Nothing is All Bad

I generally think of grief in association with the loss of a loved one. But grief isn’t always about death; sometimes it’s about a different kind of loss and that loss can be actual or anticipated. Grief and sadness are quite physical as well as emotional. I came across something I once wrote to describe my experience of grief.  I’m not sure when I wrote it or even why I wrote it except that I do find writing sometimes helps me heal.  Here goes:

I feel like I am wading through water up to my knees, every step is slow and uncertain, and my balance is off.  I can’t go fast, I can’t get out of the water but I also can’t allow myself to fall. I have on a long skirt that becomes entangled around my ankles further obstructing my progress. The sadness I feel grips my stomach; my middle feels tight and twisted like it wants to escape from me.  I want to escape from me too. I think for the first time, I understand the meaning of ‘gut wrenching.’  Sometimes my breath comes in spurts as though I have been startled or frightened. I understand that I don’t have any choice except to keep moving forward.

My mind goes over and over the situation but there is no viable solution.  Sadness isn’t about solving something, it’s about sitting with something, being in the room with what I cannot change or alter or influence.  I can’t escape it but I can find moments of distraction that briefly take me away.  They don’t last long but they offer my mind some needed rest, a chance to focus ever so slightly on something other than myself. The doorbell rings, a friend calls, I can’t find my keys.  The interruptions may be very small, very short, but I need them; it’s a kind of lifeline that forces me to briefly let go of my grief.

While I don’t want to be alone with my thoughts neither do I want to engage with others because I cannot concentrate, respond the way I normally do or offer sympathy where it is due.  I simply cannot.  I am too consumed with my own grief, with my sadness.  I have no sympathy or empathy.  My sadness isn’t about anyone else; it is all about me and only me. I’m ashamed to confess how self-centered I am.

All attempts towards perspective are thwarted as my rational brain tries desperately to override my self indulgence. I tell myself I am not the only one suffering; I am not suffering as much as many others, I am not alone, it isn’t personal, things happen, I’ll get better.  I don’t listen to my rational brain.  I know my rational brain is right but ‘right’ isn’t what I am seeking.  Being right changes nothing. I return to my suffering.  I scream at my rational self; You don’t know anything!  Shut-up!  Go away!

Everything I do takes on weight.  The laundry is heavier, the water in the shower beats down on me like never before, my shoes feel like army boots.  I turn away from my cat who wants to sit on my lap; I tell her she is too heavy, I am unjustly annoyed with her.  She senses my sadness and is only trying to offer comfort but I don’t want comfort.  I feel shame and guilt for rejecting all gestures of kindness but I continue to reject them anyway.  No one can feel sorry enough for me.

The mail has piled up, phone messages go unanswered, the laundry basket overflows but I have no energy for anything.  People ask me how I am doing and I say, “Fine.”  What else can I say?  Nothing I tell them will come close to the truth; better to just put an end to the conversation about how I am doing.  I feel alone in my suffering even if others are suffering the same loss.  I envision my grief as an internal wound that cannot be shared or traded.  It’s like losing a child or a pet or a spouse; no one can simply drop by a substitute (a different child, a new pet, a stand-in spouse) and make it all OK.

The question is this, will it ever go away?  Will I forever wake up in the middle of the night unable to escape the thoughts that haunt me, the fears, the pain in my throat?  Will time make it melt away? Can a person be sad forever? I look at my face and feel that I have suddenly aged, my skin is sagging, my eyes look puffy, the lines are pulling my lips towards my soft jaws.  No make-up.  My hair is thinning and lifeless.  I can’t stand to look at myself.  I am drawn to the morose. I feel like someone newly diagnosed with an incurable disease who can’t stop reading all the morbid statistics, sucking up every detail of how the disease will destroy them. I almost relish wallowing in my misery.

