The Myth of Perfection

Like many people who find themselves unwittingly attracted to the allure of trying to save addicts, I developed a need for perfection and outside validation at an early age.  In my household, emotional displays were criticized as sensitive and I was discouraged from discussing my feelings or sharing the family business. This was reinforced by encouraging guilt and shame when I did not live up to standard with lectures, disappointment, and sometimes language that could border on cruel.

I was the kid that had to build Lego from the instructions and wash my hands or clothes immediately if they were dirty.  I didn’t understand at the time, but I think I was so obsessive because I thought being anything less than perfect would bring negative attention… It just wasn’t safe to be anything less.

Of course I didn’t realize that I was absorbing all these experiences as a critique of my worth and I thought all families were cold and uncommunicative. Over time I began to believe that there was something wrong with me and everything that happened to or around me was my fault. I started to associate vulnerability with feelings of panic and fear and over time developed the expectation that people would betray me. I created a hard shell and lone wolf persona which held everyone at a safe distance to keep them from seeing the traits in me that I had come to see as negative and weak: a big heart, need for acceptance, and the deep cracks that were developing in my sense of self-love and confidence.

Today, I know that my parents did the best they could.  They passed along the same lessons they got from their parents, and so on.  It doesn’t make it right, but it wasn’t totally their fault.  I understand all too well how painful and difficult it is to look in your own blind spots and how low I had to go to take this journey. My family’s legacies include a deep need for perfection, a mythical and impossible thing.

I’ve done a staggering amount of reading and research in the last year on a variety of topics.  This is one of the healthier things I’ve done for myself: investing in trying to understand and accept the reality of things as opposed to my unfulfilled expectations.

One interesting thing I stumbled across is Kintsugi, an ancient Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with resin and precious metals such as gold, platinum and silver.  What results is an amazing and unique piece of art marked with a spider’s web of shine.  The philosophy behind Kintsugi is that we can embrace the flawed or the imperfect as beautiful.  There is no need to hide the damage or throw away something broken. In fact we can illuminate the repair and celebrate the change as an improvement.

Even early in my efforts to repair myself this idea brought some encouragement as I hope it does with you.  I didn’t have to remain a pile of broken shards; with enough effort maybe I could be better… maybe even beautiful.

A little more reading on Kintsugi, for those craving more: https://www.nbcnews.com/better/health/how-japanese-art-technique-kintsugi-can-help-you-be-more-ncna866471

10 Month Reflection

10 months ago I abruptly separated from my partner of 8 years after the shattering revelation that he was hiding an alcohol addiction from me.

What they don’t tell you about recovery is that it doesn’t happen in a straight line. Grief is a process and it is not linear; it is more accurately portrayed as a spiral or zig-zag.  There are days when I feel invincible/bullet proof and others when I feel like shattered glass. Some days I am confident in all my actions, and others where it seems like a miracle that I got out of bed.  You get the idea.. these mood swings go back and forth like a pendulum.

When it first ended I was angry.  Once I got past blaming him for causing me pain, I had to look inwards and examine the actions and decisions that led me to that point. I finally realized that, like the addict, I was trying to fill the holes in myself. Instead of alcohol I used someone who could never really love me back. I allowed the pain and I caused more. I had to accept that no one else could save me; just like I couldn’t save the addict.

I reminded (and continue to remind) myself several times a week that the important thing is the intent to move forward.  The intent to be a bit better than the day before… even if that difference is almost indistinguishable.

Recovery is lonely. Even in the company of people with similar experiences I have trouble connecting. After an extended period of discounting my feelings, my needs, my intuition and taking responsability for more than my share I have to learn who I am. Those compromises were required for survival; they are the only way I made it through the days of broken promises, secrets, emotional abuse and outright lies. If I had been in touch with what I was feeling, I would have had to save myself years before.

I lost myself and I realized I didn’t love myself anymore, even scarier: maybe I never really did or why would I have gotten involved with someone like that? I became aware of my feelings after ignoring them for years, but truthfully still sometimes struggle to understand what they mean or where they come from.  Sometimes it takes a lot of effort and awareness to stop those negative programs from running.

I still have trouble feeling genuine and letting go enough to connect.  I’m scared of most kinds of intimacy… and not because I’m worried that someone else will hurt me (although there’s probably some of that too), I’m scared I can’t trust myself to stand up, to protect myself and recognize when I’m being mistreated and taken advantage of.

Most people don’t get it. They suggest jumping back into regular life and throwing myself into meaningless and impulsive actions and relationships.  But truthfully those kinds of things, although they have been effective in the past as a distraction from modest pain don’t seem to work here.  They underline the insecurities and my dysfunction.  They make me feel anxiety. They make me realize how thin the facade is, how I try to hold on to every experience with a vice grip because deep down I feel like the universe is lacking and I’m undeserving of the crumbs of happiness that are available. It reminds me that I’m held together with scotch tape and rubber bands as the flesh beneath scabs over.

Most people don’t understand because they have no reference point.  They don’t understand the helplessness of watching someone you love prioritize hurting themselves.  They don’t get the guilt and shame that comes with finally choosing to act on your own behalf. They don’t understand what it’s like to realize that you need to abandon someone in order for them to stop from drowning you. To realize that they will continue to push you down to keep themselves afloat despite all the times they’ve told you they love you.

Sharing any details can inspire judgement: why would you put up with that behaviour so long? What do you mean you didn’t see it?  Or perhaps worse: how could you desert them?

To be honest, I haven’t shared the worst stories.  The lesser ones are too much for most people to hear without blame or pithy commentary… rationally I understand that what other people think shouldn’t matter, but it does.  It’s hard to let go.

I had to accept that while I didn’t deserve or cause the problem, I alone am responsible for what happens to me next.

And that friends, is both empowering and terrifying.