Karma, For Dummies

Being spiritual is not something that comes easily to me. I don’t remember ever having anything close to what could be described as blind faith or trust in the universe.

When I was in middle school, a Christian family moved in across the street in my very small town. They had a daughter about my age. We had nothing in common, but they were kind and generous people and… well, there weren’t a lot of local playmates for any of us to choose from.

The family held daily bible readings. We would be running wild in the yard and get called inside where the mother would read us a bible passage and a second reading geared more towards children, usually a cute story with biblical morals. I don’t remember this being an unpleasant experience but truthfully I don’t think I got any spiritual substance from the practice.  Even at that age I was incorrigible and my engagement was tied more closely to the post study snack rather than any real appreciation for the divine.

I remember the day we covered Genesis and the creation of the world. I asked about dinosaurs, evolution, UFOs, and how could we possibly be the only life in the universe. To the mother’s credit, she was patient and told me that she believed those 7 days did not flow through time as we experience it today. The world was new, in Beta test. Even an omnipotent being needed time and some test subjects. Maybe all those details were not captured by the mortals who pieced together the Holy scripture.

I didn’t buy her explanations then and continue to resist anything that can’t be explained with logic, reason, and proof.  Needless to say, there is a lot that happens in life that can’t, so I find myself trying to force things into simplistic and ill-fitting boxes or obsessively trying to come up with rationalizations for things that are not rational, logic for things that are in no way logical, and for proof where there isn’t any.

If I can’t neatly sort and explain things, you ask? I dramatically crumble into a depressed existential crisis.

I acknowledge that this is part of why I struggle with letting go. I need (want) to always understand the why; even when it’s not available or knowing doesn’t make me happy either.

In recovery I have been looking for compromise; for ways to help me accept and let go of the unexplained. One concept that has helped me is Karma, or the idea that there is a relationship of cause and effect in people’s action (or inaction). Rooted in Hinduism and Buddhism, this idea has also been compared to Newton’s Third Law (thank goodness, some science!) which postulates that every action has an equal or opposite reaction. In other words, the universe is keeping tabs and eventually everything evens out.

I used to think that Karma was a result of justice and judgement, reward and punishment, but now I realize it’s about being accountable for yourself. Karma is supposed to encourage you to own your actions, the way you treat others, and also to trust that others should be left to do the same. Karma teaches us to be calm, emphasizing intelligent, unemotional and logical action. This leads to acceptance of reality as well as peace, calm, and surrender.

Another thing that makes this idea attractive to me is that it is often tied to reincarnation. Although I’m not sure I believe in an afterlife, it does help to justify the idea of suffering. While you may not get to experience the return of energy in this life, you will in the next. Some even teach that lifetimes are like levels in a video game with each life subjected to a new lesson or obstacle to overcome. Failure results in repeating the level while passing leads to harder and harder tests until you finally face off against the big boss and are rewarded with enlightenment, peace, and ethereal rewards.

While I think it’s unlikely that I will ever formally practice religion, I do see the value of spirituality. Belief in the unseen and unexplained makes it easier to let go by suggesting things will be sorted out when I let go. And, more importantly, these ideas can inspire hope, trust, and motivation to continue in this age of uncertainty, distrust, and scarcity. Because really, we could all use that extra bit of inspiration to convince us to continue when it seems like there is no hope.

Cheese!

white ceramic bowl
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I’ve always been an over-thinker. I replay scenarios in my head (past and future) dissecting every word, every action, and every possible outcome. I’m sure anyone reading this who suffers from this same affliction can appreciate the slow torturous hell that these loops create — you get stuck holding on to all these real and imagined moments, paralyzed and unable to appreciate the moment you are in. They can also last a shockingly long time.

I’m told this is not uncommon for people in recovery from family addiction issues. I understand that it is a form of coping, survival. Having lived through scenarios that were emotionally or physically painful, we protect ourselves from potential harm by becoming hyper-vigilant. We look for danger everywhere, we anticipate it, and in some cases we probably create it. This is part of that, the endless study of people’s words and actions and in our cases the confusing experience that these are rarely correlated.

