Sunday, June 1, 2014

Emote already

Emotions are a funny thing. I was once told I didn't have any, or at least that there wasn't any evidence that I did - and that was by my husband. I've also been told I have a flat affect and that I give a . . . not so warm first impression. All of this belies everything going on under the surface, which I assure you is spectacular. Some habits are hard to break, and it's still very difficult for me to open up and let anything out, but I'm learning. More importantly, the way I acknowledge and process emotions internally has changed dramatically, and that is one of the best gifts recovery has given me. Recovery has allowed me to see more clearly who I am and why I am the way I am - not to place blame for my addiction but to discover my authentic self and continue to grow and change in positive ways, something that became impossible for me in active addiction.

Growing up in my family was idyllic in many ways. I always felt loved and supported and safe in my home. But a lot of value was placed on stoicism. When things were hard, you put on a brave face and kept plugging along. We expressed love but not in a gushy way. There was not a lot of tolerance for unnecessary drama, even though kids and teenagers are ALL about unnecessary drama, and there was an expectation, at least perceived, that you maintain a level of propriety and always do the right thing. The way I decided to handle this was to bottle up my feelings and put up a front. I craved approval, so I always did or pretended to do the things people expected me to do. I was embarrassed by feelings I thought would be considered silly or weak, so I didn't express them and eventually convinced myself I didn't feel them. They were there, under the surface. I just didn't want to acknowledge them and was ill-equipped to process them, so they eventually all melded into anger and outrage, which felt safer because I could direct it at other people and things. I became angry and resentful about everything but somehow blind to my part in any of it.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but I have clearly always been a glass half empty kind of girl. By way of illustration, there was a time after my parents moved me in 11th grade when I once again found myself frustrated with being new and awkward and friendless (moving was a recurring theme in my childhood.) I would spend my lunches wandering the halls pretending I was in a hurry to get somewhere so I wouldn't have to sit alone in the cafeteria. I would write wild, rambling letters to my best friend, and for some reason she saved them. I probably don't have to tell you how disturbingly fascinating it is to get a glimpse back into your 17-year-old mind. One letter opened with, "Well, I'm living here in eternal hellfire" - just a matter-of-fact assessment of my  situation. All of these terrible things just happened to me. I thought if everyone would bend to my will, the world would be a better place, but that, of course, never happened. One of the things I had to do in early recovery is literally go through an exercise every day where I would take annoying things that happened and figure out how to spin them into positives (a fun commute activity that also distracts from excessive road rage - which, surprise, I also have). Reversing 40 years of glass half empty thinking is hard. I'll let you know when/if I succeed. For now I like to call myself a realist rather than a pessimist. To some it may seem a subtle distinction, but I'm going with progress.

Like a lot of alcoholics, I was always uncomfortable in my own skin. I never felt I belonged anywhere. My instinct was always to be what I thought others wanted me to be, rather than risk not being liked and accepted for what I was. I built a lot of walls between me and the outside world, and I suppose spending a lifetime pretending you're something you're not inevitably makes you believe that what you really are isn't good enough. I don't think it's why I became an alcoholic (I believe my brain is broken in a special way that causes that), but I do think it's why drinking was so appealing to me in the beginning. Pretending to be something you're not is exhausting, and alcohol provided relief. I stopped caring what people thought of me when I was drinking. I rarely acted appropriately or did the right thing, and the best part was that I didn't care.  Unfortunately, I would always sober up, and that ball of rage was still there. So I walked around, angry with the world, pretending like everything was okay, knowing it wasn't, and using alcohol to make the feelings go away.  

In treatment, I was told that the best thing about getting sober is you get your feelings back, and the worst thing about getting sober is you get your feelings back. That rings pretty true for me. In the beginning I was so emotionally raw and stripped down, I couldn't string together a sentence about anything without bursting into tears, and I found myself apologizing every time it happened. It took time to come to the realization that emotions don't make me weak; they make me human. I began the slow process of unraveling all of that anger to discover the real feelings underneath, and it’s something I'm still working on today.

There were people close to me who were surprised by my addiction and to hear that I had been miserable for so long. Turns out I'm a pretty good liar, but I've also always loved to laugh. I suppose it’s hard to reconcile those two things, but it makes perfect sense to me. I understand what they say about comedians always having a twisted dark side. Comedy was always an escape for me. Those who know me well know my affinity for all things funny - funny by my standards, that is. Biting sarcasm is also a stellar defense mechanism, deflecting attention from real issues and emotions. I would be lying if I said I hadn’t been somewhat worried that I would lose my sense of humor in recovery. To me, that would be tragic. I’m happy to say that I still love to laugh, and I still laugh at the same things I laughed at before. I’m even happier to say that I now experience joy in my own life as well.

I love this bit that Louis CK did on Conan a while back. He talks about the phenomenon of kids getting meaner and not building empathy because of the ability to hide behind their screens and send their bullshit into cyberspace, basically. A kid can insult another kid and not be forced to face that person and see the pain and hurt he's caused – to really feel the implications of his actions.  You can lose yourself and your humanity in a lot of things. It's not unlike what I was doing in my addiction. I isolated and drank away my feelings. I lacked empathy and compassion for other human beings because I couldn't get outside of myself and my own misery to connect with anyone. He goes on to talk about the beauty of actually experiencing an emotion without trying to distract yourself from it. Honestly, I just think Louis CK is a comedy genius. But he's right.  Emotions are uncomfortable and painful sometimes, but there is value in sitting with them, experiencing them, and waiting for them to pass in their own time. You never truly appreciate the highs without the benefit of having experienced the lows.  

Emotions don't scare me so much anymore. I'm still not the best at sharing my feelings with others or outwardly expressing emotion - old habits and all. I've learned a lot about myself and the feelings I was trying to cover for many years. I've learned that talking to someone about my feelings is necessary when I find myself in a dark place. I've learned that relationships don't thrive without real communication, which doesn't work when I take feelings out of the equation. And relationships are everything. I want mine to be real and meaningful and deep, which means letting people in. It takes work. It didn’t magically happen when I got sober, but I'm grateful that it's happening slowly over time in recovery. The fact that I can tell you that means I'm light years from where I was three years ago, but I'm sorry, I'm still not going to gush about it.            


  1. I can relate to many things in your post. I wasn't allowed to express anger growing up. It didn't matter that my mom was running around yelling and screaming all the time. I thought something was wrong with me when I was angry. I only learned recently that being angry is okay. It's what you do with that anger that matters. I also learned to be a comedian and jokester at school. I took on others feelings and always felt the need to cheer people up if they were sad. I guess it came from trying to be the mediator between my mom and dad and feeling that their discontent was my responsibility. Ugh! So glad I'm sober today and able to process my emotions in a more mature way. I still have much to learn, and hopefully, one day I'll get there. :o)

    1. It is definitely what you do with it that matters. I was so tired of being angry all the time and not knowing what to do with it. Now that I have a little more perspective, I can be okay with feeling angry, process it (usually by talking to someone I trust), and then let it go. Amazing what becomes possible in sobriety that seemed so impossible before.