the disease of addiction, the condition of deprival #recovery #mentalhealth #alcoholism

July 31, 2014 § Leave a comment

When a child grows up in conditions of deprivation (lack of affection, respect, validation) that child is going to be conditioned to re-create those conditions in adulthood unless they decide to do the hard work of changing themselves and their surroundings.

In the 12 step world of recovery, addiction and alcoholism are conceived as disease. I understand why the original founders of the approach did this. They wanted to convey the sense that the obsession and compulsion of addiction is not something that is resolved by a one time only intervention. They wanted to convey the sense that alleviating the obsession and compulsion of addiction is an ongoing challenge that requires daily maintenance if we are to abstain from the self-destructive thinking and behaviour that characterize the ‘disease’.

I have found it helpful to conceive of my addictive mind-state as a condition, a condition that is wholly predictable given the circumstances of my childhood. The founders of 12 step recovery were middle aged white men who were conditioned to believe certain ‘facts’ about human existence that have since been shown to be false. As a woman in recovery, I cannot help but cringe at the unexamined male dominance in the literature. Both the 12 steps and the 12 traditions are male biased and it hurts to have to constitute gender bias in order to avail myself of the benefits of 12 step recovery.

I am an ecologist, more specifically, I am a social ecologist. The conception of the 12 steps and 12 traditions took place during a time when the concept of ecology was not a common philosophical understanding. As a social ecologist, the basis of the 12 steps and traditions make sense and work from an ecological point of view. In fact, an ecological analysis of the steps and traditions provides an explanation of why they work.

I am a woman who has been conditioned in a male dominant gender biased society. That condition has been deeply harmful to my ability to give and receive love, to understand what it means to be respectful, and to my legitimate needs for validation. Without the 12 steps and 12 traditions I would not be clean from drugs and alcohol for 18 years. However, when it comes to living life on life’s terms in my day to day dealings with long term intimate relationships, I do not consider myself diseased as much as I consider myself conditioned to accept treatment that is withholding, disrespectful, and invalidating. As a woman, I am not alone in this condition. And, because we are ecological beings, I know that this condition is not gender specific. When we live in a society that privileges gender, race, and socio-economic position, we are going to be conditioned to be underprivileged even as one segment of society is over-privileged.

This is my meditation on the concepts of disease and condition as they relate to my lifelong task of recovery from a childhood of deprivation. These conditions affect every relationship I am part of. They affect the possibility for my future health, security, and well-being. The ways we think about our position in society, what we deserve, and what are our legitimate rights are shaped by the conditions of our childhood and the ongoing choices we make to either re-create those childhood conditions, or create new conditions and learn to live with them.

I accept that 12 step recovery conceives of addiction and alcoholism as a disease because that was the terminology that helped the founders to recover. However, there is a part of addiction and alcoholism that are socially systemic as well as individual. And to that aspect of our recovery we need to understand how societal systems of privilege also contribute to our internal and external states of deprivation. We need to understand how these internal and external conditions are perpetuated through our own, and others, endorsement. This endorsement is perpetuated by non-engagement with issues of gender, race, and socio-economic status, issues that we must contend with, but we do not have to accept.


obsessions and compulsions in marriage step 1 and step 2 #recovery #mentalhealth #marriage

July 27, 2014 § Leave a comment

I came back from walking the dog in a blue funk. I was feeling worthless, I couldn’t believe my husband loves me, that I deserve his respect, he just does the dishes, laundry, walks dogs, buys groceries, works on the house, fixes things, etc. because he feels a sense of duty and obligation. I was also feeling put upon, I could enumerate endless lists of how my husband was taking me for granted, burdening me with his emotional pressure, blaming me for the distance in our marriage. My mind bounced back and forth from one scenario to another: it has been years since we had sex, my husband is taking too much of my time and attention, my husband doesn’t find me attractive and never did, my husband needs professional therapy to address his depression, my husband will never be happy, my husband never was that interested in sex, we will never have sex again, I don’t like my husband anymore, etc. This is what we call ‘taking someone else’s inventory’. I was perfectly capable of listing and ruminating on my perceptions of my husband’s shortcomings, while at the same time incapable of looking at my own.

