#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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Don’t Look Back in Anger

I have a natural inclination to flagellate myself with what I perceive are my failures. I dwell on things far too long, carry them around with me like overstuffed luggage, and obsess about them long after the point where it is constructive.

I’m not sure exactly where this comes from but I process things intensely.  This is probably what makes me excellent at jobs that require attention to detail and drives my perfectionism. It also makes me vulnerable to the narcissistic tendencies of people. I’m all too willing to look at things from another person’s perspective and take ownership for their actions, even when it doesn’t make sense for the blame to rest with me.

I remember an occasion fairly soon after we moved in together where I stumbled across my ex’s credit card statement. The card was maxed and he hadn’t made a payment the previous month. This was a surprise to me because at the time he was contributing to our bills and I didn’t realize that this was at the cost of paying his own. I didn’t know that as a result of his illness he was unable to multitask and he was in a constant state of trying to juggle his commitments while only ever getting one ball in the air at a time.

When I confronted him about the statement and implications thereof, he accused me of invading his privacy and being controlling. I’m not proud to admit that I folded like a house of cards. I accepted that I was a bad partner and that he had a reason for hiding things from me: he was justified and I sucked.

For the record, I was controlling. Not at first. I never thought I would be the kind of person who would try to change someone else (and also for the record I am not interested in ever repeating that experiment), but my controlling seemed to intensify over time as I invested in our relationship and there continued to be crises that he seemed incapable of handling. Among other things, I desperately tried to take over his finances. I told myself that it was for us, his credit needed to improve. We needed to be in better financial standing in order to buy a house, start a family, travel, and hopefully someday retire. Now I recognize these were things I wanted, not things we wanted and I didn’t stop to really examine why it might be that he couldn’t handle basic problems.

Truthfully, I acted in fear. I know I was desperately clinging to the idea that we had a future and it looked something like what I thought everyone else around me had. I treated him like a child and tried to manipulate him into being the person I thought he could be.  It didn’t matter how good I thought my intentions were, it was wrong.

I felt a lot of shame.  Shame that I couldn’t make our relationship work. Shame about how I acted. Shame that I was somehow not good enough for him. Shame about the things I was hiding from my friends and family. Shame that all my efforts did nothing but make both of our lives worse… Shame is debilitating.  It holds you in the past and prevents you from moving forward.  It keeps you afraid and hiding.  Shame keeps you from being vulnerable in a good way, a way that allows you to build healthy connections.

For most of my life I have been consumed by shame. I have memories from childhood where I thought I was a disappointment to people I loved and to myself. It didn’t matter what I achieved, I focused on the negatives.  Shame made me a prisoner and a victim. Today, as much as I don’t love aspects of my past, I understand that if I hadn’t made the choices that I did, lived through those tragedies, made those mistakes, I wouldn’t be me. And that would be tragic too.

It is important to realize that there has never been a single other person like you. You are amazingly unique and you see the world in a way that no one has been able to before. You are loved. You are special. And you wouldn’t be half of those things without your messy past and collection of scars.  Don’t be ashamed, be proud. You survived and you are better for it. You have the gift of being able to choose how you frame your memories and your perspective of the world around you.

The past isn’t something to regret.  It is something to be revered.  It makes us interesting. It builds us up and forces growth if we are open to accept the lessons it presents us.

There are days when I am impatient for the things in my life that I know are coming. Those good things that I’m working to be ready to receive. I know that receiving opportunities in the present or in the future means accepting the past and not letting it dictate actions and reactions. Just because I made those mistakes doesn’t mean that will always be the case. The past does not need to be an excuse to limit the future and the range of choices available.

Try to cut yourself some slack! Don’t compare yourself to others or let their criticism get to you; I guarantee what they are showing you is not the whole story of their life and (even if it is) it does not mean that you are superior or inferior to them in any meaningful way. Like it or not, we’re all stuck on this rock hurtling through space together and most of us are totally making it up as we go. Understand that failure is not the opposite of success, they are part of the same process. If you are taking chances and trying to lead a full life you will encounter both and neither should be discounted as they both have valuable things to offer.

