Learning to be Present

I’ve touched on this idea in a few of my previous posts, but I feel like it deserves some more cowbell.

Up until recently I would have identified my predominant traits as cynical, jaded, and salty. My natural reflex when looking at any challenge or situation is to speculate on all the things that can go wrong, obsess and worry about them, then try to come up with a million different ways to “solve” any potential outcomes. I’m so good at thinking the worst that my current job involves a heavy risk management component: I get paid to imagine disaster and try to avoid it in order to save my employer the expense of having to pay for those losses.

There is a quote floating around from Lao Tzu I’m sure you’ve encountered. It has been made into about 5 million memes:

If you are depressed you are living in the past.
If you are anxious you are living in the future.
If you are at peace you are living in the present.

It doesn’t matter how many times I run into this quote it always hits me with the same intensity. Tzu was a really smart dude and I totally agree with this assessment of mood and time.

The past can be depressing for a lot of us because of how we relate to it. Often looking backwards means yearning for things that are gone or wanting to change things we have no control over. Of course that’s depressing, it’s impossible to change it or get it back! Further, if you are living back there, it’s really tough to see what’s right in front of you right now. The fat lady has sung, we need to let it go.

The future can cause anxiety because we are looking into an abyss of possibility and the unknown. There is no way to guarantee that anything you are doing right now will work out the way you want it to. You might not get that promotion, you might not get a second date with that really cute person you like, and you might have a heart attack tomorrow on your morning jog. Trying to control the future or grasp for guarantees is a trap, it’s an impossible task that will almost inevitably end in disappointment and shame. Holding on so tightly to anything doesn’t mean you get to keep it. Darling, you have no control over anything but your own actions, thoughts, and feelings. Let it go.

Right now is literally all that we have. It’s concrete and interactive: you can touch it, smell it, feel it, taste it. Everything is right here, a buffet for your enjoyment! Your relationship with the present is paramount because what you are choosing to do right now has an impact you can experience on all levels. If you are living in this moment, you are really living. This is where you can feel genuine, authentic, and fulfilled.

I’m still working on developing the skill of being present. It takes time and it is normal to not be perfect. I imagine even the Dalai Lama, in his expansive mindfulness, has moments when he slips into one of those past or future traps. It is normal to be nostalgic and also to hope and work towards good things in the future. Neither of these things means that you are doing something wrong, it just means you are human. And let’s be real, it’s hard to accomplish things if you don’t plan or acknowledge the consequences of your actions.

There are a few things I’ve found help drag me into the here and now when I’m feeling depressed and/or anxious.

First, I’m trying to develop a better relationship with my past. Instead of being depressed, shamed, or yearning I try to be grateful and look at things as a lesson. With all the bad that’s happened came good. I try to focus on the good and also try to accept the bad and explore what I learned and how I can use it to work towards something better. I respect the actions that got me this far but I understand that growth needs adaptation and flexibility. I try to own my mistakes, make amends, and let it go. I try to be gentle and understanding with myself during this process. Some days I do better at this than others, and I understand that’s ok too.

Second, I try to keep worrying about the future for work. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have goals or that I blindly accept risk but I try not to get obsessive about it. I work at gratitude for where I am right now. I understand that even if I’m not where I want to be there is beauty and satisfaction in laying a strong foundation. Limbo isn’t popular, but it’s where we build and regenerate, it’s 10,000% necessary to spend time here to get somewhere different. There is happiness in the potential of a clean slate and a fresh start. I work at trying to do the best I can right now and trust that things will work out as they should, even if that’s not exactly what I think I want and it doesn’t look like what anyone else has.

Mostly I just try to stay present. I try to appreciate the interactions I have because I am fortunate enough to be having them. I work at sucking all the detail out of whatever I am participating in and I try to lighten up and be the best version of myself in the moment. I  work at trying to forgive myself quickly when I don’t do as well as I think I should or I can’t help but shrink into anxiety or sadness. I know that eventually it really is going to be ok if I believe that to be true.