As usual, my preoccupation on my husband ran out of steam because I knew it was futile to try to change my husband. Then my thoughts turned toward my shortcomings and my ruminating began all over again. I have always been anxious, I am feeling depressed, I am unable to love anyone, I am incapable of intimacy, I am unattractive, I am unwanted because I am unlovable, I am inadequate, I am terrible at sex, I have never had a good sex life and now I am 58 and it is too late, I am fat, I am ugly, I am frumpy, I am uninteresting, an on and on. Ad nauseum.

This rumination leave me in an utterly dark mood. Hopeless, helpless, worthless. As I trudged up the front steps I decided to try something different. I sat down in a comfy chair on the front porch, pulled my feet up underneath me, closed my eyes, and followed my breath. Soon I was following the different sensations that came to my attention: a siren in the distance, a crow cawing nearby, the rustle of the summer breeze through the lombardi poplar leaves. I started to work my way through the first step, “I am powerless over my addiction and my life is unmanageable.” I am powerless over my husband and my life is unmanageable. I am powerless over my family and my life is unmanageable. I am powerless over my state of mind and my life is unmanageable. What is the evidence of unmanageability? My self-inflicted misery, my self-perpetuating suffering, my ongoing sense of worthlessness, ugliness, and lack of belonging that cause me so much emotional pain.

I moved onto step 2, “Came to believe a power greater than myself could restore me to sanity.” I could feel that power all around me as the light touch of the summer breeze caressed my skin, as the sun glinted through leafy shadows, as the sound of birds drifted across the streetscape. In that moment I realized I was stuck in a dead end. On the one hand my mind was obsessing about changing my husband so that I would feel better, on the other hand my mind was obsessing about how I could change myself so that my husband would love me and I would feel better. Both of these propositions were fatally flawed because they were relying on my distressed brain to come up with solutions to my problems, when the origin of my problems was my distressed brain’s interpretation of reality. My brain was stuck in categorizing my sensory motor data in one way, no matter where the data was coming from, my brain was logging it in the value category memory system called, “Reasons Irrational Persistance is not good enough.”

I realized that the ‘power to change the things I can’ did not apply to changing my husband or changing myself. My distressed brain was not a good planner nor organizer for positive change. I needed something else to alleviate my suffering. In that moment I was inspired to sense the atmosphere around me as a power greater than myself. In the moment I perceived that overarching presence, I also perceived the false separation between looking outward at my husband or looking inward at myself as the source of my recovery. I was able to see my dichotomous thinking as a trap that was separating me from what I truly craved, which was a sense of belonging to life. I pictured myself ascending out of the polarizing perceptions that had kept me stuck and miserable. I gave myself up to the ebb and flow of that summer breeze, knowing that power, greater than myself, could lead me to sanity in that moment. I felt a sense of peace and comfort in that instant, and relaxed for the first time in a very long while.

Just then my husband approached, returning from his morning walk with Dog2. I had no plan as to my mode of address. Was I going to shun him, as I had been doing for the last 36 hours? Was I going to welcome him? I let these thoughts slide away and sat quietly, giving him a slight smile to indicate that something had changed and I was no longer looking at him with ‘dagger eyes’. He joined me on the front porch and we talked about the state of things, and agreed that we both wanted things to improve. He reminded me that I was not in this marriage alone, and that we both have a part to play in the sense of connectedness and belonging that we feel with each other.

He went on to talk about how the recent passing of his father had triggered anxiety and depression and how he was struggling to come to terms with his feelings of regret, relief, and confusion. I talked about how much pressure I was feeling to get the dissertation out and that I had been stuck for two days trying to figure out how to bulk out a data point made up of 114 email observations. We went inside and he helped me figure out a way forward with the dissertation. Later, that evening, he spoke at length about his feelings about family alienation, dysfunction, and loneliness.

