Sunday, July 17, 2011
Step Four: Learning to Grow Up
My Step 4 work has shown me some important things about myself. As a child, it was rarely possible to fight or run (most trauma was inflicted by my parents), so the only option for me was to freeze. This kneejerk response has continued to be my usual initial response even as an adult. That is okay, as long as I don't stay stuck there and as long as I move into the next phase of processing.
But as a child, "processing" is done by someone who isn't yet an adult, so a lot of the processing is done in an ineffective manner. So, kids get mad, throw tantrums, slam doors, sob, act out, cut (yup, I was a cutter for a while, before "cutting" was part of our popular lingo). I suppose that shouldn't be too much of a surprise since my mother was, after all, a suicide, and behavior is learned. For me, slashing my wrists with a razor blade was (no doubt) on the one hand a cry for help and attention, but on the other hand a way to relieve anxiety. I remember very well thinking to myself all the time: "Oh well, if it gets too unbearable, I can always kill myself." It was as if cutting reminded me I always had a fail-safe, a way out. It was soothing.
So yeah, kids don't process things like rational adults--no, they learn how to do that from other rational adults, such as their parents.
Unfortunately, I was born to parents who did not process their life experiences like rational adults either. Absent those role models, I grew up taking characters in books as my models and/or thinking my parents' reactions to things were normal and healthy.
When I reached adulthood and found alcohol, any growing I had managed to do came to a screeching halt. I didn't HAVE TO process my experiences any more. If life got tough, the tough got going, all right--right to the nearest bar. Thus I have spent most of my adult life never really doing the learning, growing, and letting go that comes with properly riding things out while processing them. Instead I just reacted, bottled things up, shoved things aside, drank pain away, and acted on impulses. The hell with the consequences; the chips would fall where they fell, and if I didn't like it, I could always drink.
Now sober almost two years, that option is no longer possible. And now, instead of me whining and moaning about how everything hurts and how hard everything is, Step 4 work has taught me this: when I don't process or "live through" my life experiences, they get stored, hanging there in my subconscious. I never reach any closure, so I never let anything go--not truly. Something that happened ten years ago can still irritate me if it happens to come to mind for some reason. All this "unfinished business" still wants closure, still wants some sort of satisfactory resolution. Thus, at some point they will come roaring to the forefront, demanding attention, while I sit there clueless about why they're cropping up and what on earth they have to do with whatever situation is at hand.
I can't exactly go back and reprocess--or process for the first time--everything that has ever happened to me. I can do that a little bit with Step 4 work. But it's not humanly possible to dig out every last thing; for one thing, memory simply fails. But what I can do is be aware of myself. If I am having powerful feelings I don't understand, then I need to slow down, stop, and take a hard look at them. Where are they coming from? What in me is unresolved? These feelings are reminding me of what? Or if I see myself on the verge of acting out impulsively, I need to stop right there and tell myself: "I don't need to do this today. I don't need to decide today." Instead, I need to stop and look within; I need to ask myself what old wound is trying to be heard and seen. I need to listen.
I'm finding that when I slow down and act with awareness and with conscious deliberation, I may still make mistakes, but they're not of the kind that I come to regret later. They're not of the kind where I hurt other people. They're not of the kind where any damage is irreparable. And people find me much, much easier to understand.