Every time I sit down at the computer to write another post for my blog, I wrestle with two recurring questions: Why would I want to expose my scars, fears, and hopes to others? … and … What good could a reader garner from coming along on this journey? I’ve written before about my belief that happiness does not come from accumulating wealth or status, but rather from making authentic connections with those around us. It doesn’t matter if you’re the CEO of a Fortune 500 company or the clerk toiling away in a cubicle, the one thing you have in common with everyone else on this planet is that you are “broken” in some place in your life, and thus, you are not immune to suffering. By opening a dialogue with you, I’m shedding a light on the darkest corners of my thoughts, and quite often, readers allow me into those recesses in their mind.
In AA meetings and literature, you hear the phrase “clearing out the wreckage of the past” to describe the housecleaning necessary to move forward in life. When I first sobered up, this process primarily involved coming to terms with behavioural patterns that feed my addiction, and also making amends to various people I had harmed through my addiction.
Once again I feel that it’s time to clear a little more of that “wreckage” from the past. With increased self confidence, has come the recognition that I no longer want to be weighted down by toxic relationships in my life. We all have debilitating relationships that limit our spiritual, physical, or emotional well-being. It’s not always easy to identify an insidious toxic relationship, but the metric that I’m starting to rely on comes down to one simple question: “When I’m around this person, do I feel compromised in any way?”
The word “toxic” has its roots in the mid-17th century: from medieval Latin "toxicus”, meaning “poisoned”. I identify a relationship as “toxic” when it drains me in some way instead of nourishing me. I apply the term “toxic relationships” to my dealings with not only people, but also substances, and institutions. An immediate warning sign for me that I might be in a toxic relationship is the physical sensation that I am suffocating or even worse--trapped. My mind often plays a trick on me by trying to convince me that even though I may not be happy with this relationship, the risk of losing it would bring even more dire consequences.
It’s natural for every relationship to wax and wane, but when I’m honest with myself, it’s usually fairly obvious when a relationship has turned “toxic”. I have a mental checklist that I run through to determine if I might be better off terminating the relationship:
1. The predominate feeling is one of “shame”, I’m left never feeling good enough.
2. The thought of this relationship brings “dread”, “duty”, or “obligation” instead of “joy”.
3. The “schizophrenic” me appears—and by that I mean I’m never able to be my “authentic” self when I’m around this person, institution, or substance.
4. There’s a distinct power dynamic at play, in which I’m not encouraged to change, grow, or evolve.
Even though I’m 16 years clean and sober, as a recovering addict, I need a daily reminder that I have a toxic relationship with drugs and alcohol. My mind constantly tries to convince me that I don’t have this problem anymore, but I must be vigilant never to enter into this “dance with the devil” again. Ironically, although AA was the cornerstone of getting my life back on track, at times, it too has been a toxic relationship. Being around 12-step meetings can be draining, frustrating, and downright depressing. Over the years, I find that I check in and out of AA whenever I need a “recovery fix”, but I distance myself from getting caught up in the “recovery machine” that many people fall prey to because they fail to build a life outside the 12-step meetings.
Two years ago I had to come to terms with the most difficult toxic relationship in my life—my interactions with my mother. I’ve spent too many hours with therapists and psychiatrists hashing out the issues with my mother to bore you with an itemized list here. What I really want to get across is how gut-wrenching it is to have to admit that even the most primal of relationships can turn “toxic”. Whenever I was around my mother, I felt so much inner turmoil that I made myself physically ill. Since breaking off contact with her almost two years ago, I have struggled daily with all of the societal shame and baggage for no longer loving the person who gave me life. Believe me, I am no “poster child” when it comes to mental health, but I am certain of one thing—the initial discomfort in freeing myself from a toxic relationship, which at times may be debilitating, pales in comparison to the liberation and self-respect I gain.
I’d like to end with a little inspirational quote a friend recently posted on Facebook. “I want to be your favourite hello and your hardest goodbye.” I’m going to start to use this as a guide to help me from becoming someone else’s toxic relationship.