This is why when you start digging into recovery literature and programs there is an emphasis on being present. This is a nice way of saying; “let that sh*t go!” and usually involves some combination of meditation and behaviour therapy.

When I first separated from my ex my mind would not stop. I tortured myself with endless questions, such as: was he really an alcoholic? Should I have done more to support him? What if I had done X instead of Y? And so on. An endless daisy chain of questions with no answers that would satisfy me.

I remember having a conversation with a friend where I was off on one of my circular rants. She had just been through the abrupt ending of her own relationship and engagement and I applaud her for even attempting to have the capacity for the flaming tire fire of my emotions. She had enough of her own stuff to sort through.

She stopped me mid-sentence while I was demanding that she give me answers she couldn’t possibly have and told me a story about a time when she was exiting her office and there was a single full slice of processed cheese on the floor outside her door. No one in sight, no clues, but clearly it had not been there long. She told me that when she needed a break from what was happening in her head she thought about that slice of cheese and came up with stories about how it wound up in her doorway.

I didn’t really understand the value of the gift she gave me until shortly thereafter when I found my own cheese story. A harmless event from my past, a mystery that would never be solved but caused me no anxiety and didn’t impact my sense of self worth in any meaningful way.

I still visit that scenario from time to time when I need a break from the loud mariachi band of doubt and obsession that barrels through my brain. I’ve even found that going to that place sometimes gives me just enough distance and freedom to get clarity on whatever idea I am flogging to death.

So – while you work your way up to Ghandi-esque zen, I share this strategy with you and hope that you can find the same power in cheese.

What does addiction look like?

When I met my former partner I was at a low point in my life. I was lost and unhappy in a job I didn’t like and surrounded by unhealthy relationships. I didn’t think I had anything or anyone I could count on and I approached most things prepared for failure. I had been let down enough times that I thought that was my destiny; to get close to what I wanted but never be able to hold on to it.

He was lost too and shared some intimate stories of betrayal and hardship. He told me I was beautiful and I believed him. He brought me flowers every week and showered me with attention and affection. I wanted to believe that he was the sweet, kind and thoughtful person who made me feel appreciated in a way I truthfully hadn’t felt before.

As time passed I noticed he drank frequently and in quantities that should have sent me running. We were in our late 20s and many of our friends and acquaintances were drinkers. I’d grown up thinking it was normal to have a drink after work or on the weekend and didn’t have any real understanding of the spectrum of addiction or the warning signs.

In hindsight, there were a lot of clues.

He kept changing jobs because he was being singled out, treated unfairly, and overlooked for promotions; the same explanation for several lateral moves. He grew apart from his oldest friends, saying they were always unavailable as they slowed their partying and started families. He missed payments and was caught driving without insurance and an expired license, blaming someone else for misplacing the registered letter informing him of the cancellation. There was often a justification for whatever crises arose, and they almost always involved the negligence of another person. I wish I could tell you I called him on the inconsistencies in his stories, but instead I enabled him; in the last example by paying the hefty fine he received.

He used subterfuge to work late and to stay home alone instead of doing things we had planned together. I started catching him in little and then bigger lies about where he was, money, and other things. I’ve since learned that a lot of what he told me about his past was not truthful, but the only part that shocks me now is how consistently and effortlessly he could lie, as easy as I can breathe. Eventually, he became more erratic, secretive, and adept at deflecting my concerns and manipulating me by pushing my buttons and accusing me of doing things that made him unhappy.

There were many excuses to drink. Often something was annoying him that justified coming home, flipping on the tv and eventually passing out on the couch. If I gave any indication that I was having a bad day, there was a bottle of wine waiting “for me” that he had already been opened and sampled.

