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I recently came across an adorable cartoon of an owl, a bird, and a pig.
The owl is wearing a backpack (just like they do in nature). And the following exchange occurs:
Pig to Bird: “He’s wearing his backpack backwards. Let’s tell him. Excuse me.”
Owl (swivels its head completely around): “Yeah?”
The humorous point to this cartoon was how, initially, it looked like the owl had its backpack on all wrong. It took a full-on Linda-Blair-from-“The Exorcist” head-spinning scene to finally get the pig and the bird to see, that, yes, indeed, the owl was doing just fine, thank you very much.
He just had a different way of doing things. A better way of doing things. A healthier way of doing things.
As we are in recovery, many of us can bump into situations with the people from our “former life,” like family members, drinking buddies, and other assorted people who encouraged or took part in our dysfunctional behavior. Sooner or later, we may encounter someone who looks at us in our newer, recovery-focused way of life and declares that we are wearing our proverbial backpacks all wrong.
That can be code for three things:
“You’re not doing what we’re doing.”
Family of origin stuff big time here, and quite often.
Parents, siblings, and extended family, those people who fully insist they are experts on us, while often, simultaneously, living disordered, addicted, abusive, and chaotic lives, determine that we are wrong. We are wrong because we’re no longer doing what they’re doing. We’re not drinking, eating, and engaging in the “normal” way of doing things. You know, the addictions, the abuse, and the unhealthy behaviors. That, in their estimation, is correct backpack placement.
We, however, are wearing our backpacks of sobriety, serenity, and low or no contact; we are breaking cycles of enmeshment, codependency, and abuse. Do we get any credit or acknowledgment for that? Of course we don’t.
Instead, we are labelled wrong, crazy, an expletive, or mocked with “too good for us now, huh?”
This is not to dwell on the negative. It’s to prepare us for reality. Our decision to get healthier, whatever that may mean, will probably not get met with unbridled enthusiasm and open arms.
A knee-jerk, judgmental response, with an unspoken pressure for us to “change back” may be the only thing we encounter.
“You’re saying ‘No.’”
Here’s a concept I learned years ago that will add insight to others’ resistance to hearing our no: “When a person does not accept your ‘no,’ they’re trying to control you.”
Yep, refusal to heed someone’s no is a violation. It demeans and destroys. Even ancient scripture weighs in on this issue: “Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No;’ anything beyond this comes from the evil one.” (Matthew 5:37)
As we are in recovery, we are often met with opposition, resistance, even hostility and threats against us for daring to utter the word, “No.” If we come from abuse or addiction, those individuals connected with those ways of behaving often regard our no, our attempt at establishing a clear boundary, as a personal attack. They can be threatened by it, fearing the destruction of their well-crafted lies and secrets, the dreaded revelation of actual people who have been harmed by their course of action, and, of course, general anxiety over their loss of control over others, including us.
That’s a lot to fear from one two-letter word. But the word is more than a word to them. It symbolizes the end of their power, their sense of identity and self, and an end to life as they know it.
We are getting healthier and stronger as we say no. We are changing the unhealthy status quo, if only for ourselves.
And that is unacceptable to them.
“You’ve changed (and you need to ‘change back’).”
Our healthier choice confronts and unsettles those who are still sick and unwilling to get better. It’s easier, in their opinion, to get us to “change back,” instead of them becoming healthier. It’s the path of least resistance.
Don’t take that path. Keep wearing your healthier backpack the way you have been doing.
We’ve changed, and that is sinful to them; it is disobedient. It is wrong. And therefore, the only remedy is to get us to “change back.” That will correct and restore, so that the addiction, the lies, the abuse, the cover ups, and the dysfunction will, once again, be allowed to flourish uninterrupted and unchallenged.
These people are not interested in health. They are only interested in getting their way, and bending people to their will is vital to that. That, in their estimation, is the correct way to wear the backpack and get where they want to go in life.
When we wear it differently, it provides proof that there’s a different, better way to live.
It defies absolute decrees of right and wrong.
“Change back”—sometimes, we hear these words literally uttered to us. There’s judgment, criticism, fear, hostility, and a mocking quality as that message is conveyed. It’s not said in a friendly, positive tone. It signals we are wrong and we better “get right” already.
If we can be bullied, belittled, and threatened into “changing back,” problem solved. Again, those who only supported us when our toxic behaviors matched theirs rarely change for the better or for the healthier. Their behavior may display a deterioration. They may exhibit detrimental health, legal, relationship, and financial consequences. One would think that would be enough to snap someone to attention and get them to change their ways.
But such things as fear of change (and most of us have some degree of this fear), their need for schadenfreude (taking delight in another person’s misfortunes), or simply showing an unwillingness to do the uncomfortable and hard work that change requires, drive the “change back” demand. It’s too painful and unpleasant to face themselves, as the mirror of our healthier selves startles and confronts them at the heart of their circumstances.
And they often don’t like the reflection they see.
So, to them, it makes sense to force us to revert back to “the usual” way of doing things. If we return our backpack to the unhealthy way of wearing it, then we will no longer look and live this unacceptable and unfamiliar kind of health.
And that will, once again, reassure those with whom we are struggling to heal.
The Lightbulb Clarity of the Never Mind Moment
It’s the lightbulb revelation, the recognition of the “never mind” as they see our backpack is on us just fine. Some kind of approval or acceptance may even show up.
Yes, that is a possibility from some individuals, but proceed with caution. Largely, it is the exception, not the rule kind of a response when we are dealing with toxic systems, often influenced by addiction and abuse. It might be possible to positively impact others as we improve, get healthier, and heal.
Still, if that is the case, it’s a bit tricky. For, upon noticing us with our healthier, in-process backpacks, there may be recognition, but it’s often on the down low. After all, this recognition represents a threat to the status quo. Therefore, we might encounter people from our past, from our families, from our old haunts who whisper the approving “never mind,” yet scan and duck to make sure no one is privy to the fact that the lightbulb has turned on for them. It’s about safety in the system, after all.
We cannot trust and count on their support. They may say things like “I always knew so and so was abusive,” “They did that to me too,” and “I wish I could do what you’re doing.” But, in front of the pressurizing firing squad, they will often cave and sell us out. They may even double down on their attacks of us, calling us “crazy” or any number of discrediting expletives.
Ultimately, who experiences the lightbulb moment is not our responsibility. We are responsible for ourselves, for our healing. It would be great if the people from our past, family included, would and could jump on the bandwagon. But we can’t carry the bandwagon like a backpack—it is too heavy to do so.
The owl is known for being wise. Let’s be wise then, concentrate on wearing our backpacks in a healthy way, and walk on.