Melody Beattie (& Grief)

If you’ve done even a simple internet search on codependency or families of addiction you’ve probably run across the work of Melody Beattie. Beattie has survived addiction (both her own and in her relationships), abandonment, abuse, divorce, and the death of a child. Whatever you’re going through, there’s an excellent chance she can relate on a very personal level.

In the 1980’s she brought the term “codependency” into the mainstream as a description for caretaking and related behaviours that are commonly found in those of us who have been intimately involved with addiction. Often the development of these traits go back to childhood, and I am certainly no exception. I come by my challenges honestly, substance abuse is not unheard of in my family and neither is caretaking. Beattie helped me to see the parallels between my own behaviours in my relationships and those of the addicts I’ve been involved with and their substances of choice. I understand that on both sides these behaviours are a byproduct of unmet needs and desperation to find comfort outside of ourselves.

Her book Codependent No More is argued by some to be a handbook for recovery and I will say not a bad place to start; although I do recommend seeking out the New Codependency which is updated with more current trends, language, and cultural influences.

As part of my current routine, I attempt to start my day with journaling and reflection. This includes Beattie’s books: the Language of Letting go and More Language of Letting Go. Both are books of short daily meditations, the latter sometimes includes activities to supplement the reading. I find this routine is helpful in developing my awareness by giving the ideas context in my own life.

As I’ve come through the last year I’ve found one of my greatest challenges to be grief. Given what I’ve learned about addiction I feel there is a decent chance that if you are reading this, you’ve probably suffered from grief as well. It seems to be an unfortunate and inevitable byproduct of the ravages of addiction.

Grief is not something I would have generally allowed myself to feel in the past. Historically, my sole coping strategies for grief (and everything else, really) were to get busy and/or walk it off. I do indeed come by this honestly; there is a family legend about how my Great Grandmother avoided spending her son’s last day with him before he was shipped off to war because she had promised to bake pies for the church. When we’ve told this story as a family it was always as a joke of extremism but with an air of admiration for how bulletproof she was. It wasn’t until I started therapy that it was suggested to me that she may have been avoiding her grief at the potential loss of her son. It was strange to me that I never considered that might have been her true motivation, and also shocking developing awareness of how often I’ve “dealt” with things by pretending I’m bulletproof too.

Learning how to grieve has been a tough and ongoing process. There have been times where I’ve felt like it was over only to be slammed back into the depths of it like I had made no progress at all. I know this has been hard on my friends and family and their patience; but – grief is personal, it takes time and it’s an inside job. I wish I could tell you there was a shortcut.

I’m sorry that other people can only provide gentle support and no one can “save” you from grief. Understand that another person’s efforts will only band-aid the issue and it will rise to the surface again years later. The universe has a tricky way of continuing to present us with the same problem in a different wrapper until we solve it the right way. It’s your choice when you face that reality or not.

While I will not comment further on timing and process of healing from grief, I will say that being active, adaptable, and aware in your recovery are universally important. I doubt very strongly that true recovery exists without effort and much like improving physical fitness; sometimes (although our strategy has been working) we plateau and need to try something new or push a little harder. But, given the difficulty of this process, understand that it is done in our own time and does not benefit from impatience.

I wanted to share with you part of the entry for February 11 entitled “Grief” from Beattie’s book, More Language of Letting Go:

This much I will tell you about grief: if there was ever a second, a moment, when you suspected you knew you had been betrayed at the deepest level by someone you adored, and a splintering pain began to shred your heart, turning your world grimly unbearable to the point where you would consciously chose denial and ignorance about the betrayal rather than feel this way, this is one-millionth of what it feels like to grieve.

Grief is not an abnormal condition, nor is it something to be treated with words. It is a universe, a world, unto itself. If you are called to enter this world, there is no turning back. We are not allowed to refuse that call. Grief is like nothing else, with the possible exception of the pounding waves of the ocean. To the untrained, casual eye, each wave looks the same. It is not. No two are the same. And each one washes away the old, and washes in the new.

Gradually, almost imperceptibly, whether we believe it or not, we are being transformed.

You can find more information about Melody Beattie on her website; including her blog, daily meditations, and information about her books.

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.

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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!

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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)

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