His sleep patterns were always strange but became more irregular. He was napping all the time, which he justified with his physical job and inability to sleep through the night. He was often groggy and moody in the evening but sweet, disarming, and apologetic in the morning. I even remember a period where I believe he attempted to cut back himself. Our bed was soaked with sweat and he would twitch randomly throughout the day.

At several points in our relationship I found empty bottles hidden around our living space; sometimes he offered weak excuses, other times he ignored my questions entirely as if I didn’t exist. His personal grooming suffered and he showed less and less interest in me. He withdrew and so did I as it became harder and harder to make excuses that others would accept. I didn’t understand what was happening, but I believed that there was something wrong with me. That I was crazy and somehow causing his mood swings, his lying, and his lack of interest. Slowly and insidiously the sweet and kind man I loved was replaced by another person. In the last year of our relationship I would call him Jekyll and Hyde not realizing how appropriate that comparison was.

I hid what was happening from our friends and family. I sacrificed what I wanted and gave up a job I was passionate about because the money was erratic and I couldn’t count on him to make contributions to our bills. I neglected myself, my needs, and over time became obsessed with him: what he was doing, what he was spending, and trying to solve the mystery of why it always felt like my life was falling apart.

The worst part is that although he was not a good partner, I wasn’t either. He didn’t ask me to do any of the sacrifices I made. I chose them. I tried to control and change him by belittling him, begging him, giving him empty ultimatums, and bribing him. And when none of my tactics worked and I couldn’t control the relationship that would not live up to my expectations I grew bitter and resentful.

I gave up and became a husk of a person. I hated myself. I stopped taking care of me, I gained weight, avoided people, and I sunk into a functional depression. I worried all the time and I drank more than I knew was safe for me both to cope and because it seemed to be the only time he was interested in spending time with me.

Believe it or not, shouldering it all was easier than believing that I was the other woman. That I had interrupted his relationship with something he loved more than he would ever love me. I recognize now that he was an addict when I met him; I didn’t cause it and I couldn’t change it but it wasn’t for lack of trying.

As I write this now, I am grateful for the power of truth and acceptance. I’ve sat down to do this post several times since starting the blog and this is the first time I’ve made it through without tears, overwhelming embarrassment, and (I hope) without casting blame. I finally accept that as personal as everything that happened seemed, it wasn’t. We both made choices that served our own unhealthy agendas and there were consequences. The empowering thing about owning that, even if it lead to mistreatment and victimization, is the knowledge that I can make different choices going forward, I have that power. I’m also able to keep working on the process of letting go by acknowledging that although there is grief for the loss, I understand that the relationship was not healthy for either of us.

If you suspect that someone you care about is struggling with addiction, I encourage you to educate yourself. The correct way to help an addict or someone in a relationship with an addict may not be what you think. Addiction is a complex disease and its effects can ripple outwards for generations. You need to understand that so little about what is happening with the person or people you care about is logical or easy. You need to be ready for the reality that giving up the substance is just the first step in the long, difficult, but worthwhile process of recovery. You need to understand that some people never recover and what that means for you.

Addiction is a dangerous and progressive deadly disease. It’s so important that we help each other in recovery by example and by sharing our stories.

I recomend using your favourite search engine to look for local addiction resources. I guarantee there are people and groups that can help, including Anonymous groups for addicts and families of addicts, rehabilitation centres, intevention councillors, phone hotlines, and crises centres to name a few. I have also seen free online support groups and consultants. Help is closer than you think.

To get you started, here is a good article from MedicalNewsToday.com which discusses some of the common symptoms of substance addiction.

Cabin in the Woods

autumn autumn leaves beautiful color
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Since high school I’ve been telling people that some day I will retreat to a cabin in the woods. The fantasy has gone on over the years, with various accomplices who are interested in the idea of escaping (and others who joke about me becoming a hobbit), but it’s been my life’s ambition to have a private retreat in nature.

