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?
I’ve talked about my dog before on this blog. She is a rescue mutt – sweet, loving, and scared of most things. She will startle at a pen falling off a table but shows absolutely no hesitation to go bolting off the deck into the night after an anonymous and unidentified shadow or noise. In these moments, she forgets she is afraid.
I have a similarly complicated and confusing relationship with change. Fed up with life and circumstances I can name an embarrassing amount of times in my life that I’ve bolted into the night, making impulsive and life changing decisions with very little foresight or appreciation for the consequences. I’ve cut people out, quit without notice, and generally acted like a wild and startled animal and not the intelligent homo sapien I am.
For my dog, those actions have resulted in several face-to-face confrontations with angry skunks. For me, they have resulted in having to reinvent myself almost from scratch more times than I’d like to admit.
The irony of both our situations is that I believe we are both desperately trying to deal with paralyzing fear. Acting quickly, impulsively and desperately is often the only way for either one of us able to do anything without feeling our insecurities.
In the midst of all the pandemic restrictions, collective mental health crisis, and general world upheaval I’ve been approached with and accepted a job offer. Most people that know me well agree that this is an overdue and largely positive move. They reassure me that I am making a good decision and remind me of how much in my life has changed for the better over my last two years of getting vulnerable and uncomfortable…
But – I’m full of doubt and apprehension.
I am faced with the uncomfortable truth that I rarely feel good about my decisions. This is not about the lack of guarantees, the uncertainty, or any number of things that I believe are normal to feel in the face of change. This is, like many things, another opportunity to examine how old habits are no longer serving me.
Even as a young and idealistic Jess, I didn’t get a lot of unbiased encouragement. I was lead to believe that even the most simple of personal needs or aspirations were selfish and somehow wrong. That things that were about me actually had a larger and more significant impact on others. I’ve spent most of my life believing that I am unable to do things myself, or rely on myself to make good decisions.
As a final carrot to stay at my old company I was offered a mentorship from a leader who told me they were sorry that I was uncertain of my value to the company and wanted to lead me to greater potential.
I know, right?
They could not have picked something that would be more attractive.
Screw money and title, VALIDATE ME and save me!!!!!
In lamenting this new offer, I was whining to a good and supportive friend, ripping apart (yet again) my decision to leave and leap into the unknown. He said, “you’ve always had to make it on your own, when somebody finally comes along to help it’s understandable that it should be both very strange and very attractive.”
It was like being slapped across the face.
I realized that I was being offered something abstract and that tying my success and perceived value to any one person was another attempt to fill the gaping void I’ve been clogging with food, alcohol, and emotionally unavailable people for the majority of my life.
It was a reminder that believing I’m not capable of things on my own is no longer an appropriate way to survive. It was a reminder that I don’t accept that kind of emotional abuse anymore.
So here I am, sitting in my last few weeks of work ready to run and leap off of the deck into the dark again. Truthfully, I’m still scared shitless, but at least I’m confident that I’ll make my way through it this time; as I always have before.
I don’t know about you, but the current state of the world has my mental health on the ropes. It’s hard to pinpoint the exact cause: boredom, social isolation, an overload of COVID-19 news coverage; but I suspect any one of these elements alone is enough to topple the metaphorical apple cart.
After several weeks of self care, trying to be there for my friends and family and attempting not to burden my partner with my “crazy” it occurred to me in an insomniatic moment last night that how I feel right now is very similar to how I felt living with addiction.
Being codependent, for me, is a balance between ego and insecurity. In my experience, a major part of addiction (and codependency) is the inability to take ownership for yourself, your actions, and your consequences. Growing up with addiction, and finding it again as an adult, my ability to own what was *actually* my responsibility was damaged. I remember having the distinct impression that everything related to other people was somehow my fault. Unfortunately, that impression was not discouraged by the addicts in my life that were all too ready to blame someone else for their problems. So the addicts totally avoided responsibility for anything, and I avoided responsibility for what was actually mine in favour of what didn’t belong to me.
I felt (and was helped to feel) that I had incredible power over the happiness of others. This was, of course, false and all my efforts to influence things were spectacularly unsuccessful. I would then attack myself for failing at everything that was not actually mine to succeed at.
You still with me?
Most of the time this process was distilled into feeling helpless, angry, depressed, guilty, isolated, and desperate. I didn’t know how to tell myself that everything was going to be okay because there was no clear solution or any indication of how long it would take to get there. I constantly felt like I needed to take action, but since there wasn’t actually an action to take which would get the results I wanted, I usually did the wrong thing, felt shitty, or both.