This morning we buzzed each others’ hair and are moving on united in our purpose to put our lives together to strengthen ourselves, our families, and our friends. Onward.

the continuing conundrum of living life on life’s terms #recovery #mentalhealth #sexandgender

July 26, 2014 § Leave a comment

It shouldn’t come as any surprise that I would have difficulty with intimacy in my marriage. I was abandoned by my mother as a result of her mental illness. I remember not being able to make a connection with her as early as 4 years old. I was abandoned by my father as collateral damage from my mother’s mental illness. My dad was not able to cope with mom’s mental condition and gradually withdrew from the family home. By my early teens he was no longer home any evening of the week and he worked full time during the week. Also around this time he started building a sailboat and was away on the weekends working on his boat. Eventually he also betrayed our family by having an affair and moving out, leaving me and my four younger brothers with my mentally ill mother. By this time she was rarely lucid, suffering non-stop from paranoid schizophrenia. So, yes, I have trust and intimacy issues.

It turns out my sexual history demonstrates typical behaviours of a daughter who does not have a healthy, supportive connection with her father. I started seeking out male attention from my male teachers as early as grade 5. I also started seeking boy’s attention at that time, but I had no idea how to go about it. I was a tomboy, I liked sports, games, climbing, riding bikes, swimming in the canyon. I liked boys clothes. My hair was cut short. Now that I think of it, I can see how my identification with boys was both an expression of my natural aptitudes, and a hope that I would be accepted by my father. My dad privileged my brothers over me, showing them more attention and interest. He also privileged attention to my sister over me, she was the eldest and a beautiful, smart, talented girl. She was much more comfortable being ‘girly’ in her fashion and she actually wore makeup, something I have never been able to do.

When I read about transgender characteristics, I wonder if I am in that realm. But I have always been heterosexual, sexually attracted to men, and felt pretty good in my female body. I think it was more that I perceived the difference in power associated with gender and I hoped to position myself next to power by playing down my femininity rather than accentuating my female gender.

As a teenager I desperately wanted male attention even though I had no idea about how to attract the male gaze. If any boy would give me attention I would latch onto him like a limpet, obsessing about what he was thinking about me and conniving to manipulate circumstances so as to bring us together. At some point, age 14 or 15, I realized I could use my sexuality to attract attention. I was never a typically ‘pretty’ girl, but I was good looking enough to attract fairly handsome boyfriends. My first serious boyfriend was a lovely young man. I felt very lucky to have his attention. Bonus that I loved his mom, and she would give me the motherly advice and attention that I could not get at home. I used to hang out in her kitchen many afternoons after school drinking tea and chatting with her.

Ha. I was going to write about the horrible state of my marriage today, how my husband is so tiresome and unlikable, how our marriage lacks intimacy and how I don’t care. Instead I am tracing back to the very earliest days of my relationship history and noticing how difficult it has been for me to ever have a long term intimate relationship. Rather than my husband being tiresome, it is possible that he is extremely patient. Rather than lacking intimacy, it is possible that our ongoing commitment to each other and our marriage, despite our lack of sexual fireworks, is a testament to a deep and abiding intimacy. Rather than thinking I don’t care, it is possible that I am so frustrated with my own inability to connect that I wish I didn’t care so I wouldn’t feel the pain of separation.

Ah. The continuing conundrum of living life on life’s terms.

a really struggling day #recovery #mentalhealth #familyrelations #marriage

July 25, 2014 § Leave a comment

I had a really tough day today. On the outside I managed to keep things somewhat together, although I was not cheerful in my work. At home things have fallen apart altogether with Husband. I got angry yesterday at him and I still don’t want to talk to him.

It is amazing how quickly things can collapse into a stunned silence in our marriage. Most of the time we get along pretty well. We are not as physically close as I would like, but that is to be expected. One is going to want more of somethings and less of other things. Husband suffers from depression and co-dependence. I suffer from anxiety and co-dependence. You can see we have a match made in heaven. The only thing that has made it possible for us to keep our relationship together this long has been each of our commitment to recovery. In fact, our marriage vows included the principles of 12-step recovery. We vowed that we would seek outside support when we needed extra time and attention.