The loss isn’t just about what was, it is about what was to be. The future is part of the present; it is where I am going, what I will be, what I will accomplish. It’s like a garden.  I have a vision of my garden, how it will grow, how it will look, how it will smell.  The garden isn’t a stagnant thing that is only in the present; it has a future and I am part of that future. I want that future.

But in my heart I know that sadness, like all wounds, will eventually become a scar, a reminder of a wound but no longer a wound.  It is how the human brain adjusts so that we can resume whatever life we have.  It won’t be the same; we have a scar.  When we touch it, it won’t feel completely normal.  It will be somewhat numb and tingle and it won’t be pretty.  It won’t disappear.  We are forever changed and that isn’t all bad.  Some scars make us stronger, more empathetic, perhaps kinder.  Some scars remind us that we are human, we suffer and, when we make others suffer, we scar them too.  Eventually I will reach out, stop isolating and stop wallowing. I will begin to hear my inner, rational voice.  Nothing is ever all bad even when it seems so.

Enablers are not Saviors

This is my confession; I am an enabler, not a savior. I’d much rather be a savior but there you have it.   One of the first things I learned at Lighthouse Recovery was how to identify enabling behaviors.  Enabling can end up crippling the addict and denying him or her dignity. Here is a simple definition that Bret gave me when I got serious about understanding my part in my son’s struggle.  Enabling is doing for someone what they could do for themselves, should do for themselves, and would be better served by doing for themselves. Period. It sounds so easy but it’s not.

I’ll give you a very simple example. It is time for your five year old child to learn how to tie her shoes but you cannot find the time to teach her so you continue to tie her shoes.  What might be the long term outcome? Here are some possibilities: 1. she won’t learn how to tie her shoes and is limited to wearing velcro shoes the rest of her life; 2. she will notice that other kids her age tie their own shoes and wonder if there is something wrong with her; 3. she will need you to be there every time her shoes need to be tied even when she is in college; 4. she doesn’t get to be a big girl like the other girls; 5. she wonders why you don’t think she can learn to tie her own shoes; 6. she might feel that you don’t care enough to take the time to teach her; 7. you, the enabler, have your little girl who still needs you.

OK maybe none of those things would happen but you get the idea. Let’s relate it back to the definition of enabling.  In this case ‘could’ is age and ability related.  Can she physically learn to tie her shoes? Yes.  If she were three months old, the answer would, of course, be no.  Should she learn to tie her shoes?  Yes.  She needs to develop skills that will support her independence; she is at the appropriate age and she doesn’t want to be limited to velcro for the rest of her life.  Is she better served?  Absolutely.  It will be an important milestone and she will take pride in being able to tie her shoes. She will have more personal freedom and need you less. Repeat that last sentence over and over!

I can apply this to a lot of behaviors that have nothing to do with parent and child. Here are some examples: calling in sick for someone else, making or keeping track of another person’s appointments, reminding a person to do basic things like getting their car inspected,  waking someone up in the morning so they won’t be late for work.  There are a million ways to enable.  Here is a helpful exercise: I ask myself the following question: would I do this for my adult friends?  Do I remind my friends to pay their mortgage?  Do I go over to their homes and do their laundry?  Do I ask them if they have made a dental appointment?  No, I don’t.  I believe they are competent in managing their own lives.  So what is the message when I do these things for my 30 year old son?  Hmmm, that I don’t trust he is competent to manage his own life?  Exactly.  A big part of my enabling is my own anxiety because, deep down, I don’t trust that he can do these things.  I’m afraid of the consequences. This is how I get myself into the enabling cycle.

Enabling is a topic that is particularly difficult for parents and families.  Sometimes family members become defensive when they are confronted with enabling behaviors.  They argue that they are only doing what parents normally do. But, in the end, it is essential to recognize the pattern of enabling and to take a good look in the mirror.  Families undermine recovery when they do not release the role of savior and continue to enable.  Repeat after me…I am not a savior.  I am not a savior.

