Episode 115: How One Of Our Sisters Learned to Relax
Are you all ready to listen to a very wise woman? Today we are going to discuss how we convince ourselves that they really don’t have an issue and the delusion that if we try harder, they really will get sober once and for all. We’ll talk about how addiction affects our friendships, how we can love from a distance, and how shame can keep you stuck.
I promise you are going to be nodding your head when Janet shares her stories because you’re going to relate. You can tell she’s done her work, and you’re going to have many takeaways from this interview. I can’t wait for you to hear.
Michelle: Janet, thank you so much for agreeing to talk with me today. I am so grateful. Where I’d like to start is: how did you meet your husband, because you’re currently married. Well, you said partner. Are you together with him but not married?
Janet: Correct, we were never married. We were common law.
Michelle: Ok, common law. Do you prefer me to call him partner then? Is that the appropriate term I should use?
Janet: Yes, that would be appropriate.
Michelle: Ok, great. So how did you meet your partner, and when did you first start to see that there were red flags around his drinking?
Janet: Well, we met at a social event where there was tons of alcohol, so it was par for the course. It was situationally appropriate at that time because it was a celebration, so everybody was drinking. So there were no red flags at that moment.
The first time I thought to myself, “Oh my, we have a situation” was when we were going to my parent’s farm. As we were turning into the driveway of the farm, my partner asked me to stop the vehicle. From the backseat, he pulled out of his bag a bottle of vodka and took a huge swig of it.
I got a sinking feeling but thought maybe it’s nerves. It’s nerve-wracking to meet someone’s parents, so I brushed it aside. But if I’m honest (because honesty is a huge component of the program), that was the first time I felt something was different.
Michelle: I love that you’re saying this because honesty is a huge part of the program, and I think one of our issues is that we’re not willing to be honest with ourselves because we don’t want to be. If we’re honest with the reality of the situation, it means we would have to take action that makes us feel uncomfortable. I know for me, it was far easier to justify and believe the lies that he was telling me rather than accepting and listening to that gut feeling, that intuition, that fear that’s saying, “There’s something wrong with this. This is not normal.” Did you feel that way?
Janet: Absolutely. And I think that as the process kept unfolding, like last-minute cancellation of plans and going off the grid, I just always bought the excuses or the lies. I would think to myself, “Ok, your job is stressful,” or “I guess that makes sense.” And then the cycle would start of apologizing, then everything would be good, but his behavior would start again. I got used to it.
Michelle: That cycle is a killer. I don’t think for the first year I even realized I was in that cycle. I love to think of diagrams in my mind. When they start to act out by drinking, using drugs, gambling, or whatever they’re addicted to, you get to the middle part of the circle where you think, “Ok, I’m reacting in a certain way,” whether it’s anger, manipulation, sadness, or denial.
Then he denies, and you’re in that peaceful part of the circle where you’re feeling closer than ever before. You’re feeling hopeful that he’s going to change. You feel like it’s a new beginning, and this time he really means it, but then you’re right back at the top of the circle again when he starts to act out.
I think where this sickness is on our part of the circle, is that we have control over our reaction. We try for the first year to react differently each time. We’ll try anger, and think, “this is the ticket. I just need to be threatening.” Or we’ll try manipulation or begging saying, “Well, only have beer on weekends.”
Janet: Right. Or count their drinks. Or make something up important the next day, so it will be likely he won’t drink too much because he has an important thing the next day. But then you realize that he will drink. For me, it’s almost like a bag of tricks. What do I have in my bag that I can try this time? Or so many nights just lying awake thinking, “have I tried hard enough? Maybe if I try harder, or if I work harder in this area.” But then I’m completely robbing my peace and rest from myself. I just felt like a shell after a while. I didn’t even recognize myself, especially after we moved in together. It’s a lot harder to hide this disease when it’s in your home.
Michelle: Let’s talk about that. Your father was an alcoholic, is that correct? How did it get to the point where you saw the warning signs and thought, “Oh, I recognize this.” When did you get to the point of being comfortable moving in with him?
Janet: It’s hard to not look back on it with shame. I think that when we look back, there’s this conversation we have with ourselves that says, “you should have known better.” And I honestly believed that moving in together would relate to that happy postcard family. There were such happy times when we would get together with our kids and do kid-based events. That seemed to be a time that we really connected. I thought that if we’re all in one house together, then it’ll be the family cohesion cure. That’s what I really thought was going to happen. But it did not.
