self esteem. I was recovering from my own life setbacks and was habitually hard on myself when things weren’t going well for me, or people I cared about, whether or not I actually had any real power over the outcome. The way he made me feel in those early days appealed to my ego. It made me feel empowered and useful. It gave me value that I was desperately looking for externally because I sincerely thought that’s where it could be found.

And so it started, the unfortunate attachment of my self-worth to his.

As time went on, and he became unable to continue to sell his lack of progress with his prior excuses, the emotional abuse started. The interesting thing about emotional abuse is that it can be very subtle and hard to identify. It was only after I had some distance that I understood that my relationship was not normal, that most people don’t feel the way I did.

The most common type of emotional abuse in my life has been a form that I later learned is coined “gas lighting”. In gas lighting, the gas lighter undermines the gas lightee by denying facts, the environment or their feelings. For example, the lightee tells the lighter they are shirking their household responsibilities and the lighter refuses to acknowledge that’s happening despite all proof and logic to the contrary. I don’t think this is that uncommon and likely we’ve all done it to another in blind denial or self-preservation at some point in our lives when fact was inconvenient.. but this wasn’t an intermittent or occasional issue. Over time, this became most of our interactions with each other.

Truthfully, this had been a theme in my childhood as well. I came from a household where it was not okay to be upset and it was not unusual for me to be accused of being “too sensitive” or “dramatic”. When I was a toddler, the dog next door bit me on the face and my recollection of that event is that my caregiver was more concerned about how the dog owner felt about the incident than my well-being. I thought it was my fault, that somehow my existence had warranted the attack. I didn’t realize, as I had more experiences like that one, I began to distrust my perception of the world. It’s not unusual for me to feel guilty or self-conscious for having feelings, even when they are legitimate. I’m the kind of person that would gladly accept that I somehow asked to be punched in the face, rather than make someone else feel bad for their own lapse in judgement.

By the time I met my alcoholic partner I was well primed to hand over my self-respect and take the blame for the challenges in our relationship. So, as painful and embarrassing as it is to admit, I felt like I deserved it. I deserved to be unhappy. I deserved to be trying to pick up the pieces of a broken relationship without any help. I deserved to be suffering… so why would I empower myself to try for anything different?

I couldn’t leave without taking an impossible blow to my ego, and I didn’t have much ego to spare since it was my fault and I deserved it.

The worst part about all this for me is that I feel that the easiest way to frame these events is as a reflection of my personal weakness, validating my lack of worth.

But I’ve come to realize that the easiest way isn’t always the best way to live with something. I understand now why domestic abuse victims are now commonly referred to as survivors. While it may not make sense to most why I made the choices I did, I know that what I did was the best I could do with the tools I had at the time. I know that I’ve made it through things that other people would not, and that my past is not a reflection of my weakness but as a pillar to my strength of perseverance.

2020 Memorandum

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As 2020 winds down, I think regardless of where we find ourselves at the end of this unprecedented year we can all agree this is nothing like we anticipated it would be.

For me, this year has been equal parts good and bad. I’ve struggled with relapse of depression, anxiety, and lack of focus. I’ve been insecure, uneasy, antsy, fearful, and helpless. I’ve struggled to maintain structure and commitment to self-care and taken way too many liberties with food, substance use, and lack of exercise. I’ve gone from fear of missing out, to fear of going out, and back again a few times. I’ve struggled to maintain contact with the people I love and the activities I know ground me and contribute to my emotional, spiritual, and physical wellbeing.

I’ve lost sight of the big picture and reduced too many things to emotional extremes. I’ve drowned in political, health, and existential crises and struggled to find myself again. I’ve spent far more energy on the things I can’t control, and not nearly enough on the things I can. And, despite knowing better, I did a lot of this without asking for help.

Going in to 2021, I want to restart and get back on the bandwagon. And what better place to start than some gratitude. Here’s some of the things I am most grateful for in 2020:

  • Early in the year, I celebrated by 37th birthday with the purchase of a new home, in a new town, while in a relatively new romantic relationship.
  • In May I made the difficult choice to leave a company where I had been employed for 5 years to take a chance on a new role despite the discomfort of completing this entire transition remotely.
  • This summer, despite my fears, I disclosed one of the most shameful events in my life to a dear friend and my boyfriend. I hadn’t spoken of this event outside of therapy, truthfully believing it would make me unlovable. I’m humbled to report that my fears were unfounded, at least where it matters most to me.
  • Through over-the-fence distanced interactions I’ve started to know my new neighbours. After years of avoiding small town life, I’m reminded of the great aspects of community. Again and again I’m amazed of the large impact of small kindness – to someone thoughtfully bringing a parcel in from the rain and rushing out to deliver it by hand when you return home, to helping you haul fallen leaves from the large maple in your front yard, to delivering a couple extra date squares because they felt the urge to share.
  • I’ve also been inspired by my small community’s efforts to encourage local shopping, dining, and artisan support in the absence of the town’s usual glut of tourists through campaigns, events, and good old fashioned coming togetherness (Is this a word? Is now!).
  • I’ve been privileged to be trusted with a few friends’ low moments and vulnerabilities and am slowly learning how to help people in a way that’s healthy for us both.
  • In the summer, my boyfriend took me on my first backwoods camping trip in almost a decade. Despite the irony of escaping the isolation of our home with backwoods isolation, we survived, we thrived, we ate great food, and we had a pretty great adventure.
  • Over the last 8 months of pandemic, my boyfriend and I have been putting our touch on the home we purchased – painting, renovating, landscaping, and building something really special and uniquely us. I’m grateful to be enjoying these moments with someone that inspires and supports me in so many amazing ways.
  • Although my relationship with my family is far from perfect, I feel that this year has challenged me to improve my communication and I am enjoying interacting with them more than this time last year. I’m encouraged that healing is possible.
  • Recently, I was approached with another great employment opportunity which represents exponential career growth. Despite the mixed emotions of changing jobs again in the new year, I’ve accepted and am looking forward to another new start in 2021 with equal parts excitement and trepidation. I’m grateful for being blessed for the first time in my career with so many good options.

I feel like a lot of my life has been framed in extreme thoughts. Things were largely good or bad (more often bad, if I’m honest) and not allowed to be grey.

Climbing back up on the recovery horse I remind myself that life is unpredictable and strange. Despite our best effort and planning things don’t always turn out as we planned. Life isn’t perfect, but being adaptable and open to change makes it a lot more live-able.

Cookie Monster

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Hello,

My name is Jess and I’m a foodie.

I plan my day around what I’m going to eat. I enthusiastically seek out new ingredients, inspiration, and rarely take shortcuts with pre-packaged products. My boyfriend jokes that every day in our house is like eating in a restaurant. I cook mostly by feel, and by what’s available. I use recipes as a starting point, substituting based on what I have or what’s in season and I rarely measure the components. As you can imagine, this makes it hard to replicate my successes, and we rarely eat exactly the same dish twice.

It’s my creative outlet. I see food as an art form and, unlike most art, one of the things that I find most satisfying is its impermanence. It exists in small servings, for a person to enjoy and then it’s gone. And if we’re talking about my kind of cooking, it may never be the same way again.

When I was a child, I used to tell my parents I needed a cookie, often when I felt upset. I saw food as a mechanism to comfort myself, showing early signs that my ability to soothe and cope depended on my environment and didn’t come from within.

One of the things my family did consistently was eat well. I remember a real emphasis on dinners together into my adolescence. We would wait for everyone to get home and sit down together to excellent food as a family. I think in a way I saw that as a constant in an otherwise unpredictable environment.

The downside of family dinners was that the addict in my household did their best drinking in the evening. I remember hearing the first beer pop when I got home from school as they started preparing our meal. By the time the whole family was home hours later, they were often well into their nightly drinking and my anxiety would build as we sat down together. I remember watching everyone closely, trying to mitigate and control the conversation so that the meal wouldn’t end in someone storming off and/or saying something hurtful.

Sometimes dinner was pleasant and there was no fighting, other times our drinker seemed to be looking for any reason to fight and storm off, to retreat to the basement and be alone. I remember fights based on things as small as the amount of gratitude we articulated for the meal. As I got into my mid-teens, my relationship with this person deteriorated. I know that I egged on a lot of fights – I tried to anticipate their mood swings and disagreed with them on purpose… I think trying to take the brunt of their rage. I won’t saint myself and say it was totally for the greater good, I think over time I accepted this as my role and I got some perverse satisfaction out of trying to incite their anger. In my mind, if it was going to happen either way, it might as well happen because I chose it.

Around that time, I also started taking a more active role in food preparation for the family. In my ignorance about addiction, I felt that if I removed that stress from my addicts life, and they could just enjoy the food there would be less conflict. There wasn’t less conflict, it just changed. Instead of fighting about how we didn’t appreciate their effort, they smashed around, angry at me for leaving too much mess in the kitchen or wasting ingredients.

Despite this animosity, I did find enjoyment in the process of food preparation. It was something that I could control – with effort, attention, and focus I could prepare a nice meal. Even if I couldn’t control how it was received.

It’s interesting thinking back on my history with food knowing what I know now about addiction. I understand the addict in my life was living with their own demons and was not able to be invested in my experience in the way I deserved. The number one in their life was always alcohol, everything else was secondary. It was a higher priority to be justified in drinking than it was to have a nice family dinner.

Even with this knowledge, I am aware of the residue this has left on my subconscious. I assign more value to quality of food than most people I know, I think because for a long time it was a reliable and accessible comfort mechanism. The way I prepare food has also been altered. I can’t help but clean as I go, leaving less dishes and inconvenience for anyone that cleans up after me; I also feel profound shame if I have to throw out food.. still on some level anticipating a conflict that doesn’t come.

But we do eat some pretty epic meals.

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.