The Only Life I Could Save

I find a great deal of comfort in poetry, especially the poetry of Mary Oliver.  Here is one of her poems that I read frequently.  I have no idea if Mary Oliver has ever confronted addiction but I feel this poem speaks to my own personal journey.

The Journey
By Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice-
though the the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried 
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen 
branches and stones.
But, little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice,
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do-
determined to save
the only life you could save.

When Mary Oliver says it was already late, I nod in agreement.  Yes it was late.  It took years to just begin the journey. I think, all along, I knew what I had to do but I could not bring myself to do it. And yes, the whole house trembled; it shook with drama, emotion, anger and sometimes despair.  My road was full of branches and stones, all obstacles that fell in my path as I tried hopelessly to push forward.  The majority of those obstacles were of my own making but there was a lot of bad advice too.  There were unhelpful friends, critical family members, physicians, psychiatrists and counselors who knew nothing about addiction. There were endless contradicting and often out-dated sources of information. How many times did I hear: let him hit bottom; he'll learn his lesson; put him in this program; put him in that program; get him on anti-depressants; don't medicate him; be tough; be kind; kick him out; don't let him end up on the streets.

Oliver’s phrase, “Feeling the tug at my ankles,” describes my guilt. Guilt that I was not able to fix it, not able to make it go away, not able to rescue anyone around me.  And, indeed, the melancholy was, at times, terrible.  I felt a diffuse sadness that would partially cloud my days; she calls it “sheet of clouds.”  But the most applicable line of all is about the voices shouting “Mend my life!” It isn’t necessarily the addict that is shouting.

When she says, “You knew what you had to do,” I can only respond by saying that the space between knowing what I had to do and doing it was, for a long time, very wide. But finally I did journey into the world and I did find my own voice and I did do the only thing I could do.  I did save the only life I could save. Julia

Family is Forever

I’m returning from a five day visit with my family in Texas.  We gathered together to celebrate my mom’s 90th birthday (and celebrate we did). There was a lot of eating and drinking but even when there isn’t a celebration going on, there is a lot of eating and drinking when we visit Texas.  We begin dinner with cocktails, sip wine through dinner and then sip more wine during the after dinner scrabble games.  My mom orders wine with her lunch; sometimes I do too but only when I have lunch with her.  I don’t think I actually know anyone in Utah who orders wine with lunch.  But I certainly noticed a lot of Texas ladies doing lunch with a glass of wine.  Except for breakfast, alcohol was offered at every meal we ate and there was never any suggestion that we would go out to eat some place that didn’t serve alcohol.  At dinner, there wasn’t one person at our table of eight who was not drinking.  In fact, there wasn’t one person who only had a single drink.

When the airline hostess asks me if I want anything to drink, I say, “Yes, an ice cold ginger ale, please.”  I need a break.  There is a long history of drinking in my family.  I’m certain our Irish-Scottish genes contribute but so do the cultural ‘genes’ that are all around us. Our society has become accustomed to serving and being served alcohol in a large amount of social gatherings: weddings, holiday dinners, anniversaries, graduations, birthdays, barbecues, receptions, fund raisers, sporting events, on airplanes, even at funerals.  I’ve been offered wine at a baby shower. Most of these events involve extended family, old friends or both. And when does the recovering addict see his or her extended family and old friends?  Well, just like the rest of us, attending these social events.  But there is a distinction between old friends and family.  Old friendships evolve, change and sometimes disappear but family is forever. So maybe the addict doesn’t go to an old college buddy’s wedding but he or she is likely to go home for Thanksgiving dinner.

This brings to mind something my sister once said to me: “When I was single, my friends were single, when I got married, they were married and, when I got divorced they were divorced.” I think I can translate that observation to addiction: when someone is using and partying, so are their friends; when someone slips into addiction, they gravitate towards friends who are also addicted. When someone embraces recovery, they seek out friends that are sober. That works for ‘friends.’ It doesn’t work for family members.  Uncle Ned and cousin Betty are still in the family.  Bummer.  So when an addict enters a life of sobriety, his or her toughest challenge may not be severing friendships from the past; instead, the challenge may be coping with certain family members, established family traditions and family celebrations.