Michelle: I think everyone who is listening to this is probably shaking their heads and saying, “Yep, me too.” Because even if they’ve moved in and you already have the children in the relationship, that could be one way you feel like a happy family is the cure for the addiction. A lot of women I know (myself included) thought, “if we have a baby, maybe he won’t get sober for me, but he’ll get sober for the baby. How could anyone walk out and ignore a baby, their own child?”
Janet: I’m in no way blaming my father, but once I figured out what my dad’s interests were and what he liked, then I became an expert in those interests. For example, my dad loved watching ’60 Minutes’ and ’20/20′, so at a young age, I learned that if I was good in history or social studies, or watched the news, then it gave us a basis to connect on. I feel that was the same thing in the relationship with my partner. If I can find that basis to connect on and really hone in on that and become perfect in that skill, then that will be the thing that cures the situation. In the end, that’s just so much work for us. Is that being authentic? And is that being true?
Michelle: So true. First of all, I hope you’ve gotten to the point where you don’t feel shame looking back or thinking, “how could I have gotten myself into this situation?” For many people, it’s different because it’s not uncommon for kids that grow up in an alcoholic household to marry an alcoholic. But for you, and for most of them, I think why that happens is because you haven’t done the healing that you needed to from your relationship with your parents. It becomes comfortable and familiar. Sometimes pain can be more comfortable than joy if that’s all we’ve known.
Janet: Absolutely. When I was discussing it with my friends (I’m blessed with amazing friends), I would say it’s almost like I have a PhD in crisis or relationships that are emotionally unavailable. It’s just what I’m used to and that need for worth. It’s what I did, and there is no shame anymore. I believe I had to go through the circumstances and situations that I did because what I’m experiencing now is beyond what I ever could have believed it could be for peace and creativity and possibility.
Michelle: You said something that really piqued my curiosity. When I interview and talk with women who are in love with somebody who suffers from this disease, I find it’s very rare when they have good friends. There are not many women who have managed to do that because this disease tries to isolate us and keep us alone so that it can maintain control over our family or our dysfunctional relationships.
How did you manage to maintain these friendships? Did he ever make you feel guilty for your friendships?
Janet: I guess in my circumstance, when I was trying to heal from my family situation as a young woman, I knew that if I was going to survive, I was going to have to redefine what family life looked like to me. And that’s when I started collecting my tribe of friends. Those friends are pre-existing before I met my partner. My friends work in mental health, as do I, and they had a keen eye for what was going on. They made sure I was okay.
Michelle: What would they do? Would they text or call you every once in a while and insist that you leave? How did you handle all of the guilt that your partner would put on you exercising that right to have friendships?
Janet: A dear friend of mine would send a text that said, “pulse check,” which meant she was worried. As far as guilt from my partner, it got to a point when we were living together that he was so sick he wouldn’t have noticed that I left the house. He was incapacitated from alcohol.
Michelle: Wow, so what kept you staying in that relationship with a man who was that incapacitated? A lot of women use the excuse they don’t want to go through a divorce because of the paperwork. I don’t necessarily think pieces of paper is why you stay with somebody. I think there’s a lot of fear behind it. So what kept you with this man?
Janet: The answer is pretty easy for me. My partner reminded me of my dad. His work ethic, how stoic he was, and when he was sober, how much fun we had together. Our same interests. Once we were living together and he was incapacitated, it was financial reasons that kept me. I also worried about what others would think. We had just moved in together, but then I was considering moving out five months later. What were people going to say?
I work in mental health, so that really held me because I felt like I should have known better, as did the appearance to the outside world that everything’s okay. Look at the beautiful house that we bought. Look at the postcard family. I worked hard to uphold that outward appearance for so long until it became unsafe.
Michelle: Thank you for being honest about that. I think we all have that mask and illusion that we try to present to the world. We’re so scared that if people really saw what was going on, they would judge us and we would lose all credibility. That somehow what was going on was our fault. That we were responsible in some way for their behavior and the chaos and the dysfunction.
So he reminded you a lot of your father. At what point did you start to look for help? At what point did you say, “There are things I can do that can help me”?
Janet: My breaking point when I thought, “I don’t think I can do this anymore” was when my children stopped wanting to come see me. These were my children, not his. I’d never experienced that before. I had such a strong connection with my children and my “wasband.” I don’t call him my ex-husband because I still love my ex-husband. He’s a great guy.
I think it was when my children and my wasband were saying that the kids couldn’t come anymore. Or when my ex-husband said, “I’m really worried about you. This isn’t safe. This isn’t what you deserve.” I think the kicker for me was when my son asked me, “Do you really think this is the love you deserve, mom? Because it’s so painful for me to watch it.” That got the ball rolling for me.
