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.

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?

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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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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.