But most of all I try to be my own best advocate, live and let live, let go, and trust the process. I understand that the key is to believe and trust in what I can’t yet see or imagine, as cliché as it sounds, that’s where the magic happens.

* * *

Today’s soundtrack comes from Pearl Jam.  In recovery following years of drug addiction and one of the last surviving great grunge frontmen, I can’t think of many people who would be able to capture this week’s theme like Eddie Vedder.

You can spend your time alone redigesting past regrets
Or you can come to terms and realize you’re the only one who can’t forgive yourself
Makes much more sense to live in the present tense

The Gauntlet

When February hit I became acutely aware of how rough the last couple months have been. The passing of holidays can bring joy for some but for others serve as a reminder of what we’ve lost.

Speaking from my own perspective, this comes from awareness that I’m not feeling what I “should” be feeling on those days. I’ve been fairly candid about the trashheap that my previous relationship was becoming but there are things that I miss.

On Thanksgiving, while I was happy for my coworkers, friends, and strangers discussing their family plans I found myself missing my former inlaws. They welcomed me completely from the beginning of our relationship, including me in all functions and activities. In many ways I was closer to them than my own family. I missed being “auntie” to my niece and nephew, and my surrogate aunts, uncles, cousins, and siblings. I struggled to act as if I was grateful.

Christmas brought another round of pain. For the first time in 8 years I didn’t bake pecan pies or camp out at my mother and father in laws house and watch them wrestle with the android box. I had trouble getting up any excitement for gifts or gatherings. I actually volunteered to be part of the skeleton staff at work so I could limit my time spent at home and therefore the amount of time I had to act as if I was joyful.

New Years was our former relationship anniversary. Although a girlfriend came over and got me laughing, it still hurt. Truthfully our last few years had been pretty miserable, but it was an effort to act as if I was happy to be celebrating the passage of time alone.

Valentines Day; as I listened to my coworkers gush about the plans their significant others had made for their evenings I felt lonely. He was less and less attentive as our relationship went on but it was the first time in years that someone didn’t tell me they loved me, even if it was only lipservice. But still, I acted as if I was happy to be single.

Last weekend was Family Day (a holiday in some provinces in Canada). I remembered happier times we spent up north together roughing it at the cottage with no creature comforts in the bitter cold. I can still smell the cedar, the fireplace, and remember when I actually enjoyed spending time with him. This year I had to work and it was tough to concentrate and act as if I wasn’t lost in my thoughts.

Reflecting on all those days I will say that none of them were as bad as I thought they would be. There were sad moments and I let myself feel them, but I didn’t lose myself to grief. I need to give myself credit for an overall improvement in my coping strategies since the fall.

Between Thanksgiving and Christmas I did a lot of unhealthy things to try and distract myself from my pain. I played some old unhealthy behaviour programs and made some bad choices trying to rush things I wasn’t ready for in a subconscious effort to feel anything other than sad and anxious. Worst of all I hit pause on a lot of the routine I had been developing that was helping me get right again. Around New Years I took a step back and restarted my routines, I started this blog, and before I knew it I was on track again; more level, less emotional peaks and valleys, and more accepting of the good and the bad.

I guess the point that I’m trying to make here is that all things pass, things have to end to make room for new things. It’s ok to not to live up to your or someone else’s expectations for the day. It’s ok to grieve. It’s ok to take your time and be patient with yourself. Loss of all kinds hurt, what you are feeling is normal. It will pass, it will get easier, but you need to be honest with yourself and go through the process. If something feels bad, take a step back and self care. If something feels good, try and let yourself lean in and enjoy it. But most of all, just be accepting of where you are right now and love yourself anyway. You can’t force change, it will come in its own time.

And please, give yourself a hand for surviving the holidays.  That was a marathon and you made it!

* * *

I’m a big fan of this new release by Dan Mangan. To me it speaks of hope and excitement about uncertainty; rising from the ashes. I hope it speaks to you too.