Michelle: What did your friends, your wasband, and your kids see going on that made them so worried about you physically or mentally or in your home? What was going on that made everyone so concerned?
Janet: My friends stopped caring for me. I was isolated. It was almost like I was perpetuating the alcoholic behavior. I would cancel plans at the last minute. Or I wouldn’t answer texts. I just dropped off the grid. If I were at events, I would be anxious and not present, constantly checking my phone. I would leave work sometimes to make sure that was okay or call in sick from work. There was a lot of behavior that was not who I really was. I didn’t have the energy to take my kids to the movies or go to parent-teacher night. The kids could never come over to our place ever because I didn’t know what was going to happen that night.
Michelle: So you just became completely overwhelmed and preoccupied, and all of your energy went into this relationship.
Michelle: Hustling as you said.
Janet: We never left the house either. The kids were complaining about being bored because we never left the house. I almost felt like I had to be on red alert all of the time. If we leave the house, who knows what we’re coming back to? I’ve never watched so much TV in my life, and I hate watching TV. But so many of our nights would be spent watching TV because there wasn’t a lot of energy to do any activity. All the energy he could muster and do was to be drunk and watch TV. So we watched a lot of movies. I don’t want to watch another movie as long as I live.
Michelle: Oh, I so understand that. I’m fine with movies, but there are certain interests of my ex-husband that I will never, ever do again.
So you basically lost yourself and your sparkle. That’s huge. When did things start to turn around for you?
Janet: My partner was hospitalized for withdrawal. When he got out of the hospital, we had a violent altercation. At that point, I asked him to leave the home, and things started to turn around then. Once I actually got the space to sit and feel, things really started to change. That’s when I started seeking out for the first time on the internet something for me. Not a rehab, not a new therapy, not a new drug or cleanse or hypnotherapy. I wasn’t searching for something for him. That’s how I found the program. And I just laugh when I think about when I first stumbled on it because I would think, “I don’t want all the emails. And they talk about God too much.” I was pretty resistant to my own healing, but I knew I needed something.
Michelle: You’re not the first person to say that. But when that resistance is there, it’s not your real heart. It’s the addiction that still has a grasp over you and the control over you. It’s that negative self-talk that you mentioned earlier that helps belittling anything or anyone that looks like help. Addiction doesn’t want you to get help, so it’s going to tell you whatever looks like light is ridiculous because it’s darkness.
Janet: Right. Like you said before, we’re used to chaos and discomfort. But I think when we challenge that, there can be a huge response. Don’t go changing the status quo now. Don’t go getting too big for your britches.
Michelle: Did you get the program right away, or were you just getting the emails?
Janet: No, I bought it right away because I said, “It’s time to try something different.” I have 50,000 self-help books. If it’s a waste of money, it’s a waste of money. No big deal. I just observed at first in the secret Facebook group. Then when I really started to read and listen, I realized that others understood. There’s nothing that would shock these women or would be unspeakable. It was just so overwhelming to finally find a community that understood.
Michelle: I love that. I remember sitting in my kitchen over 10 years ago, and I was a young mom. He was passed out on the couch, and I remember looking over the internet trying to find something—a group of women that could relate to what I was going through. Here I was, my little ones were in bed, my husband was passed out. I think he was doing cocaine because he had a nosebleed on the couch, and I remember thinking, “It’s 9 o’clock on a Friday night. I just need a group of women like me. I don’t want to go to some place where it’s just negative, negative, negative, and it’s all his fault.”
I wanted to go to a place where I could share everything that was going on, and they could help and encourage me and tell me what they’ve done in the past or if they could understand. And that was the night where I said to myself, “I am going to do this if I ever live through this. If I ever come out the other side.” And that was the moment when I had that idea of a Facebook group. But I wasn’t on Facebook. I didn’t know it existed. I didn’t know that technology could do that.
But I remember thinking, “Ok, if I ever figure this out, I’m going to create this group because there’s got to be other women out there. I don’t want to sit here alone on a Friday night by myself.” So thank you for saying that because I think one of the best things about the program is the amazing women that come into it. And I love the transformation that you had. That’s wonderful.
Janet: Thank you for having the platform that it could happen on.
Michelle: So where are you at now? You asked him to leave, and he did leave?
Janet: Yes, he left, and just recently we ended up selling the home that we shared. Right now, I’m waiting for the final process of the separation agreement to be done, and then it’s done. For me, it’s done, but I don’t want anything bad to happen to that man. That’s not where my heart is. I do hope that it will get turned around for him, but it’s in someone else’s hands now. In God’s hands.
I know what “love a person from a distance” means now. I didn’t get that before. We can love and care for them from a distance. I don’t want the wrath of God to come down on him. I want good things, but I know that it’s completely out of my control.