While you may not be a fan of Noel Gallagher or Oasis, the lyrics of the song of the same title of this blog (no coincidence) seem to resonate here. It may not have been his intent, but I choose to take from Noel a message of empowerment.

Although no longer the object of his affection, I am Sally who is finally recognizing that I need to get out of my head, loosen up, and let it go.

At least today.

 

Redefining Identity

A few really disorienting things happened to me when my relationship ended. Besides the usual things we would expect like change in routine, missing the person and the awkward business of splitting up your belongings / peripheral relationships, was the realization that over the 8 years of our relationship I had lost my sense of self.

And yes, I realize how dramatic and emo that sounds.  But truthfully, amid the disorientation it slowly dawned on me that I didn’t know who I was, what I liked, nor did I have the foggiest idea what to do next. I’m not talking the normal “oh wow, I’m no longer Y’s girlfriend” type existential crisis, it was much more disturbing questions like “what are my hobbies?” and “do I actually dislike country music?” Basic stuff you would expect a person in their 30s to know.

Slowly, insidiously, over the course of our relationship he became my whole world. Living with an addict (at least my addict) was being in a constant state of flux and drama.  There was always some kind of crisis happening in his life and that overshadowed anything that might be happening with me. In fact, even some of my challenges were twisted to become more about the impact on him. There simply was no space for anything but his feelings. In hindsight, this was likely so he always had a reason and justification to act on his impulses and indulge his compulsions, but at the time I was so consumed with trying to help him and make him happy that I didn’t realize how stupid, petty, and ridiculous some of those crises really were… and how they weren’t my responsibility nor were they more important than my own needs and interests. There is a difference between supporting someone you love (helping) and trying to fix all their problems for them (enabling). I didn’t understand this distinction or how demeaning and counterproductive enabling was for both of us.

Over time, and truthfully by choice, I no longer had any time or energy to pursue any of my own interests or needs.  I allowed myself to be manipulated into caring for him, carrying him, and slowly isolated myself (probably so no one would point out what I knew deep down: the relationship was FUBAR). Looking back, I remember that I wasn’t happy most of the time.  On some level I must have known that the relationship was lop-sided and I was allowing myself to be used… but there’s a funny thing I’ve since realized about denial: it’s not a sign of stupidity, it’s a coping mechanism used to put off dealing with things until we are ready. It took me a hella long time to be ready. If I had to speculate on what I was getting out of it, I think it gave me some kind of sick purpose.  Like he needed me and that was some kind of salve for my ego.

About 4 months after we parted ways I remember something mildly amusing happened with a coworker.  I laughed and laughed until I cried with joy as everyone stared at me with puzzled interest.  I was euphoric, it was epic… one of those laughs that has you beet red and gasping for air. Later that night it dawned on me that I couldn’t remember the last time I had been relaxed enough to lean into a moment like that and feel real pleasure. It was also the first time I felt sincere gratitude for a chance to move on without him and redefine myself as something other than his girlfriend, the well-intentioned wet blanket and Debbie Downer.

Over the time that’s followed I’ve rediscovered many passions that I had forgotten: music (including my unending love and girl crush on Brodie Dalle), getting lost driving in my car, the quiet and beautiful stillness of hiking through the woods, writing and humour. I’m also slowly discovering some new passions; including yoga, fitness and nutrition. I am patiently learning and re-learning the things that make me unique, interesting,  worthwhile and loveable. With this comes other great gifts like enjoying being alone and hope that this will lead to healthier relationships in the future without the urgency to force that into being.

I guess the point of this entry is, if you can relate to this lost feeling… it will get better.  Slowly (and not without setbacks), but I promise that if you take the time to rediscover and fall in love with yourself things will improve. You will remember and find the things that make you enjoy being you and they won’t depend on anyone else’s validation or interest. Whether your current situation works out, you decide you are passionate about moving to a monastery in Tibet, or you take a hiatus from dating and you unexpectedly meet your soulmate at the grocery store: you are going to do amazing things that will make you glad you kept grinding. Take your time, enjoy the moment that is here (not the ones that are coming or have already been), do the work and you will get there. I promise.

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.