And hey Steven, how’s Sally?
How’re the peaks and how’re the valleys?
And I’ve been down some, but I’ll rally
Have you found something to sink your teeth into?
Keep it even, keep her happy
Don’t be afraid to love her madly
‘Cause she will steer you and keep you afloat
As you row that boat until you both let go someday

Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger

I went through a period in my mid 20s where I was driven to exercise. I got a personal trainer, showed up at the gym at the crack of dawn every weekday and watched what I ate. At that time my sole motivation was vanity. I had no self-esteem and was convinced if I overhauled my physique men would like me and I guess by proxy I would like me.

Remembering this time is maddening for me now. Looking back at pictures, there was nothing wrong with how I looked. If anything turned off interest it’s that they could smell my insecurity and desperation for approval. I’m embarassed how much I cared.

Part way into this gym obsession a funny thing happened. I stopped caring so much, I just kind of naturally felt better about me. I stood up taller, I smiled more and before I even had any significant results people were attracted to me. I had a few of the best organically social years of my life. It definitely wasn’t perfect, but it was the most relaxed I’d ever been.

I didn’t put two and two together, but I see the same phenomenon at work now in my recovery.

A few months ago I started going to the gym again 5 days a week. Mostly classes, a lot of yoga. I notice on the days that I attend my brain gives me a break: I let go a little easier and lean into moments a little more fully.

I think I’m more aware this time because I started working on my mental fitness before I started back at the gym. I’ve always considered myself to be pretty open-minded when it comes to treatment of mental health issues (for others) but truthfully I was never all that willing to consider it for myself. However, after I bottomed out on codependency I knew I needed help and found a therapist. Having experienced it now, I would encourage anyone who is curious to at least try it. It’s awkward at times, hard, and emotional, but it’s worth it. With her gentle guidance I finally think I’m starting to understand what shaped me and what behaviours aren’t serving me anymore. I’m also starting to understand that vulnerability can be done in a safe way that doesn’t have to lead to more pain.

Something that comes up in sessions is that she asks me to describe a feeling physically. Now, before you laugh, think about it. Describe where you feel sadness in your body. Is it in your chest? Your stomach? Does it feel like pain? What kind? Now describe that. Is it like a hand squeezing you? Are you being crushed by a heavy weight?

You get the idea.

Maybe this comes easily for you, but it’s a truly alien concept for me. I’ve come to realize that my brain and body do not communicate very well and I have little emotional intelligence. I suppose that makes sense; if you are going to live a life where you need to ignore your instincts and trust people who don’t have your best interests in mind you can’t be connected to your body or your feelings. I’ve spent most of my life running from feeling and shunning any ideas of self compassion. I shrug off any discomfort in my body and pretend it’s not happening. The truly tragic thing about this is you can’t just numb the bad, it takes the joy with it. Regret is a fruitless exercise, but I can’t help but wonder how many happy feelings I’ve missed in my efforts to run from potential (not even realized) pain.

That’s why exercise, especially the kind that teaches awareness of the body and mind as a cooperative, is helpful for people in recovery. By design it rebuilds those weak synapses and recharges those connections. With practice you start hearing your warning bells. You recognize when you need to rethink your actions or detach from someone who doesn’t have your best interests at heart. You start to understand that your body is just trying to give you a heads up about what your brain hasn’t figured out yet. You feel everything more fully, the bad and the good, and over time develop calmness, awareness, and acceptance. You don’t need to numb, you understand that feeling is normal, it’s valid, and it passes in the fullness of time with or without your intervention. And without even trying others will intuitively notice this shift and relationships will also become easier.  I know it sounds like mojo, but I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried!

A year ago I wouldn’t have been caught dead in a yoga studio or a meditation class. I probably would have made fun of such an idea and anyone enjoying it. A year ago I didn’t understand why anyone would want to do something so vulnerable, let alone do it as a group. I just didn’t get it. Both yoga and meditation can be very personal practices, helping you feel grounded to the earth. Over the last few months I’ve started to prefer practicing in a group because in addition to feeling grounded I feel connected to the others in the space. It can be calming, energizing, and eliminates some of the social anxiety I sometimes feel making small talk with strangers. There’s no need to discuss personal details, you can just breathe and lean into the poses together.

