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 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.
If you follow me on other platforms, you probably know I have soft spots for Brene Brown and Russell Brand. I could never have imagined the circumstances that would bring these two minds together to create, but I’m thrilled to live in a universe where this happened.. and my mind is blown by the result.
For those of you not familiar with Russell Brand, he is an outspoken comedian, actor, author, and activist. Although I did enjoy his outlandish comedy, I’ve found a new level of respect for him in sharing his experiences finding sobriety after a tumultuous and public struggle with drug addiction.
Brene got a brief nod in a past blog post, with a small reference to one of the first (and most powerful) books I read in recovery Daring Greatly. Holding a PHD in social work, she does research into vulnerability, shame, courage, and empathy. All topics that easily bring me to a cold sweat.
Although I’m familiar with some of Russel’s writings and videos on addiction recovery, I was not familiar with his podcast, “Under the Skin”. On this platform, he interviews a variety of influential public figures and the talk is anything but small. In his conversation with Brene they covered a plethora of hard topics including (but not limited to): handling tough toddlers, addiction, and boundaries.
The interview is over an hour and those interested in the full experience (at the time of this writing) can find it easily on spotify, youtube, or a number of other platforms. The part that really jumped out at me was a discussion on framing perception by asking the question “are people really doing the best they can?”
Although this discussion includes references to God and religion, it could easily be approached without so I encourage you to look beyond that if it does not resonate with you.
Like Brene, I’ve spent most of my life believing that most people (including myself) could be doing better. I met mistakes and poor choices as a personal reflection of value. Needless to say, I spent a lot of time being wounded and hurt by people not living up to my expectations for their behaviour, which in turn impacted my ability to be compassionate and live a peaceful existence. I spent an embarrassing amount of time being pissed off and burning bridges believing most times that people were either lazy or didn’t care.
I recognize that approaching life in this way is not only self-righteous and douchy, it isn’t fair. Reflecting on my lowest points there were days where the best I could do was not great. I remember not too long ago where the simple act of getting out of bed and to work was a monumental achievement. During that time, I was not a great friend, relative, or human. I was in survival mode and that was truly all I had in me.
At the end of the clip, Brene retells her husbands’ take on this huge existential question. Responding to her prodding, “are people really doing the best they can every day”, he says, profoundly “I have no idea. But what I do know is my life is better when I assume they are” (mic drop).
This really hit me because it illustrates so perfectly what many of us fundamentally struggle with: what is ours to control. A common concept in recovery literature is the challenge to accept the truth that you are only in control of your own thoughts, feelings, and actions; not the thoughts, feelings and actions of others.
In this context, whether a person is actually doing the best they possibly can is irrelevant because it is out of our control; but how we frame our thoughts and perception is totally within our power. I can choose to believe that the hurt someone inflicts on me is a reflection of my value, or I can believe that, for better or for worse, they are doing the best they can and choose my actions calmly, intelligently, and compassionately.
There was a time not too long ago where if you had told me any challenge or problem you were facing, I would have jumped in and tried to “fix” it with an immediate solution to your problem and a lecture which included all my supporting logic and thoughts. Although I often do not have solutions to my own cavernous problems (and would not call myself an “expert” on most things) I would not hesitate to tell you how to go about fixing yourself. Dispensing advice is still a huge temptation for me, but I’ve been working on curbing this impulse.
I’ve touched on this topic before in my post on empathy, but have some more thoughts on why jumping in to “fix” problems is not a great approach in relationships.
Dispensing advice is often more about me than the other person: although on the surface I’m trying to be helpful I think it’s more about me. Giving people solid and thoughtful advice makes me feel better about myself. It’s also self-righteous, unconsciously sending the message that I don’t think you have it under control and that you aren’t “good enough” to deal with the problem. My eagerness is about showing that I am an expert, intelligent, and insightful more than understanding you or your situation. I’m putting myself up on a pedestal saying that I understand the problem and situation more than you. I’ve also noticed my own hypocrisy in that the advice I tend to dole out is also more often than not advice I’ve refused or ignored when offered to me. I feel that my tendency to rush in and try to fix things is a reflection of my insecurity and discomfort at being present with pain and feelings, both my own and others.
That’s probably not all the facts: I recognize that I only ever have one version of the events. You’ve told me your perception of what’s happening, but let’s be real! We all have a tendency to frame things in a way that suits our bias. If the issue is not flattering, we omit things or spin them in a way that avoids responsibility. Understanding this very human self-preservation instinct, I know that I am basing my judgement, reaction, and advice on a partial story. No matter how good my advice is, there’s no way that it is fair or complete because the facts presented are probably not either.
Solving problems builds confidence: getting yourself out of a bind, figuring it out, and succeeding despite adversity are all incredible confidence builders. As much as it may seem like I am helping by sharing my cleverness and insight, there is a chance that by providing overly detailed and forceful instruction I am robbing you of a powerful and necessary learning and growth experience. There is also always a decent chance that I am way off side, and shouldn’t subject you to my bias.
I don’t need to face the consequences: I know this is something I have not given any thought in the past. I was so caught up in “fixing” that I didn’t appreciate the simple fact that I would not have to deal with the fallout and consequences of the advice I was providing. I’m embarrassed at the drastic and pointed advice that I’ve offered over the years that called for intense and total life overhauls with no pause for how jarring those changes would be. I told people that this was the only solution to their problem with no appreciation of the level of commitment, drive, and perseverance implementing those actions would take to make them successful. In other words, making matter of fact and preachy suggestions about how people live their life was a real douche canoe move.
They may not take my advice, and may think less of me for it: despite my good intentions, how clever and insightful I think I might be, I recognize that people only really accept advice when they are ready. In the wrong state, they may not agree or they may not be ready even if it is genuinely the best course of action. I understand that if I catch someone in one of those moments there is a great chance that my advice will not be well received. They may resent or ignore me totally which in turn makes me feel like underappreciated garbage. Further, advice is rarely helpful if it is delivered in an intense I-know-what’s-best kind of way. I know we are all attracted to the idea of tough love but, in all but the most dire situations, delivering advice in this manner makes people defensive, defiant, and closed; therefore, totally unlikely to take the advice anyway. I also recognize that when I get angry at other people for not taking my advice it is an indication that I should not be giving it in the first place as it suggests that my actions are weighted on my expectations for things beyond my control rather than openness to the best outcome.
The deep irony of this situation is that the best way to give someone advice is often by not giving it at all. It’s by showing curiosity and really listening; by offering them a safe space to talk about the problem without fear of judgement. This is essentially what therapy and counselling provides. A good practitioner will serve as a guide to connect you with the answers you already have but are having trouble accessing. It’s shocking how often saying something aloud and talking it through with someone who is supportive and open to listening will be all that is needed for the person to find the solution. It is worth resisting the temptation to provide immediate solutions in favour of supporting those we care about in finding their own. I acknowledge, this may not always be possible. There are occasions where it is appropriate and needed to offer thoughts and advice but this is something I’m trying to approach more delicately. I don’t regret putting more effort into developing authentic and deep listening skills and allowing other people to share in a compassionate space.