Michelle: That tells me you’re in a place of forgiveness, and now you can feel the peace.
Janet: I think it’s important to go through the program over and over again. I have the podcasts, and I listen to them on my commute because even if I’ve heard it before, I hear something different depending on where I’m at that day. That’s when I go, “Oh yeah. That makes so much sense.” Because I’m in a different place now. I don’t think that healing is a destination. I’m sure there’s more that’s going to come up in the future.
Michelle: Oh yeah. Let me tell you. It’s going to. But that’s the beauty, right? It’s like our work is never done. We’re never going to be divine human beings that are higher than our pain. Human suffering is part of life. It’s like we’re learning the tools on how to handle that and how to have the feelings that come up. I’m remarried to a wonderful, sober man who’s the best guy in the world. I love him more and more every year that I’m married to him. But there’s still work to be done. I still struggle with self-care.
Sometimes Brian will say, “Michelle, you just wrote about this last week. You need to do it now.” And I’ll say, “You’re right, I’ve got to do this because I’m teaching this.” It’s never-ending, and I think that’s where the importance of being gentle and kind to ourselves—that’s the key. That’s the place where we can find healing. Not sitting here beating ourselves up because we haven’t reached this destination that is unachievable.
Janet: Right. I think that’s the old story because that’s kind of what drove us before: keep trying, keep trying, and then the mark just gets higher and higher and higher, and we’ll never reach it. Feeling the feelings can be so overwhelming and uncomfortable, but they tend to loosen their grip when you can sit with it. And for me, I did need the space. I know that was not the other woman’s story, but for me, I did need the space. I needed the breathing room from the chaos of it so that I could feel.
Michelle: I love what you wrote in your pre-interview questions. You filled this out quite a while ago, so I wanted to refresh you. You talked about exhaustion. And you said, “Sometimes I wonder if it really is exhaustion, or if I’m learning that a lack of chaos and the ability to relax is so new that I don’t know this new-found friend of relaxation and instead equate it to exhaustion.”
I was like, “I’m writing a blog post about that because that’s genius.” I hope you don’t mind.
Janet: Not at all.
Michelle: Can you talk about that?
Janet: I used to feel tired but wired and exhausted, but I couldn’t go to sleep. So when all of that chaos was gone, it was almost like I said to myself, “Oh my gosh, I’m so exhausted!” And I would say that over and over and over again. Then I’d say, “Am I truly exhausted, or do I just not know what peace feels like?”
I never sat down. I would be cooking dinner, doing laundry, and always in the house. But even with the endless movie-watching going on, I’m washing dishes, or I’m folding laundry because I think that I just had to keep going so I couldn’t think. To just sit, and not really have a crisis breathing down my neck. I felt so tired, but I wondered if it was just peace.
Michelle: I think it was probably both because I think we ride ourselves so hard when we’re married. And like you said, we’re hustling, we’re working, we’re solving, and we’re fixing. Our mind is going and twirling in our heads. And I think when we create the distance, there is that detox. I remember someone saying that when they finally left, they slept for a month. Hours and hours that they didn’t realize they needed because they were so used to the busyness and the chaos.
But I think you’re also right—that feeling of peace is so foreign that we don’t recognize it when it comes. And we quickly want to fill the space of peace with busyness. Or sometimes we can become so habitually addicted to problems that it feels very uncomfortable not to have that chaos and dysfunction going on and all these problems to solve.
Janet: I think even my sick thinking said, “I’m exhausted, so how do I fix it? My thyroid must be messed up, or I must not be getting enough Vitamin D, or I need to get blood work.” But the nature of the beast is that we’re just always looking for a way to solve a problem. My internet searches would be “adrenal exhaustion,” or other things. I’m not saying that couldn’t have been it, but you realize your whole system is failing.
Michelle: And it’s so true because I think there’s a part of us that feels that need for fixing fills us with a sense of self-worth. When we get to the place where we completely accept ourselves for who we are, we don’t have that desire to solve everyone’s issues. I could create the distance with my ex out of love, but with my kids and with my current husband, I can’t say I can claim it 100% of the time all the time, but I’m getting very, very close to being able to do that. I’m very comfortable in my own skin. There’s an acceptance of my flaws and my gifts.