I’m drafting this from deep outside my comfort zone. I went alone to a 2 day yoga retreat in the woods. This may not seem like a big thing, but for me it’s a huge deal. Since I was a child I have avoided trying new things that I wasn’t certain I would be good at or that would have put me in the position of being judged. I certainly would not have dreamed to take this sort of risk without the safety net of going with someone else. At least then I would be able to use inside jokes to hide my insecurity.

You know what? I’m actually having a good time. I tried snowshoeing for the first time, participated in a number of yoga and meditation classes with gusto, and feel the value of experience that isn’t numbed in any of the creative ways I’ve tried in the past. The people are lovely, the cabin is adorable, and the grounds are breathtaking. I even bought their vegetarian cookbook, the food is that good! I’m not even vegetarian.

I’m glad that rediscovering exercise has brought such unexpected gifts and adventure. I’m glad I know I can do things I want to do without waiting for someone to be available to join me. I’m grateful that I am getting the opportunity to retrain my brain to listen to my body, to relax, slow down, and understand that I don’t need to be perfect. It’s worth taking risks and being vulnerable for growth.

I’m grateful I finally understand the value of both my mind and body working together as allies and not adversaries.

A bit more about the benefits of yoga and meditation to recovery: Yoga for Addiction Recovery (Yoga Journal)

* * *

Just ’cause, 10 years later this is still my favourite workout track. Outside of the yoga studio, of course.

Why am I writing this?

I’m probably not alone in the fact that there have been a few events in my life that so drastically altered the course that there is no denying their significance. These stand out head and shoulders above other moments in that I can say with no insincerity that nothing was the same again.

Although I do not want to sensationalize the anniversary of the end of the relationship that I thought would be my last, I am aware that this date is approaching. I am determined to view it not as an ending but a new beginning thus exercising my choice to frame the present in the way that best suits and empowers me.

But still, I can’t help but reflect.

The night he left was one of the longest of my life. I couldn’t sleep. I didn’t know what to feel. I was in shock. We’d spent almost every day of 8 years together and I didn’t know what to do. We were really truly codependent and I was already feeling withdrawal.

I stayed up all night researching addiction, reading blogs and watching YouTube and Ted Talk videos about people, their addictions and their relationships with addicts. Until I stumbled on this video:

That night I must have watched this video a half a dozen times in a row. I didn’t want to believe that there would be no reconciliation in my case but something about Stacey’s story made me feel better. She is intelligent, poised, and insightful. She isn’t stupid or pathetic (like I felt) and she has a similar story. I liked that she offered her experience in a way that was honest, open, and vulnerable. She owned it in a way I couldn’t imagine after so many years hiding.

In my loneliness, shame, and self-loathing Stacey gave me hope.

I didn’t do anything with what she shared immediately but I kept revisiting this video over the weeks that followed and eventually, when I was ready, I did get help. Stacey gave me a lifeline. She opened an empathic space and presented me the opportunity to find my own way. If you ever read this: thank you, Stacey! You da bomb.

Truthfully, I don’t believe there is a perfect formula to fix this kind of pain. I think we all create our own recovery programs and I’m not going to judge you if your process is different from mine. One author recommended (I can’t recall which, sorry) that we treat recovery like a buffet and sample all the available strategies and information but only go back for more of what “tastes” good. We will all get there in our own time with patience, acceptance, and understanding.

It is my hope that my story can help hold an empathic space open for someone else who feels as low and hopeless as I did. I also hope that through owning my story and writing about it I will be able to own the ending and make a better one than I would have ever considered for myself in the past.

I don’t know you but I sincerely hope that you don’t give up. You didn’t deserve what happened to you and we both know you are doing the absolute best you can to make it better. Wherever you are right now is exactly where you need to be to get where you are going. You are worthy and deserving of love, peace and happiness.