Last year on June 21 Husband’s mother passed away. All that summer we worked furiously to finish our house renovation so we could get our basement suite rented. We were within a week of having to lose our house before we got the suite rented and the mortgage refinanced. It was a very tough year. Since then we did get refinanced, we did get the suite rented, and we both found employment as carpenter apprentices. Also last summer I was writing furiously to try to produce a full draft of my dissertation. That all came to an end in early September when my then-supervisor threatened to fail my defence if I didn’t change my theoretical framework. Another super tough sequence of events.

This year, a month ago, Husband’s father passed away. Whenever Husband has to talk to his siblings he gets extremely depressed. He also gets kind of nutty. He is very demanding emotionally, but he will never admit how demanding he is. His also demanding of my attention on other things, but he will never admit how much of my time and attention he is taking up. If I try to point out the contradictions of his behaviour – his attitude of superiority, his emotional needinesss, his demands for my time and attention, and his depressed affect, he gets very angry at me. Those are our worst fights, when I try to stand up and say, “Enough already. Leave me alone. Or change your comportment and composure. Because I am sick of this!” Granted, I am not always the most gracious or graceful in my expression at these moments.

In the past this situation in our relationship would trigger extreme abandonment and betrayal anxiety in me. I would become extremely anxious and try to control the situation. Usually my efforts to control would blow up big time in my face. My ‘control’ of the situation was usually to trigger a major relationship crisis by announcing I wanted a divorce. Yes, I would go there, have gone there, many times.

I have worked very hard to learn not to panic in these instances. I have been learning to allow Husband to have his bad moods and dysfunctional behaviours and not take them so seriously. I have been learning that just because he is not okay that does not make my not okay. I am just what I am. Right now I am not so okay, but not just because Husband is being an ass. My biggest bugaboo is this dissertation and my daily struggle to carve out enough time to work on it while I am working full time Monday to Friday carpentering.

All day yesterday I had been looking forward to getting home, taking a break, and getting in a few productive hours of writing on my dissertation. But when I got home Husband needed attention because some administration work that he was doing for our contracting company was not going as planned. This administration work was processing data in my self-made database for our contractor. From this little system we are able to generate weekly contract labor data and client invoices. The system is in dire need of a re-design but there has been neither time nor money to do it. So we have been limping along with the system as it is. Husband offered to take the administrative tasks off my hands so I could have more time for dissertating, but all that has happened is I have sunk a ton of time into training husband to input data and generate reports from a very quirky set up that was never designed to be anything but a temporary working model. What this has meant is that every week Husband has to ask me for help to get the reports compiled and generated. But it is worse than that, because, although I could simply pound out the reports in pretty short order, now I have to train Husband on an inadequate system. He keeps talking about what we are going to build into the new version, but he is not actually a database programmer. But he argues with me as if he knows what he is talking about. Soooooo frustrating and time consuming.

Suffice to say my writing window shrank down to nothing as we argued back and forth about why there was missing data and what to do about it. Something I could have fixed in 10 minutes, that would not have happened in the first place under my watch, took an hour of argument, going around and around in pointless circles. But could not see the toxic circularity nor the escalating tempers. And my evening of writing went from 3 hours to 1 hour and barely that because I was so upset.

I wanted to write tonight, but I am too tired and upset. I just need to get some sleep and hope for a better day tomorrow.

social ecologies of learning: painting trim and learning to work #recovery #mentalhealth #familysystems

July 23, 2014 § Leave a comment

I seem to be doing better these days. I think the writing is helping. I haven’t had any contact with family aside from my grandson and my daughter so I haven’t had to deal with those old triggers. I have been putting the decision about attending the family event on Aug 9 on the back burner. I just compartmentalized it out of my mind. No decision, no fretting. With my grandson here I am entertaining the idea of having his cousins over for dinner on Friday. I haven’t seen them for a long time even though they live nearby. I blame the dissertation, although renovation chaos did not help.