When you get to that point, you can see other people around you making poor choices, whether that’s your kids or your husband or your parents or your friends. And there isn’t that desire to jump in and problem-solve and be of use. You still can have a servant’s heart. You can still have a desire to help people. That’s always good. That’s your profession, and that’s my profession. That is what we love to do. But there’s not that instinctive knee-jerk reaction to do it. It’s more of a conscious choice because we’re not getting our worth from that anymore. So it’s not out of desperation that we’re doing it. We can take inventory and say, “Do I really need to get involved in bailing out my son from that consequence, or is it a healthier choice to let him suffer and lovingly watch but let him pay those natural consequences?” The idea of risking them being mad at you for not stepping in and saving the day seems more acceptable when you’re not placing your self-worth in his hands.
Janet: Absolutely. And I think it’s so interesting you’re bringing up kids because my kids have never known me to be anything else except the fixer and the hustler and the enabler, and so this new mom—it’s uncomfortable for them at times. If my kids miss the bus, I’m like, “Well, see you when I see you, I guess. I’m not going to come and get you all the time.” I am not going to do the certain things I used to do, and they don’t really like that so much.
Michelle: That’s wonderful. That is huge. And isn’t that funny how when you recover from loving someone who suffers from this disease, your other relationships recover too?
Janet: Oh yeah. And it’s so interesting to see. I think I said it before in the community: we think it’s us in our homes, but it’s not. If that behavior is in our homes, it’s in every aspect of our lives. Just because he leaves, if he does leave, it doesn’t mean that you won’t see those same patterns in a work environment, for example. Then you realize, “Oh, I do it here, too.” That’s sort of what I noticed. It was like once the rose-colored glasses were off, you can’t unsee it.
Michelle: So true—which is why I believe that addition was one of the greatest gifts that ever happened to us. We needed the lessons. We needed to learn the lessons that addition taught us to learn. It was painful. I would much rather have liked to learn them in an easier way where people don’t have to pay such severe consequences, but I do believe it’s purposeful and that if we do our work, which clearly you have, it can be one of the best things that ever happened to us. It can be our ultimate healing and pivoting moment.
Janet: Through my journey, I heard people say, “Oh, I’m so grateful for this.” In the beginning, when I was crusty, I’m like, “What are they talking about? Are you kidding me?” So I agree with you. I feel like this has been used for the highest good, and I wouldn’t really change this situation for anything now because it happened for me. It didn’t happen to me.
Michelle: That’s beautiful. I believe you, and I love that you’ve made this transformation. It’s so true. I’m sure that I was once that very cynical person going, “Give me a break. Whatever. That’s such a bunch of BS.” Now, you’re really grateful.
Here’s what I know for sure about you: whatever happens in your future—you have literally made the investment in yourself, your recovery, and your healing that you’re not going to replicate or duplicate what you had. You have broken the cycle. It has happened for you.
Janet: Something that I wanted to share is that for me, that cycle wasn’t broken until I forgave myself. I had to forgive myself first before anything could shift. When you asked about the shame earlier, I had to let go of that. I had to forgive myself or else I’d go in this repeating patterns. Forgiving myself was huge to change the patterns.
Michelle: Yeah, and I think that forgiving yourself is super hard. I’m not saying that it’s impossible, because a lot of women do choose to stay, but I think it’s super hard to forgive yourself when you’re living with an alcoholic or substance abuser. You’re literally married to them. You’re staying with them because the voice of addiction can be so loud and so convincing, it doesn’t leave a lot of room for that. And forgiving yourself. People ask, “Well how do you get there?” By doing this phrase: let it go.
Janet: Yeah, it’s a process.
Michelle: Forgiving yourself is a process. It starts with self-talk that isn’t loud or aggressive. It’s sweet, gentle, soft, and kind. And when you’ve got the addiction voice that’s loud and mean-spirited and super powerful, it’s really hard to replace that with the sweet gentleness that self-talk can give you. I’m not saying it’s impossible to do, but you have to be really aware, if you choose to stay, which voice is what and be able to make space. Be in the quiet stillness, listen, and spend some time telling yourself what you believe that is loving, wonderful and special about yourself and forgiving yourself for all of the past decisions that you’ve made.
Janet: I totally agree.
Michelle: Thank you so much. Your wisdom is profound. And I know that you’re going to help so many people by what you shared. Thank you, seriously.
Janet: Thank you for the work that you do. It is so important.
I adore this woman. Her wisdom and clarity astound me. And that’s what is amazing about this disease: it happens to really talented and gifted people. We are smart women, you and I. We have doctors, nurses, teachers, mothers, lawyers, accountants, lobbyists, and so many more professions in our community. We’re not stupid. We are educated and well-rounded woman who happen to have a very loving and compassionate side.
We just need to make sure we are extending the same kind of love and respect to ourselves as we offer others. When we do that, our lives change. We honor our boundaries and ourselves.
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