There are a lot of factors contributing to this dream but mostly it has to do with my personality makeup. I generally like people, but recharge alone. In other words, it takes a lot out of me to be “on” but I’m generally happy doing it in small stretches. As I’ve said, I’m uncomfortable with vulnerability and as a result struggle with emotional intimacy, so long stretches of intense socialization can be exhausting for me.

Perhaps you will appreciate the irony then that my current job is working in branch of financial sales which requires me to maintain long standing business relationships with key customers. My assigned book includes some of the highest maintenance characters in the region and I get consistent feedback from my managers that I appear unflappable, engaging, and well liked. Before this, I worked in private investigations and was often chosen for assignments that included an undercover component; walking into a place (or calling) pretending to be something I’m not in order to extract information from people.

It may surprise you to know that I have no trouble talking to strangers. To quote Chuck Palahniuk, I often make “single serving” friends when I am travelling or waiting in line at the grocery store. I suspect the reason being is that no real vulnerability is required in business or with strangers.  The parameters of those interactions are defined and I can be relaxed and appropriately open without any real fear of rejection, or care if that happens. However, it is also one of the few times socially I don’t overthink things and can just be present without expectations.

I used to think the cabin in the woods idea was just about escapism. Over the last year, I’ve started doing more weekends and hikes alone in the wilderness. I’ve realized that the real attraction is that I can just let my guard down and life is simple. There is something fundamentally healing about being in nature. If you are still and quiet it engulfs you and absorbs you, wildlife stops avoiding you and it feels like you are connected to something bigger.

No dialog, no expectations, no explaining, no judgement. Just present moment magic.

As I’m getting better at accepting myself and all that self-love voodoo it has been getting slowly less exhausting to be around people. I’ve been working at letting my guard down more often and taking more social risks. The reward has been slowly developing new and stronger connections and less need to withdraw. That said, I’ve also started to make peace with the fact that I do require some time in nature to reconnect and ground myself and have been working to try and make regular opportunities for that to happen.

Considering the cabin under the lens of recovery has lead me to really examine my motives. In this case, I think it’s important to understand the difference between isolation and quality time alone. Isolation is about avoidance and escapism, while time alone is about healing, recharging and reconnecting.

While I continue to work towards the dream, I’m becoming more creative and adept at giving myself the opportunities to get what I need with what I have available and appreciating those moments I created.

Because we haven’t had a musical interlude in a while, the Rolling Stones:

Bill Murray (& Showing Up)

I’ve been a fan of Bill Murray since I was a kid. Growing up, he was a standout in Ghostbusters, What About Bob?, and my all-time favourite Groundhog Day. On screen there was always something compelling about him.  He doesn’t fit the mould and there is something magnetic about him. He is genuine, which seems like a strange thing to say about some who makes a living pretending to be other people.

One of my favourite Bill Murray movie quotables is from Ghostbusters:

Why worry? Each of us is carrying an unlicensed nuclear accelerator on his back.

Even in advance of his current popularity that moment captured a little bit of Bill’s approach to living: in the moment, available, doing what he has to do, tongue in cheek, and never-mind the consequences.

Recently I watched The Bill Murray Stories on Netflix. The documentary by Tommy Avallone chronicles stories of the actor making incredible cameos in people’s lives: appearing in a couple’s engagement photos, showing up at a house party and doing the host’s dishes, serving drinks at local watering hole for the evening after befriending the bartender, or putting his hands over men’s eyes in a public restroom whispering in their ears “no one will ever believe you”. In the absence of proof it would be unbelievable that a celebrity of this caliber would just show up and be present, silly and playful, without security or worry, just to be in the moment with non-celebs.

I’ve since read articles speculating on the actor’s motives, not limited to: commentary on how technology has impaired our ability to connect, keeping his improv skills sharp, or a way for him to feel “normal” and momentarily escape his celebrity status.

Regardless of the legend’s motives, I find his actions inspiring. To me, Bill’s antics represent truly being open and available to experience life. As a chronic over-thinker I envy, idolize, and aspire to this state of being. I desire more than anything to just show up and participate without crippling myself with the details.