My son wasn’t able to travel to Texas with us because he is in an inpatient treatment center. But what if that had not been the case?  I can hear myself saying, “You can’t miss your grandmother’s 90th birthday!” How would that have been for him?  How would he have felt sitting at the table and watching everyone drink?  Well, after my trip to Texas, I’m rethinking my attitude towards my family traditions and my family celebrations. My son doesn’t have to come to my mother’s birthday party or to any other family event.  He can set his own boundaries and determine the best way to nurture his sobriety.  No family celebration is worth relapsing. He can engage with the family as he sees fit (letters, telephone calls, Facebook). No more pronouncements that he really needs to come to so and so’s wedding or show up for Thanksgiving dinner. Because unlike finding new friends, he can’t replace us with a new family.  For better or worse, we are his family forever.   As his family, rather than bemoan that he isn’t present at this or that event, we can reach out to him in other ways.  We can support his recovery. I mean, the least we can do, is do no harm.   Julia

When is disappointment not disappointment?

I recently visited my son at the inpatient facility where he currently resides. He told me that he broke the house rules. His stay will be prolonged, some privileges lost. He minimized the incident, made excuses and seemed dismissive of the whole thing.  He reminded me of a typical 16 year old except that he is 31.  I came away with a mixture of familiar feelings: annoyed, somewhat exasperated but more than anything, disappointed.  Why can’t he just obey the rules?   Why does he repeat this type of behavior over and over again?  If he doesn’t care, why should I care?

On the drive home, I kept asking myself, why can’t he behave like an adult?  But then I wondered if I had behaved like an adult?  How had I responded when he shared what had happened? No doubt I stiffened up. Instead of listening, I asked questions that I already knew the answers to or questions that have no answer like “Why?”  I purposely conveyed my disappointment. The truth is that he didn’t have to tell me about the incident. I have little doubt that he regretted telling me.

So what does it mean to be disappointed?  I mean, what is the actual  definition of ‘disappointment?’  Thank God for the internet (or thank Al Gore for the internet…never mind). Here was the best definition I found: “the feeling of sadness or displeasure caused by the nonfulfillment of one’s hopes or expectations.”  I can’t help but notice that the definition doesn’t clarify who the hopes or expectations are for; are they for self or are they for someone other than self?  That’s important. Imposing your disappointment on someone else is a heavy burden for the recipient.  After all, it’s tough enough when we are disappointed in ourselves. A  friend once told me that there was nothing she dreaded more than hearing her parents say they were disappointed in her. I get it.

It seems to me that disappointment should be reserved for one’s self or for things external to oneself.  It is fine to be sad that I have not met my personal expectations or to be displeased that I didn’t accomplish something I set out to do.  It’s OK to be disappointed that my team lost or that a party was cancelled or that it rained at the picnic. But to be disappointed that someone else isn’t meeting my hopes or expectations is another matter. What I did was show my displeasure that he wasn’t fulfilling my expectations. And I honestly don’t think that is the intent of the word disappointment.

Instead of asking myself what I want from him, I could spend time reflecting on what I want from myself. I could benefit from focusing on my own behavior rather than the behavior of others. I would like to have more robust boundaries that reflect who I am rather than reject who someone else is. I don’t like myself when I get on my high horse.  Words like ‘should’  begin to creep into my vocabulary.  I lose my sense of humor to say nothing of my sense of self.  I want to avoid personalizing everything that goes on around me. And more than anything, I don’t wish to use disappointment as a way to manipulate others.

Because disappointment that someone else isn’t doing what I want them to do, isn’t disappointment, it’s manipulation sprinkled with a pinch of shame. I’m disappointed that I didn’t meet my own expectations!  Julia