Talking to my friends, family, and colleagues these are common collective feelings we are all having in light of the current societal challenges. I wish I had a dollar for every time someone has complained to me in the last 3 weeks that this would be manageable if we only knew how long this would last, because surely this is not living.
Amen. I believe the familiarity of all these feelings is what is causing me to have to fight backsliding into my own unhealthy coping strategies.
I wish I could tell you how long this thing will last and that everything will return to normal soon…. But I think it would actually be more helpful to share a few things that I learned in recovery:
Everything is temporary. Really.
Focus on what you can control (hint: this is not how another adult feels / what they do)
Make time to get your heart rate up and move.
If possible, get outside.
Do something you enjoy. Preferably that doesn’t require any one else’s participation.
If all else fails, return to the present moment. Stop worrying so far ahead and remember that you can do anything for one day. Just worry about today.
Repeat: Everything is temporary.
And finally – remember that, as a species (and as individuals), we have made it through all of our days before this one. There is no reason to think that won’t continue.
They say that the things that make it into your long term memory are significant.
I believe this to be true. I don’t remember every mediocre cup of coffee, single-serving elevator friend, or my last 3 postal codes, but going through the recovery process has given me a unique appreciation for the stuff that I do remember, especially those events which have survived decades of trivia, service centre queues, and other mundane memory wasters.
Memory is a funny thing. If you ask two people to recall the same events, they will likely produce different details and maybe even bicker about the minutae of the conversation, the time of day, or the weather but ultimately the details don’t always matter. Truth is somewhat fluid. What is true for me, may not be for you and vice versa; but how your brain files and tags your experiences is incredibly important for how you construct your image of the world around you. So – for everyone’s personal experience, how they recall something is often more important to them than the factual events.
This is part of the reason why I try not to get too specific in my writing. I’m conscious and fearful that I will inadvertantly hurt someone else by casting them in my recollection of events that are skewed to my own bias… but, I’m going to try something different today. I wanted to write about one of my earliest memories.
When I was about 8 years old my family sat down to dinner. This dinner wasn’t special, or celebratory, it was just your average meal. During the dinner an argument erupted. My father was upset about something my brother was doing and it escalated ending in my brother crying, my mother consoling him, and my father storming off.
I remember feeling shocked, confused, and scared. My 8 year old brain was already worried about people getting hurt, abandoning me, of catastrophic events. I was already skeptical that things would just work out, because in my experience they often didn’t. There wasn’t alot of fighting in my household, but there also wasn’t a lot of resolution. We all struggled with communication and often when bad things happened we all went to our respective corners to “deal”.
My “normal” was a low baseline of tension at all times. I understand now that I didn’t have a consistent model for developing emotional skills. My parents tried their best, but I don’t think emotional nurturing and protecting were gifts they had to pass along. If you’d asked me at that time, I would have told you that “home” was where I felt “safe” and “loved” knowing somehow that those were acceptable responses but I don’t think I really understood what those concepts meant.
In that moment, watching my daddy storm off, I was worried that he had gone for a walk and wasn’t coming back.
I remember sitting in the garage waiting for him. I don’t really have any concept of how long that was, but to my 8 year old brain it was an eternity. All that time I was imagning these horrible things that would happen to him and the chaos that would occur when he didn’t return. When he did finally reappear, he stormed past me and into the house. He didn’t acknowledge me, he holed himself in the basement and coped in the only way that he knew how.
I understand now that everything that happened that day had very little to do with me, but I also understand that I wasn’t equipped to handle this stuff without guidance. Kids need direction, structure, and communication. We aren’t born with the skills to deal with complex emotional themes. I think that’s part of the reason we remain dependent on adults for so long. It’s like the universe is hoping that by making kids physically dependent for such a long period, they will have an opportunity to develop emotionally during the same time.
Unfortunately, in the absence of other information, my brain chose to store my narrative of that day as a message that I wasn’t important enough to care about. My child brain just couldn’t come up with a more plausible reason why my dad would storm past me, waiting for him.
For those of you that have now started to obsess and worry about your childs’ experiences and any traumatic events I’m pleased to tell you that for most people one traumatic or negligent moment will not give them low self esteem. Unfortunately for me, this was only one such event that would happen in my childhood to support this narrative. I was a shy kid, I struggled to make friends, I had the unfortunate experience of many of them moving away for a variety of reasons in those formative and tough years. My parents both commuted, holding long work hours and I spent a lot of time alone or with babysitters who ensured my safety but didn’t do much to interact with me. Admitedly, the downside of being in a small town as a kid was that I was isolated. I didn’t have a great variety of experiences outside of what was happening in the household.