Rock Bottom

Everything hit the fan and I was a mess. When I ended our relationship I didn’t expect him to go so easily. I honestly thought that if I gave him a shove he would wake up and fight to keep our life together, such as it was. My denial and ignorance was that deep. Although it kills me to admit it, I thought that the situation would unfold like a movie: he would quit drinking, things would be “normal”, happily ever after… and maybe a white horse would show up!

I spent the first month of our no-contact separation obsessing about what he might be doing, conspiring with others to stage an intervention, and holding on tightly to the idea that he would come to his senses and realize what he was missing.

There was an intervention and it made no impact. Although I was not present at the event from what I am told about his reactions and behaviour it is likely that he showed up drunk and it was doomed before it started. No one involved knew what they were doing but we were beautifully united in the shared belief that we would save him. We had good intentions but that’s about it.

It was a nice dream.

The sad reality of these things is that it’s really hard to change. Even when you don’t have a substance use problem it’s really hard. In most cases the behaviour we see is just a symptom of some underlying problem: “I use drugs to self-medicate my feelings of anxiety” or “I’m caretaking the alcoholic because I feel I don’t deserve any better”. Often what drives us to do these things is ugly and shameful so whether we are conscious of the reason or not it’s hard to imagine acknowledging and dealing with it. Add a substance into the mix and awareness becomes exponentially harder. It’s no longer a choice to stop, it’s what we need to do to survive the soundtrack in our heads.

Plus: most of us are stubborn, entitled, and we don’t really feel that we should be inconvenienced by the effort and discomfort of changing ourselves. We would rather argue and push the environment to change to suit us. This is a losing battle: the environment will always try and revert back to what it was before we started imposing ourselves on it. The mountain did not come to Muhammad, he had to drag his butt there.

I believe this is where the concept of “rock bottom” comes from. It’s an emotional state where the person believes that they have nothing else to lose and no other choice but to change. Maybe we need to reach this point because wherever we are is so familiar (even if it’s crappy) and that’s more comfortable than a courageous leap into the unknown. We must know on some level that it’s not enough to stop whatever we are doing to numb ourselves, we need to be ready to deal with the oozing wound underneath. Rock bottom looks different on everyone and it’s not uncommon to have to go all the way there in order to consider a different course of action. Sadly, not everyone is lucky enough to find their rock bottom.

I’d love to tell you that acceptance came quickly after the failed intervention but it did not. I continued to feel furious, abandoned, rejected and victimized. I obsessed and schemed new ideas to get him to treatment.

Until I got sick.

I literally made myself ill with stress. My back went into spasm and I was ordered to take a week off work to do nothing. Literally nothing. No position was comfortable: I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t lie down, I couldn’t walk any distance. Laughing hurt. Crying hurt. Everything hurt. Because of an existing medical condition I was limited in the medications I could take to treat it. With a heating pad I could sit stiffly with discomfort, so I sat. In full awareness and pain, I sat.

I eventually asked myself: “if you aren’t willing to look at yourself and change, how do you think you are going to get anywhere? Girl, why do you think you can drag someone else’s limp body there too?!”

Truthfully it had dawned on me a few times before this that there was something wrong with me too but I quickly buried that in the backyard where I thought it belonged. I chose to take the survival strategy that had “worked” for me my whole life and focused on other people instead of looking at my own issues. But now, with nothing else to do, I realized that I was going to kill myself if I didn’t smarten up.

This was my rock bottom moment and probably one of the greatest gifts the universe has ever given me. It slapped me right in my stubborn back.

I realized I’d been living at the bottom of a well. From there I could see sunlight, bright blue sky, fluffy little clouds, and it looked to me like a Bob Ross painting. I wanted to be there among the happy trees, frolicking in the meadow… But, after all those years at the bottom I was atrophied. That week I finally realized that just surviving at the bottom of a well is not living. In total defeat and with no more excuses I started inching my way up.

Now, let me preface the next part by saying I am not qualified to give advice or make recommendations on what may be right for you, but: it is no accident or coincidence that there are similarities in the steps of most recovery groups regardless of what led you to one. Although I admit that I am not a member of one of those groups I do think there is value in 12 Step Programs and is one option that has saved countless people.