I think that’s what true freedom and success is about: showing up and making the most of it. Not how many dollars in your bank account, the size of your house, the number of countries you’ve visited, how many offspring you’ve produced, or how successful you are in your chosen profession. I don’t think it’s about grabbing every opportunity that is presented, but being open and available to experiences that enrich your life in the moment, in the present.

While I shuffle forward into my new life I keep Bill in the back of my mind as inspiration to not get so invested in the details and try to enjoy the moments as they come.

His Tao, in his own words:

I live a little bit on the seat of my pants, I try to be alert and available … for life to happen to me. We’re in this life, and if you’re not available, the sort of ordinary time goes past and you didn’t live it. But if you’re available, life gets huge. You’re really living it. – Bill Murray, From an Interview with Charlie Rose via Flavourwire

Our Love Affair with Substance Use

I grew up in a very small town.

My hometown consists of a graveyard, a community centre, a couple of convenience stores, a church and about 100 houses. It’s also a 15 minute car ride to the closest more substantial small town. It is part of a large but underpopulated county in southern Ontario, Canada. My high school had about 500 students, grades 8 -12, many of whom were bussed close to an hour to get there.

Admittedly, I was an odd kid. I was teased in elementary school for being quiet, shy, a bit too liberal for that small farming community, and well… we’ve chatted previously about my home life, I didn’t think I belonged there either.  By the time I made it to high school I had cultivated a tougher persona. I lacked confidence in my appearance and my self and I tried to disguise that by being disruptive, argumentative, opinionated, and a general pain in the butt.

It’s safer to be feared than loved.

– Machiavelli, the Prince

I remember the first time I drank excessively, I was about 15. A girlfriend, that had an equally complicated opinion of herself and desperate need for approval, flirted with an older boy to get us a bottle of pear liquor. It went about as well as you’d expect. I still associate pears with hangovers. However, I persisted.

By the end of my high school career I could out drink most of my classmates (male or female), snuck into bars, experimented with several gateway drugs, was a chain smoker, a master of several drinking games, and spent most of my time in a perpetual state of party. Through those actions, I had the illusion that I gained acceptance. People seemed to find me more approachable or maybe, like many drunks, I just had an inflated sense of self-importance.

At university, in my final year, my party life ended. I was 23 and developed a blood disorder. As a result of this, I have to maintain a moderate lifestyle. Drinking in excess and drug use carry the very real threat of death. It was a lot earlier than I wanted to accept my mortality but, looking at the trajectory of my life, I could have easily graduated to full addiction so I am somewhat grateful.

Following my medical crises, my ability to fit in got worse. While I’d been partying for years, many of my conservative small town friends were just getting started and there were very few social events that didn’t involve excessive use of something mind altering. I found people who were intoxicated hard to be around. It no longer seemed fun to me; there was always drama, someone crying, fights, and conversation that can only seem interesting to people in a similar state.

I kept getting polite invites but I noticed I made people uncomfortable. They would question why I wasn’t drinking and pressure me to join them. When I politely refused, they would appear uncomfortable, like I was judging them. I eventually mostly stopped going to bars and gatherings where the intent was to party and it started to feel like my presence was requested mostly to avoid cab fare.

Later, as my friends started settling down and having kids, I started going to more events. I noticed that the drinking and the drugs didn’t stop. Name the occasion and I was offered alcohol and/or a joint was being passed: children’s birthday party, christening, baby shower. Again, with the questions about why I wasn’t drinking more or why I didn’t want to get high.

Substances are widely accepted to punctuate many life events and are a common theme in popular media.

Bad day at work? Have a drink.

Broke up with your boyfriend? Let’s get stoned.

Got that promotion? Cocktails!

Engaged? Vegas binge till we blackout, y’all!

Over time I developed the ability to nurse a drink or two for an entire evening, but generally still find it easier to leave before people get too sloppy and start asking questions about my relative sobriety.

