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.

Substances, In Recovery

I am very grateful for many things in my life but, like everyone, some of my days are challenging.

I mentioned in a prior post that we moved into a new town just prior to the pandemic restrictions. When we chose this town I was looking forward to the symbolic re-start, of leaving a place which had been the site of some of my highest and lowest days… but like everyone else around me mourning the loss of their best laid plans for the year, 2020 had other ideas.

I’ve reached a point in my life where I can take responsibility for the good relationships I let slip though my fingers, and for the ones that probably should have left me sooner. But I also finally understand that things work out as they should, and even though I am lonely and daunted at starting “fresh” with few connections, it is exactly where I need to be.

Perhaps you can appreciate why I’m a bit happier than some at the optimistic lifting of some social distancing measures. Whether you think these changes are a good or a bad thing, from my perspective, the risk of leaving my home to seek out local connections is important.

It just so happens, the first connection that I’ve made is with a single mother who is currently separated from her partner, an alcoholic and cocaine addict. This connection didn’t happen in a support group, or any of the places where I would intentionally seek out like-minded people.  But there is order in randomness, and I know that everyone working a recovery program benefits from making these connections. Not only could I positively impact her recovery, but interacting with her could help me remember to keep working my own program.

On hearing my story, her first question was whether or not me and my partner drink or use substances.  As I paused to consider my response, she admitted that she has been getting some judgement from people she knows for her personal choices and new connections she’s establishing.

I find that substance use is a touchy topic in the codependency recovery community. Unlike addicts, we are indirectly damaged by the use of substances so whether or not we continue to be around them is not as black and white as our addictive counterparts.  I’ve met codependents who appear to have a healthy and moderate relationship with alcohol and those that abstain for a variety of reasons.  I think fundamentally, we all figure out what works for us, and some of us force that opinion on others with the good natured intent of hoping they see the same success.

However, one gift that recovery has given me is the acceptance that it is everyone’s own personal right to make decisions for themselves. If you would like to use any substance, in any amount, that is your choice and (one day at a time) I have no desire to take it from you.

If you asked me for the thought process that fuels my own choices, I would tell you that I believe the fundamental problem with substance use is not the substance itself, it’s the instant gratification thought processes that go along with it. Therefore, if I am choosing to alter my state in a quick fix, I must be realistic and accepting of the consequences.

Although there are different physical health impacts from different substances, mentally I don’t think that this choice differs by vice. I don’t think that pot is healthier than alcohol.  I don’t think heroin is worse than it’s “legal” siblings. I understand that eating unhealthy food impacts my health and that I can lose years of my life being addicted to a person in codependency. I think all vices have an impact on what a person can accomplish and it is up to that person to decide how they want to spend their time. If I drink, I may lose a day to a hangover.  If I smoke pot, I personally would not have a productive few hours.  If I only eat junk food, I’m likely to gain weight. If I get stuck in an unhealthy relationship, I know how brutal that extraction process is…

But, it is my (and anyone else’s) right to change, from day to day.

When I talk about addiction, I think that prioritizing instant gratification is a major part of the dysfunctional thought process. We get so used to coping with an instant “solution” (or at least an instant distraction) that we become unable or unwilling to imagine another path.

Personally, my views on substance use change from day to day. But, I understand that my only real responsibilities are:

  1. To decide how I want to spend my day and to deal with those consequences;
  2. To allow others to make the choices they are entitled to, but to honour my own boundaries.

Remember that others are entitled to feel how they will about your choices, and choose their own accordingly just as you can choose to remove yourself from situations with behaviour that is not acceptable to you.

This does not need to be a dramatic or judgmental process.