I understand now how important those childhood experiences are. In my adulthood, I still struggle with the idea that I am worthy, worthwhile and enough. I still worry that people will suddenly abandon me, figure out that I’m a worthless fraud, and my mind often wanders to the catastrophic. Slowly, as I unpack my past, and am patient and compassionate with those experiences, I’m able to start re-writing those narratives.
Regardless of what happens next in my life, I am monumentally grateful for the opportunity to believe that I am more than I thought. I understand this is not a gift that everyone gets and for the first time in my life I’m able to look back without regret. If I hadn’t been pushed to the point where I had nothing else to lose, I never would have started the work to be better.
Should you find yourself in that place of dispair and worthlessness, I see you.
Recently I had a long conversation with a friend also in recovery. The conversation was about the challenges and benefits of being in relationships with people not in recovery.
We affectionately refer to people who do not have similar challenges of trauma and recovery as “normals”. I understand that this terminology may seem self-loathing or judgmental to others, but that is not the intent. We’ve both reached a point where it is possible to joke about our challenges and not take ourselves and others so seriously. In our context “normal” is a convenient descriptor for those in our lives who find some of our challenges difficult to understand or relate to for the simple reason that they do not have those shared experiences.
I see having more people like this in my life than ever before a good marker for my own mental health. I believe there is truth to the fact that you are more likely to attract people to you who match your frequency (for lack of a better word). I see it as encouraging that I am interacting with more “healthy” people, hoping that it also suggests my mental health is improving.
However, there are also challenges in these relationships. I know I’m not alone in that change is an ongoing process and that self-improvement takes daily effort and attention. There are times that I revert back to my old behaviours, thought processes, and difficult belief systems. In those moments, the differences between myself and the “normals” are underlined. There are times that I need space and time to override my instincts and approach my interactions thoughtfully and compassionately.
It is painfully difficult to explain this process and the “why” it came to be with people who haven’t had this challenge or experience. I’ve noticed that although many of these newer connections care deeply for my wellbeing, constantly explaining my status to them also drives them away. It seems to present me as this deeply sensitive being and makes them wary of interacting with me. It makes them self-conscious of their interactions and suggests I need more special treatment than I do. Often the only special treatment I need is a few moments of compassionate time and space.
I realize that mentally healthy people do not need to constantly bring up their past as a justification for their present actions. They exist and they appreciate the moments as they come with confidence, humility, and presence.
Among other things to come from this open discussion was our attempt to approach explaining what recovery from codependency is like to someone with no relatable experience. It came out something like this:
“A long time ago, before I was able to defend myself, a person I cared about very much told me lies about myself. I believed them and, until recently, built my life based on those misconceptions of myself and what I thought I deserved. I chose people, places, and things that enforced those ideas and rejected anything that suggested it may not be true. Some day I would like to be like the happy looking people in the coffee commercials, but currently I’m more like the mucous in the Mucinex commercials”
It’s common for a person who loves someone suffering from addiction to reach a point in their relationship where they start asking questions like:
I’ve done X, Y, and Z for them! Why don’t they see how they are hurting themselves?
Don’t they care?
Does anyone ever recover?
How do I know this is their rock bottom?
I remember this point. It was the worst period of my life to date. Essentially, I was trying to decide if I would stay or let go. I was trying to figure out how much longer I would have to hold on, how much more pain I would need to endure in order for him to realize he needed to change. I was trying to decide if it would be more painful to stay or start over.
I couldn’t admit it but all I wanted was for someone to tell me it was going to be ok.
I remember vividly how painful, hard and desperate that place is. Looking at my life now, I hardly recognize the person I was then. I am still dealing with the shame, fear, and guilt from the actions I took in that dark place.
When I ended the relationship with my addict, I had not gotten any help or support. I’d essentially shouldered everything alone for the better part of a decade. I’d long since stopped the little bit of talking I did about our relationship; essentially because I didn’t like the feedback that I was getting. I was in denial of his illness and was clinging to a lot of more convenient, but false, justifications for what was happening.
I ended our relationship impulsively.
