2020 Memorandum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chasing Rock Bottom

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When we separated, I spent the first months obsessed with the idea of rock bottom. I read everything about addiction I could get my hands on, I scoured the internet for local resources and treatment facilities, I even helped orchestrate an intervention I had no intention of attending.

In the last throws of my heartbreak, my outrage and hurt at not being important enough to stop drinking, to stop hurting himself, I took desperate, loud, and dramatic action. I forced him out of our home, outed him to his family and friends, and robbed him of every last bit of dignity I could grab, and still somehow thought I could force him to get better.

Of course I told myself I had good intentions. I thought that he would die without me, that after so many years of me trying to control his drinking and saving him from all the consequences of his actions he would lie down in a gutter and surrender, or take out innocent bystanders while carelessly drunk driving. I was afraid and lost without him to obsess about. I was full of guilt at initiating our breakup and shame that the loss of our life together had not caused him to change his course.

I suggested to his mother that she organize an intervention. I sent her articles touting the success rates of well-prepared interventions. I even suggested an intervention consultant I found on the internet. I suggested the people I thought would have the biggest impact, I revealed what I thought were his biggest soft spots, and I didn’t sleep for days composing what I thought would be the most heartbreaking appeal I could muster… to be read by someone else.

I planned. I researched. I schemed. I continued to manipulate people in an effort to “save” him. Right up until the day of the intervention… then I waited.

And waited.

And nothing changed.

He told his parents that he would not be attending the treatment facility they offered to fund, that he would lead his own recovery. Then he signed a lease on a house he couldn’t afford, and started to systematically cut out the support system that had tried to intervene.

For the first time, I accepted defeat.

Although I was lost in a heavy fog at that time, it quickly lifted in the months after the failed intervention. The shame and the guilt resurfaced and I realized that I needed to stop trying to save others when I was drowning myself.

I found a therapist. I tried Al-Anon. I started this blog. I asked for help. And I realized that in trying to force another person into rock bottom, I found my own.

And unbelievably, I’m grateful for every ounce of embarrassment, pain, and continued effort to dig myself out of that hole.

There is another side and it’s fucking great.

Substances, In Recovery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Codependency and Loneliness

woman sitting on white bed
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When I think back on the time I spent with my ex-alcoholic, the dominant emotion that comes to mind is “loneliness”. Over time, as our relationship became more and more dysfunctional, I made the choice to turn inward.

I pulled away from others for a number of reasons, one of the most shameful is because I found his behaviour embarrassing.

I remember an evening we went over to my boss’ house for dinner. After dessert, her husband took the “men” out to his workshop for scotch. Predictably, my ex drank beyond his limits and ended up sitting on another female guest’s lap for an extended period of time (much to my horror and the silent fury of her husband). I waited until the morning to point out how his behaviour was inappropriate and painful for me. He shrugged off my comments, telling me I was too sensitive, selfish, and should lighten up. Conversation over.

That’s typically how we talked about things that bothered us.. someone would bring a legitimate grievance to the table to be dismissed, put down, and ignored. Notice I said “us”. Over time, this became the relationship’s culture, it’s normal. My hands are not clean.

I can’t speak to how this experience was for him, but it had a profound impact on my self-worth. Having my opinions, needs, and experience undermined and belittled made me feel as though I had nothing relevant or authentic to bring to the table. Without that, there could be no positive change and as a result, the only “logical” next step was to avoid interacting with other people. Without third party accountability, it was easier to continue on with my “truth”: that I was worthless, unreasonable and unlovable.

Another reason I withdrew, is the misguided notion that I felt that if we only had to be accountable to each other, things would eventually improve. That life would be somewhat predictable and manageable with only one person to worry about.

But, as many of you can relate, being in a relationship with someone that is not present is not fulfilling; emotionally, spiritually, or physically. The harder I clung on to him and tried to force him to spend “quality” time with me, the more he rejected me and tried to make space. This started with refusing to share meals, refusing to spend time time together, and eventually to sleeping alone.

Our evening ritual would culminate as he became increasingly distant, quiet, and sometimes confrontational.  Anything to make me retreat and shut myself in the bedroom, to leave him alone to drink and watch a movie he had already seen hundreds of times waiting for the vodka to overtake him. When I remember this, I still cringe. I’ve never felt so low, undesirable and lonely. I remember hearing the bottle pop before I’d even made it up the stairs.  I remember lying awake for hours, wondering what was wrong with me, how I could fix myself to make him want me again.

Truthfully, I still struggle to combat this feeling. I sometimes break into a cold sweat trying to get out the words to set a boundary and express my feelings. I can’t seem to override the expectation that I shouldn’t share what I’m feeling because it somehow doesn’t matter.

But – I’m working on it.

I remind myself that someone else’s option of me does not need to impact my own self-worth.  I remind myself that we are all free to make our own choices and suffer the consequences. I remind myself that I also have choices to make, and I should value my own needs when making them. I remind myself that I’m also entitled to have good things and experiences and that I don’t need to accept unacceptable behaviour.