I guess the point that I’m trying to make here is that I feel like we need to seriously look at our relationship with substance use. Especially following recent changes in legislation in Canada that make it easier and easier to obtain various legalized substances. Notably, recent changes to provincial liquor law providing more retail options for purchase of alcohol and allowing drinking in public, which was previously regulated. This nips at the heels of federal legislation reform on cannabis.

While I don’t necessarily think that regulation is the answer to reducing addiction, I think that increasing the availability of these substances without more discussion on how Canadians relate to them is a mistake.

Getting drunk or stoned is not romantic, it doesn’t make you cool, it’s not for everyone, and ultimately it should just be for recreation. Substances do not solve your problems, they are not a valid way to cope, they don’t make you more attractive or desirable, and are they really how we want to punctuate our happiest events — by potentially not being present for them?

Everyone is entitled to occasional escape, being a human is at times complicated and challenging but I wish we would do more to remind ourselves that substance use is a privilege, a personal choice, and should be approached with in a healthy state of mind.

Andrea Owen (& Empathy)

I’ve always avoided the self help section of the bookstore. This was due to a lack of self-awareness, unwillingness to admit my vulnerabilities, and my natural jaded inclination to think that if people are happy or spewing rosy life advice they are probably full of garbage.

How fortuitous that the opening of my mind to the possibility of self-improvement came at a time when there is a plethora of self-help books full of curse words to comfort me, cushion my landing, and introduce me to healthy thinking.

Thanks to these foul-mouthed authors I’m getting a remedial education in basic human communication and connection. This week I’d like to talk about what I’ve learned about empathy.

In her book, How to Stop Feeling like Sh*t, Andrea Owen identifies some of the common ways that we react to people’s stories. In this case, romantic relationship issues:

  • The One-Upper: “OMG, That’s nothing! I’m almost positive my husband is cheating on me with his office manager.”
  • The Pooh-pooh-er: “It’s probably not that bad. I just saw you two last week, you seemed fine”
  • The At Least-er: “Well, at least you’re married. I’ve been single for ten freakin’ years!”
  • The Fixer: “Have you gone to counseling? Or read that book on relationships? What about date nights?”
  • The Gasper: “WHAT?! I thought your marriage was perfect! You HAVE to make this work!” (bursts into tears)
  • I’m gonna make this about me: “Ah, bummer. Yeah, so me and my husband got in this huge argument this weekend. He got drunk at a BBQ our neighbours hosted and I…”

I can admit I’ve reacted at one point or another in each of these ways, and also had people react in these way to me. In my experience, all of these reactions cause me to feel isolated, hopeless, and no better than I was before I opened my mouth and shared. The reason being that none of these are true empathy.

Empathy is about sitting in that mess. It’s about looking within, finding that feeling and sinking into it… with someone else! It’s really incredibly uncomfortable but boils down to being no more or less than a compassionate witness.

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that those of us who have trouble bearing compassionate witness to our own feelings are really ineffective at doing it for others. However, like most skills, practice and persistence pay off.

It may not surprise you that I’ve been very selective in sharing this blog with people I know. I’m fearful of people’s reactions having not a lot of experience with giving or receiving empathy.

However, recently I did take a chance on a new friend. Having gone through a different, but not dissimilar life event, and after sharing some of that experience with me I decided to go against my normal instinct and gave her the URL. She surprised me, read all the entries and responded with the sincere and perfectly empathic response of thanking me for sharing with her and validating that I was justified in feeling pain.

Such a little thing, but so significant.

Unfortunately, it’s not always “safe” to be vulnerable. Like me, many people have a misguided idea of what being there for someone really means. Not all problems have solutions that others can help you find, sometimes the best gift you can get is someone that’s willing to sit there in the ditch with you and remind you that you can trust yourself to get out again.

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If you would like to learn more about Andrea Owen’s coaching, books, blog, podcast, or general awesome swing by her website, here.