One day, he did something so blatantly unethical that I couldn’t ignore it and, like a rubber band, I snapped. There was no more discussion, no more compassion; I needed him gone and I executed that in a desperate, dramatic, and disrespectful way. I know deep down I hoped that would push him into getting help, but manipulation and coercion (even with good intentions) rarely gets good results.
I did a whole other post on why I try not to give people advice (find that here), but I wanted to share some things I learned; things I wish I’d known before I exercised my choice to stay or go.
Don’t Hate the Person, Hate the Disease
Anyone who has lived with an addict understands that there is a haunting duality to this condition. One minute your loved one is a caring and thoughtful Dr. Jekyll and the next a malicious and cruel Mr. Hyde. This is part of what keeps us stuck in these relationships, we catch heartbreaking glimpses of what appears to us to be our loved one fighting to get out. We cling to this idea when Mr. Hyde comes out to play with increasing frequency.
There is some controversy around this point; some people say that addiction is a symptom of the very serious and incurable personality disorder of narcissism, but I personally think that, in most cases, the narcissistic and unethical action we see are symptoms of addiction. An addict’s awareness is foggy and their priorities are always in a state of flux: their substance of choice is number one and everything else is ordered and reordered based on what is falling apart the fastest.
It’s not that they don’t care about you, you just can’t be their number one priority. Addiction doesn’t share, it is not a reflection of your worth.
Some People Don’t Get Better
I would love to tell you that your loved one will get better, but the truth is nobody knows.
A friend once told me a story about an alcoholic who passed out drunk on some train tracks. During the night, both his legs were severed by a passing train and, miraculously, he survived. If ever you would think there was a rock bottom moment, this would be it, right? While getting discharged from the hospital, this man was more concerned with the logistics of getting to the bar in a wheelchair than anything else in the world.
I don’t know why someone one day looks at their kids and decides they need to get better. I’m not sure why faced with the loss of their career something finally clicks for another person that they need to get some help. I’m not sure why others can lose everything and still not change.
I just don’t know.
What I do know is that addiction is a progressive and deadly disease and that as long as someone is sick they are putting their lives and the people in proximity in danger for a drink, a smoke, a big gambling win, Big Macs, working themselves to exhaustion, or sex with a stranger. That is the inconvenient truth.
Stopping is Only the First Step
I used to think that recovery was as simple as choosing not to drink, not to smoke, going on a diet, not gambling, etc. I thought it was about willpower and discipline.
Stopping is essential. In order to recover, you need to regain awareness, you need to stop numbing. You can’t have clarity leaning on something that protects you from appreciating the gravity of your situation.
However, that isn’t all of it. There are many reasons why we numb ourselves. I saw a meme not too long ago that said “trauma is the real gateway drug” and that resonated with me. I don’t think it’s uncommon for people to choose numbing over dealing with pain. I also think there are many other reasons that lead people down the path of addiction.
Understanding this now, I wish I’d known it then. In evaluating what I needed for myself and how to help my partner the right way I wish I’d understood that it wasn’t as easy as stopping. I wish I’d understood that real help for someone in recovery is supporting them (not enabling them) while they maneuver the long road towards mental health.
It is also very unlikely that recovery is possible without some kind of outside and unbiased help. If you’ve spent your whole life coping a certain way how could you be equipped to change without outside guidance? You’ve never learned how to think another way, why wouldn’t you need guidance? Also, it is next to impossible to be able to objectively take the right kind of help from someone who is personally invested in your recovery (e.g. family, friend, spouse, etc).
There are no shortcuts. There are no quick fixes. It is not as simple as stopping the behaviour, a person also needs to deal with whatever is driving them to do what they do in the first place. This is how we reduce the chance of relapse; but it is also worth stating that recovery often includes relapse as people are confronted with the gravity of change and revert back to the comfortable and familiar.
Recovery is a roller coaster. That is just the nature of profound change.
So what now?
No one can tell you how any of this will turn out. If they do, they aren’t being honest. There are no guarantees in life and there is no simple solution to this situation.
Some of you will decide to stay and others will decide to go. There is not a right or universal answer to every addiction scenario. There is no reliable checklist of symptoms that will help predict if someone will be successful in recovery, or if they will even get that far. There is also no guarantee that they will not relapse.
I understand there is an immense amount of guilt around these kinds of decisions. I understand the feeling of being crushed under the weight. I remind us all that we didn’t cause the addiction, we can’t control it, and we can’t change it. Like it or not, we all have the free will to make all kinds of poor decisions. True help for an active addict is learning to detach with love and interacting by helping not enabling action. I would challenge you to consider that not being able to accomplish this is likely hurting the addict more than saving them; that in this case, leaving may be the most compassionate and loving act even if it immediately appears to make the addictive behavior worse.