For families of addicts, the first step is always some adaptation of:

We admitted that we were powerless over others and that our lives had become unmanageable.

This idea is liberating to me. It gives me the freedom of letting go of my self-imposed responsibilities to others and to accept the impossibility of those tasks. It reminds me that all I really have control over is myself and it allows me to climb out of the well. It lets me off the hook and allows me to take care of me.

As a lifelong fighter, survivor, and self-proclaimed stubborn pain in the butt I can vouch for the relief and new beginnings that can be found in surrender to a lack of control over anything but myself. If you’ve tried everything else, what do you really have to lose?

* * *

A little bonus soundtrack suggestion for this entry. Zevon was very ill in 2000 when he wrote this song. In 2002, he discovered he had terminal lung disease and died the following year. I think Zevon did a good job at putting us all on the same playing field and reminds us that we all have blind spots.

Plus he really nailed the camel’s back here:

“Let me break it to you, son”
He said, “The s**t that used to work-
It won’t work now.”

In case it is not clear, please note the lyrics are [explicit] and it is suggested you skip this if you are sensitive to this language.

#BellLetsTalk: Stigma

A break from our regularly scheduled programming to have a very important discussion.

Today, January 30th, is Bell Let’s Talk Day and I love this initiative.  Since this campaign started in 2010, over $100 Million has been donated to mental health organizations. Getting involved and helping to generate funding is as easy as watching the company’s Let’s Talk Day video and continuing the conversation using social media. The company generously contributes 5 cents for every qualifying action.

Mental illness is more common than we think. The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) estimates that in any given year 1 in 5 people in Canada will experience a mental health problem or illness, and that by age forty 50% of the population will have had a mental illness. Suicide is one of the leading killers of people under 40 accounting for 24% of all deaths among 15-24 year olds, and 16% among 25-44 year olds, it is also 4 times more likely in men than women. The economic cost of mental illnesses in Canada for the health care system was estimated to be at least $7.9 billion in 1998 – $4.7 billion in care, and $3.2 billion in disability and early death with an additional $6.3 billion spent on uninsured mental health services and time off work for depression and distress that was not treated by the health care system (https://cmha.ca/about-cmha/fast-facts-about-mental-illness). Simply put, the cost of mental illness is huge by any measure.

When it comes to addiction, the red flag behaviours are engaged in by many people. Some argue that addiction is part of the human condition and this is certainly supported by the examples we see in people of all backgrounds and socio-economic standing. Addiction doesn’t care if you are rich, educated, have great bone structure, or you are a really amazing accordion player.

Be honest and think of all the times in your life you (or someone you love) have tried to cope with feelings through substance use, sex, food, relationships, exercise, or even aggressive cleaning; that is compulsive behaviour, the backbone of addiction. While many are fortunate that they don’t graduate to full addiction (whatever their “drug” of choice), it is important to underline that we are all cut from similar cloth and the line between problem behavior and addiction is paper-thin. Use this knowledge to remain compassionate, both to yourself and others.

The content of this blog represents only a handful of the mental illness challenges that people face. It’s ok to not be ok.  It’s ok to seek out help and be kind to people who are fighting their own ghosts.

I can speak from experience on the harming effects of stigma. Negative reactions to differences and other people’s challenges are ingrained in our society. We are all too quick to dismiss, blame, and judge.  This can make a person feel ashamed and unwanted; it can cause them to hide their problems and not seek help.  Once in treatment it can delay progress, it can affect them while they are healing and long into their recovery.

Bell’s campaign suggests the following actions to help reduce stigma:

  • Treat everyone with respect
  • Be warm, engaging and non-judgmental
  • Challenge stigma when you see it
  • Watch your language
  • Learn the facts about mental health and illness
  • Help raise awareness about mental health

While we need to understand that we can’t and shouldn’t force people to do anything they aren’t willing to take on, eliminating stigma is a great step in empowering them to seek help.

To learn more, visit: https://letstalk.bell.ca/.

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