My nephews are great people and I never have to fear that they will do something undermining toward me. They don’t have the inherited attitude that my siblings maintain in their allegiance to my alcoholic father. It is strange, in my family, that there is no option for talking about Dad’s alcoholism or the effects of Mom’s mental illness. These topics are not discussed. In those circles. My nephews, whose father is also an alcoholic, are much more open. The elder brother even came to an al-anon meeting with me.

I have been pretty much closed down socially because I feel this huge pressure to write on the dissertation every evening and on the weekend. I want to change that. Part of the problem is that I privilege attempting to write over housework, so the kitchen often suffers from neglect. I am too embarrassed to have people over when the stovetop isn’t clean.

I have been thinking about the theory I have been working with, that we are part of extended and multi-layered ecologies of learning, and when we actively seek out relationships that strengthen our capacities to perceive new opportunities and we improve our capabilities to bring those opportunities to fruition through our social connections, and how it could make a difference in any field that is concerned with learning. I have been thinking about how we prepare people to look after shelter dogs and rescues, how we prepare parents to raise children, how we prepare the mentally ill, criminals and addicts to build new lives. These are all learning opportunities that are not taught through formal education but are central to the well-being of our society.

These days my grandson is working with me in construction. It is his first job and he has never done construction before. Yesterday he worked with me learning to paint trim. He learned how to gauge the viscosity of the paint and the thickness of applying the paint to get good coverage but avoid drips. By the end of the day he was painting the flat surfaces of the trim and not leaving any drips, moving along at a good rate. Today he is going to learn to paint the edges without making any smudges.

His social ecology of learning right now includes working with me on a job site painting trim. At the same time he is learning how to bandage a blister, how to pace his efforts, how to time his breaks, and how to handle the tedium in a pleasant way. He is also learning how to earn a living and what it means to show up for work everyday.

For whatever reason, no one ever taught me these lessons, I had to figure them out for myself. I am happy the social ecology of learning that I am contributing to my family is making a difference in the financial security of the family. Somehow that makes all my hard work in recovery worthwhile.

a furious dash to a full draft #dissertating #academia #academicabuse

July 21, 2014 § Leave a comment

I spent the weekend writing in a furious dash to get a full draft of my dissertation out the door by the end of the month. I have recruited Son2 as editor and he is working over chapters 1, 2, and 3. I am compiling chapter 4. Chapters 5 and 6 exist but are not in the latest version.

I have been working on this thing since September 2007. I passed my comprehensive exams in October 2010. I wrote 36 versions of chapter 1 for three years until I finally quit my abusive supervisor. However, quitting my supervisor did not get me out of the program and I have a new supervisor who says, “Quitting is not an option. You have worked to hard to stop now. Don’t spill the water on the doorstep.”

My weekend work wrapped up last evening with a full descriptive essay of all the data collected for the study. My next task is to write up what was in the data – a simple inventory of what people said. After that I can do an analysis of what people said.

I am a perfectionist and I have an OCD need for completion of collections. This was not a good study for me to be involved in because it was such a big undertaking – 3 years, 49 data collection events (with multiple subsets), an embedded case study, 162 in-class observations, 44 one to one interviews, 3 surveys, 3 questionnaires, 51 transcriptions, 5 focus groups and 26 ICT inquiry sessions. Way too much data to process for one dissertation.

perfect in our imperfection #recovery #mentalhealth #familysystems

July 20, 2014 § Leave a comment

Grandson, Husband and I went out for coffee and banking errands yesterday at midday. We had planned to go out earlier, but it just didn’t happen. We ended up picking up our coffee and sipping it as we walked home because I had to leave to pick up my friend and go to an NA meeting in the afternoon.

