My friend is suffering. His head and heart are boiling with that sticky dread of self-hatred and hopelessness. He feels he is broken beyond repair. He thinks there is something deeply wrong with him. He’s trying everything, as a sober alcoholic, to not feel. He doesn’t believe me when I say I have been there, that I have really really been there, and that it can get better.
I understand. God, did I used to hate hearing people talk about overcoming adversity when I was neck deep in it. They didn’t understand my pain and suffering. They didn’t understand how very hard of a time I was having.
Like me, my friend is a recovering alcoholic, and he’s about two and half years into the game. That’s two and a half years of no longer self-medicating, therefore giving himself plenty of space for the real shit to come up. Such is the way. Most addicts have histories of trauma or abuse or some heavy load that demands to be dealt with. Here are the things we do in lieu of drinking and drugging to not confront that heavy load:
eating disorders of all types, body obsession
sex, porn, fantasy
enmeshed relationships (both platonic and romantic)
television (Netflix and such have really made this even easier)
hypochondria (a form of obsession)
care-taking others, codependence, love addiction
(care to increase the list?)
Most addicts, once sober for a little while, will come face to face with at least one of these substitutions. They’ve got twelve step programs for nearly everything now. In moderation, most of the behaviors on the list are benign, and some are quite healthy. But for an addict, they can become an obsession, another fix, and that’s what turns it unhealthy. Addicts have a real hard time feeling feelings and facing reality, and so they are likely to pursue anything that distracts them from their own shit. From my own experience and twelve years spent in recovery and relapse, until we stop ALL the fixing we will never heal the nasty shit that dwells within us.
Just what is the nasty shit within us? Usually the same bag of tricks: self-hatred, shame, and fear. Often stemming from some kind of trauma.
How do we heal it? We feel it.
Sounds simple enough. In a way, it is simple, but it certainly isn’t easy. It can be deeply painful, and not just emotionally. It also can take it’s sweet ass time. Our bodies go into a kind of shock when we get sober. We certainly aren’t used to being awake to life. We have always taken the edge off, and most of us lived in daily blackouts or states of extreme inebriation. The body does not yet know how to allow these feelings to come up. They can stay stuck down below for quite a while. But if we keep at it, they will come up and out.
I have written about this before, and I used a metaphor of black goop. That is what it felt like for me. I felt clogged from head to toe with sticky stinky sludge. I felt poisoned, and I was, with rage and guilt and grief. Some old, some new. And for a while, it wouldn’t budge, even stone cold sober. I tried to feel, and I couldn’t. I tried to cry. No dice. I just felt agitated and convinced that if only I were thin and beautiful, all would be well. If only I had a relationship (ha!) everything would be great. Save me, oh prince! Then one day, I wanted to die again. I thought there was no hope, that I was broken beyond repair. I understood being sober a year and a half didn’t mean shit and couldn’t save me.
I had terrible insomnia for weeks, and I was ready to throw in the towel and start popping pills, even though I desperately wanted to stay sober. I kept thinking there was something wrong with me physically, and that was why I couldn’t sleep. A dear friend told me flat out, “you’ve told me of your issues with your childhood and family. You belong in Al-Anon. There’s nothing else to figure out.” I had been told this before, but it never registered. I never even considered it. But for whatever reason, when she said this, something clicked, and it clicked HARD. Of course I belonged there. And of course I deserved to address my core issues. For a long time, I thought I didn’t. I wanted to be my father’s daughter – I wanted to be tough and strong and simply move on from the past. Yeah, good luck with that. It will come back to haunt you, especially if you’re an alcoholic. That was a first step of sorts: feeling worthy. Feeling I deserved to get better. My friend is struggling with that: he doesn’t think he deserves to take care of himself. He thinks it’s indulgent and selfish and weak to take a look into his wounded heart and soul. (Oh, this backwards culture.) Oh, oh, oh, is it the way of strength.
I certainly had to stop pretending that it hadn’t been traumatic just because I grew up in affluence and had a solid education. That’s the America Dream talking, and we all know how Death of a Salesman ends.
So I went. And boy oh boy did I find what I was looking for. First, tears. Rivers of ’em. I started to weep, and it was the best thing I’d ever felt, while also being the worst. But what mattered was that the feelings weren’t frozen. The black sludge was loosening and leaving. I started to heal.
And then something miraculous happened: I started to like myself. A lot. Then I started to love myself. I started to be a lot less afraid of the big wide world and all its players. I had more self-esteem. Some authentic forgiveness. I started to feel joy, and there ‘aint nothing like joy. There were layers and layers and layers of buried shit, but I just kept cleaning it out. I had faith in the process, even when it was hard and painful. It is still sometimes hard and painful. But I go with it. I’m still going.
I say this not at all to brag but simply to offer my experience. I’m close to five years sober and have been in Al-Anon over three. The meetings in and of themselves don’t keep me sane, but they, combined with twelve steps and the delicious evolving world of recovery do. There exists miracles, I can promise you that. If I can get better, so can my friend. So can you. My entire life, especially ages 10-25 were spent running like mad from anything uncomfortable. I stuffed my body full of drugs and booze and food and sex, and I obsessed until the fear was bigger than any chance of feeling grief. And yet: I don’t do that today. I don’t check out anymore in destructive ways. I cry easily, and I let it out, and I feel my feelings. I still sometimes judge them and feel guilty for having them. I still sometimes watch TV when I am tired of dealing with my mind or eat when I’m not that hungry or obsess about a relationship that I have no control over but like to think I do if I think hard enough. After all, I am human. But I learned and then started to really feel, that I am not broken beyond repair, that I am not broken at all actually, and that I am unconditionally loved, supported, and cared for no matter what.
But I had to do quite a bit of suffering to get there. Damn, I was a real good sufferer. It seemed the only way at the time. You can’t force or rush or control someone’s process of healing. As much as I would like to help my friend, there is really nothing I can do except love him and support him and be there for him. But he might have to suffer on. What I do trust is that he will find his way. I just hope I can be there to see it.