Finally, I will suggest you seek support before you have to choose. It is possible that there will come a point where that is a reality. Speaking from my own experience, leaving or staying was just one step in my recovery — but a very significant one.
Reflecting on my choices and their consequences, the only lingering regret I have is not that I wish I’d stayed. My only regret is my certainty that I would have been more confident and less traumatized making that choice if I had already been working a recovery program.
Welcome back! This week, more musings inspired by Jordan Peterson. If you haven’t already, I recommend starting with last week’s post which discusses how our perception is developed and how it can shift depending on our goals, expectations, and beliefs.
Returning to Peterson’s book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to chaos, he makes the profound claims that we are all corrupt and capable of doing damage to others. He explains that where we fall in that spectrum is a direct result of our beliefs and experiences which in turn impact our perception.
He argues that people all have the same potential; that things like nice and mean are dependent on the situations that we find ourselves.
“The problem with ‘nice people’ is that they’ve never been in any situation that would turn them into the monsters they’re capable of being.”
Peterson, with a flair for impact and drama, also makes the provocative suggestion that we should all get in touch with our “inner psychopaths”, putting a big exclamation point next to the suggestion that we are all capable of horrendous things.
I find this idea compelling because it underlines the need for compassion and understanding, both for the self and others but it also lends itself to other strategies we’ve discussed (such as the suggestion that everyone is doing the best they can, see that post here).
It is also relevant to this discussion because it has interesting implications to extreme theories involving law of attraction, like those suggested in Rhonda Byrne’s 2006 book “the Secret” which claims that anything can be manifested with the right mindset.
While I do believe there is some truth to the power of thought and that being a decent and mindful person will ultimately give you a more satisfying life, I don’t think that this is the whole story. Frankly, if that was the case, there would be no hardship in the world and we would all be living in a minimalist off-grid cabin with a Jason Momoa lookalike (insert your fantasy life here). Unfortunately, being nice and doing good deeds does not mean that you will be without suffering, and being a tyrant won’t necessarily bring you bad fortune.
Peterson explains how this idea plays into building a life around happiness as a goal, and how that can be a problem:
“Happiness is a great side effect. When it comes, accept it gratefully. But it’s fleeting and unpredictable. It’s not something to aim at – because it’s not an aim. And if happiness is the purpose of life, what happens when you’re unhappy? Then you’re a failure. And perhaps a suicidal failure. Happiness is like cotton candy. It’s just not going to do the job.”
In the last chapter of the book, Peterson talks about his family’s struggles following his daughter’s diagnosis with a rare bone disease. For years, the family fought through surgeries, recovery, and adapting to the necessary changes that had to be made to their lives and expectations for the future. It is clear that this and the subsequent events were a great source of darkness for Peterson and his family.
Peterson also talks about how emotions like grief are a product of challenges to our perception and expectations. In his own experience, thinking that he would have a happy and healthy child only to come face to face with the reality of the uncertainty of his daughter’s health.
Imagine that you have built your life on a frozen lake. While you have a fundamental awareness of the dangers of ice, falling into the frigid water is an abstract risk and something you easily ignore. You have confidence that the lake is frozen and you can go about your life in relative security. Now, imagine that tiny fractures in the ice have been spreading under your feet for some time until suddenly it cracks and you are submerged. Not only do you need to deal with the consequences of falling through the ice, you have the shocking realization that the solid grasp you had on your situation was not so solid. The fundamental belief you had in the reliability of your situation is gone. The ice was not safe, and there was nothing you could have done to make it so.
It is no wonder that the process of grief is so challenging and cyclical. It is layered, including not only grief for the surface loss but also requires the underlying beliefs system to be overhauled.
The interesting thing I’ve found in talking to people who have navigated through these fundamental shifts in perception, done the work to process the events, and survived the ice cracking under their feet is that they appear much more calm. The acceptance of uncertainty, pain, and the temporary nature of most things comes with freedom. Through embracing the darkness there is an understanding that happiness comes and goes; it cannot be held and there are no guarantees for the future. This understanding liberates us to enjoy happiness as it presents itself and remain optimistic that it will return because we know it’s possible, we’ve seen it before.
Happiness is not a destination, but some of the scenery we get to see along the way.