One of the biggest triggers people in recovery face is this: experiencing our own feelings.
Rehab was an immediate eye-opener. A few days in, my hangover gone and settling into my new surroundings, I noticed right away how laughter was different. It’s something most of us ended up remarking on at some point during our 28 days. Real laughter feels good! Unaccustomed to genuine belly laughs, laughs that made our faces hurt (because substance-induced laughter is just not the same), we found ourselves cracking up, over and over, when we shared our silly drunk or using stories.
And being able to laugh at ourselves seemed nothing short of a miracle. Here was Kim, talking about hiding bottles in the neighbor’s bushes, or Saundra, forgetting where she’d hidden bottles altogether and finding them unexpectedly in the most hilarious of places—behind the toilet or under her mattress (“To this day, I don’t know how I slept on that for weeks and had no clue.”) Or me, tripping on the backside at Golden Gate Fields and landing flat on my back so hard the dust flew up around me, as Chelle stood there, rolling her eyes, her assistant from work gaping at me, unsure of what to say about his boss’s drunk wife. We had to laugh at ourselves.
Or else we’d cry. So yes, on the heels of laughter came tears.
The awarding of the 28-day chips was always a tear-jerker for me. I swallowed the lump in my throat and cracked jokes with my well wishes so as to not seem so sappy. Even before leaving the safety of Mountain Vista Farm, I was having to deal with losses. People left, and sometimes a week or so later, there would be a phone call, and so-and-so had “gone back out.” We had been given the gift of knowing someone for real for a short period, before the realities of life descended on them “out there” and they couldn’t cope, returning to whatever their substance of choice had been. Leaving rehab was frightening. Or there was the loss of people I knew had been in my life solely because of my drinking—either because they’d been drinking buddies, or because they were the result of poor decisions I’d made when I was continually using. They would have to go, and I would be forced to hurt some people if I could only make the choice to sever these influences from my life. For me, the consummate people-pleaser, the idea of cutting someone was tantamount to cutting myself.
So much loss—and grief. Whenever I lose someone, each and every time, I have to re-experience every loss I’ve ever felt: my mother, my father, my two brothers, my son, several lovers, a handful of friends, even a student who jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge a couple of years ago. The ends of things: how endings are inevitable, how endings so often go hand-in-hand with regret, how endings so often suggest, “I could have done that a different way.”
And how sometimes, it all hurts so much I can’t even breathe.
Somewhere along the line in my life, I must have decided that my feelings were too intense, too much for me to handle. So, the only way I could bear to feel my own feelings was to reach for a bottle, or a shot glass, or hell, to follow one with the other. It worked for a while. The numbness would envelop me like the waters in a warm bath, and I’d be soothed and not care. All better. Fuck ‘em.
But somewhere along the line, alcohol stopped making it better. Instead, it started amplifying my problems. I no longer went numb; I exploded. I’d act out in rage or selfishness, out of some frustrated sense of entitlement—this isn’t fair! Why’d I get dealt this lousy hand again? Why me?—and booze created a whole new set of problems, of drama, of “if things are going smoothly, my life is too dull, so I must create more chaos.” It’s hard to describe, because the last three years of my life prior to going into rehab are vanishing from my memory, becoming just one long blur and howl.
There is a horrifying moment when alcoholics and addicts look back, and in this moment of clarity, we wonder how much of our past is actually real. How much of all the crap that upset me all the time was just drug-induced stuff I made up?
You have one of those dark nights of the soul in which it occurs to you that you have no idea who you really are. You have no idea who you are, why you are where you are, and who or why these people around you are still here.
It sends a lot of us right back out, right back to the bizarrely chaotic comfort of being constantly fucked up. It’s just easier.
But if it doesn’t take you out, eventually you forgive yourself. You settle down, become introspective, and you start talking. REALLY talking. You talk with people; you figure things out. You finally find out who your real friends are, whom the illusions were, whose promises came with conditions attached; what you really want and what is of actual importance to you; and the bullshit falls by the wayside. You have no more time for drama or gossip or nonsense. You start becoming deliberate. Impulses automatically send up a red flag, and you do nothing without first thinking it through and making a studied decision for which you accept any consequences.
Feelings: that’s all they are. They aren’t facts.
They will not kill me.
They may make me uncomfortable for a time; they may make me feel anguish for a time; they may make me pace or climb the walls or be driven to pray for help.
But they won’t kill me.
The payoff? Everything I do, everything I feel, everything I say today is authentic. I don’t represent some fantasy existence a booze-soaked brain has concocted; I represent only my real self, warts and all. I can be slow-witted, obsessive, maddeningly preachy and self-righteous; and I can be in the same breath funny as hell, easy-going, flexible, forgiving, or dripping raw sexuality. The biggest gift I’ve been given is REAL joy: real joy and passion and laughter, not the stuff I used to have to talk or drink myself into feeling or believing. The greatest joy of all is love, REAL love. It’s a word I mean nowadays when I use it.
And it remains for me one of God's greatest, most awesome mysteries.
I don’t know if any of this makes sense to someone who hasn’t been there.
But one thing’s for sure. Anybody who has ever recovered from a drug or alcohol problem, overcome that, moved past it and set it down, has been to hell and back. Going there and coming back teaches us lessons that continually unfurl, unfold, reveal themselves with each new experience we face sober. We simply have a “take” on things that others can’t know. It’s the experience of almost losing everything.
To every dark cloud a silver lining, to every mis-step a purpose and lesson learned.