Thank you for the opportunity to answer this question. It is a beautiful example of the paradox that many mental health professionals face – seeing everything about your stressful situation so clearly, and yet having difficulty taking that knowledge and those concepts and tools and using them to feel calm, centered, and at peace.
Because that – your internal state of anxiety and tension – is the real issue. It sounds like you have used your knowledge of general psychological concepts, family dynamics, and the impact of trauma to make good decisions in your life. For example, you ended your marriage when you knew you needed to, despite your children’s mixed emotions and disapproval. You have developed a new romantic relationship that is healthy, positive, and supportive. It sounds like you manage what must be a stressful job (all nursing jobs are, in my opinion) well. You are parenting a teen and finding yourself in your relatively new role as a parent of adult children.
All of those are good things. So what you really appear to be struggling with is the quality of your life. You put it so well when you say:
“I feel like I am constantly living in a state of internal and external conflict. Probably just like everyone feels, but I want to be ok with the growth that comes with negotiating through it.”
“I want to be okay with the growth that comes with negotiating through it.” That statement hits the nail on the head so squarely that, as you see, I felt compelled to quote it back to you twice.
You are dealing with your life’s stressors, but you are asking about how to not just survive, but feel centered, grounded, and at peace despite the imperfections. You note that this is probably just how everyone feels. That is both true and not. Everyone has stressors, of course. It reminds me of the saying, “Life is painful; suffering is optional.”
I think of it this way: If you take a person’s total life stressors, and somehow quantify their stress level (I’m not saying you can actually do this; it’s just hypothetical!) But imagine we all had an objective “stress rating”. I would bet you anything the following is true:
· There is someone out there with the exact same stress level as you who is suffering greatly – maybe unable to go to work, losing their temper with others regularly, drawn to substance use or other unhealthy behaviors to escape.
· There is someone with your same stress level who is calm, content, and cheerful most of the time.
· There is someone with half of your stress who is breaking down under the weight of it.
· There is someone with twice your level of stress who is managing it well.
…and everything in between.
The bottom line is, it is a wise decision to take any steps you can to improve your coping skills and learn to maintain an underlying feeling that “everything is okay” no matter how “okay” everything is, objectively.
You would be doing a disservice to yourself if you concluded, “Of course I’m stressed and anxious and not sleeping well. Life is hard! It would be a rare person who gets through modern life without feeling stressed most of the time.”
By writing in with this question, you are maintaining hope that there are ways to find more peace and serenity despite external events. You have not stopped looking for ways to make this happen. You are a bit stumped, as you work in a profession that supposedly has so many “answers,” all of which you know, but they don’t seem to be helping.
Here are some thoughts: You have been in therapy before, but it sounds like you are not currently. And the reason why is understandable, on the surface anyway. I imagine you are wondering why you would go to someone else to tell you all the things that you already know. You know these things, so in theory you could be your own therapist and just “figure it out.”
My response to that (because I have felt the same way myself, believe me!) is that a person can almost always benefit from an outside perspective on their own situation. True, there are many people who are regularly attending therapy and still struggle with these same things. Therapy is not magic, and can be frustrating. But it is possibly a step in the right direction toward what you are seeking – a capacity to apply what you know to your own life.
In addition to recommending that you consider trying therapy again, I’m going to point you in a slightly different direction, one that you might already be familiar with.
I am curious if you ever attended Al-Anon, Codependents Anonymous or any other Twelve Steps program when you were married and struggling with your ex’s addiction. I suspect you might have, as your question demonstrates familiarity with many of the concepts of such programs. For example…
You reference having insight into your guilt, trauma, and boundary issues.
You express a good understanding of the way your ex-husband’s addiction and depression impacted your entire family.
You mention that you “enable” your children.
You recognize the fact that your ex “left” the family emotionally long ago, that being physically present was not the same as parenting.
You see the role reversal in your ex’s relationship with your daughters, with them taking in the caregiving role.
You validate your daughters’ dual feelings of resentment toward you for ending the marriage, existing right alongside their understanding that it was what you needed to do.
You appreciate your current partner’s understanding of the walls your daughters have put up to maintain a distance from him, while at the same time empathizing with his wish to have a greater connection with them.
If you have attended Al-Anon in the past, you might think it is no longer relevant because you are divorced. I believe anyone can benefit from Al-Anon, whether they are currently in a relationship with a substance-user or not. In fact, I have gone so far as to recommend Al-Anon to clients who do not even have a history of substance abuse in their families, but who have any kind of family or interpersonal issues that they struggle to cope with. I think it is the best “life school” there is.
Of course I don’t know from your question whether spiritual beliefs are part of your worldview or not. If they are not, I apologize for emphasizing this point so much. But Alcoholics Anonymous has a saying that alcoholism is a spiritual problem that requires a spiritual solution.
I see stress and anxiety in a similar way. When you have already done all you can to understand and manage your situation, but find yourself still weighed down by stressors, or find yourself with underlying feelings of worry or dread that you can’t seem to “think” your way out of, the principles and mutual support of a Twelve Step program might be exactly what you need to fill in that gap between knowing the broad strokes and being able to apply that knowledge to attain peace of mind.
I hope this has been helpful. Thank you again for shining a light on these important questions.