As we approached the house, my daughter was walking toward us from the opposite direction. She had just arrived to check in with Grandson and also, as it turned out, she had a couple of hours free to hang out with me. Daughter first broke the pattern of estrangement early last spring. She was in town with her two daughter, Granddaughter1 (8 years old) and Granddaughter2 (4 years old). They came by for a visit and we drew and painted pictures while Husband fed us homemade mac ‘n cheese. I wanted to debrief with Daughter about the estrangement, in hopes of growing a new relationship as we move forward. Debriefing about the estrangement would be a new pattern of behaviour for us. I had asked Daughter for one to one time for us, so we could get this done, but there hadn’t been an opening. Yesterday, 5 minutes before I was due to go and pick up my friend, she let me know she had time RIGHT NOW.

My old behaviour would have been to call my friend and cancel our date because it was a SPECIAL EVENT for my daughter to be in town and I would drop everything to accommodate her schedule. Instinctively I knew this was a bad idea. When my daughter dropped the hint that she had some time now, I let her know I was due to pick up my friend. I let her know I would be back at 4 pm. She seemed to take it well. I felt uncomfortable with the new behaviour, but that is what recovery feels like. A little uncomfortable and strange, even when we know we are doing the right thing.

However, I couldn’t get away without compulsively crossing a boundary. This is very old behaviour deeply encoded in me by my mother’s inappropriate body obsession (mine). From my earliest memories my mother has been too interested in everything about my body – my bowel movements, what I eat, the way I dress, my hair, my (lack of) makeup, nail polish, perfume, and scented powder, my clothes – undergarments, dressing gowns, hats, gloves, scarves, socks, etc. Whenever she gives me a gift, it is inevitable in reference to my body – something to wear, to pain on, to apply. It has always creeps me out, and she continues to do this to this day. I think her last gift to me was another canister of lavender bath powder. Yuck. So I have this history of inappropriate body concern from my mother. In the past, I acted on this inappropriate concern with my daughter, and later, with my grandson.

There is at least one, maybe two infamous incidents, when I actually cut Grandson’s hair without Daughter’s permission. Not taking him to a barber, either, but sitting him down with the buzz cutter and basically cutting his hair to 1/4″ long. Not good. There is worse between my daughter and I. I don’t know if I can go into it now, I have never told this one to anyone. Suffice to say I have had bad boundary management issues with my daughter and grandson and I am determined to change that.

As my daughter approached us on the sidewalk I admired her outfit, which was a striking summer combination of pants and sleeveless top. She proudly told me that she had made it herself. It was a cool, cloudy day, and she mentioned it was a little cool out that day, and rubbed her shoulders. A little later, as I was getting ready to leave to meet my friend, I turned to her and asked if she needed anything, like a sweater. I immediately felt foolish and ashamed. I had acted out again. To a bystander, this might look like an innocuous request, no cause for alarm. But to me, with a lifetime of shame and psychological injury from personal boundary violation, it was much more.

First, my daughter is 39 years old. She is surely capable of asking for a sweater if she needs one. Second, who am I to tell my daughter whether she needs a sweater or not? Surely I can offer her the respect that she knows how to take care of herself. Third, it is so hypocritical. I have been a mother that has not met the most basic needs for the protection and care of my daughters physical, mental or emotional health when I was solely the one to do so. She has managed, despite my colossal mothering errors, to turn out to be a fine mother and a wonderful human being, despite the deficits of her childhood (for example, she only managed to get a grade 9 education because her home life was so chaotic). And here, I have the temerity to question whether she can clothe herself properly? Such a contradiction of history versus compulsion.

So I did it, within 15 minutes of spending time with my daughter after 4 years of estrangement, despite my conviction that I want to grow a new relationship with her. I had compulsively enacted the very behaviour that leads me to avoid spending time with my own mother.

You know, now that I think about it, my sister does the same thing with my mother. She clothes my mother. She is always sharing the latest stories of going clothes or shoe shopping with my mom. I think it is safe to say that my mom’s entire wardrobe, at this point, has been purchased on shopping trips with my sister. Huh. Strange.

Anyway, I attended my NA meeting and shared a choking, sobbing account of what had transpired before I left to pick up my friend. I had no idea all that raw emotion was sitting below the surface. It felt good to share and I realized I am a work in progress, I am perfect in my imperfection.

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