The good news about quitting drinking is you get in touch with your feelings; and the bad news is you get in touch with your feelings as many a reformed addict will tell you. When you’ve used alcohol for years to keep those pesky emotions firmly locked away in the psychological equivalent of an escape room it shouldn’t be a surprise that removing the lock of alcohol creates some problems. Feelings that don’t belong to the here and now but feel like they do, can cause havoc with your current life, relationships and perceptions of same. Trying to disentangle the real meaning and the real source is not easy. The initial joy of quitting is replaced by self-doubt, questioning and intense reactions to anything and everything. My husband only has to take longer than a millisecond to respond to me and I feel abandoned, unheard and unloved. The more I berate him for it, the further he withdraws confirming my deep-seated belief that I am not loveable. This morning we managed to get through one of these exchanges and finish up with a hug. That’s usually what I need but I’m not very good at communicating it, preferring to see his failure to mind read and second guess me as further evidence of his and my own failings. It’s easier to show my anger than my vulnerability and pain. So what can I do differently? How do I learn to respond within an emotionally appropriate range, without attaching all this baggage?
Understanding where the baggage originates is important. I sometimes liken therapy to opening up cupboards in our mind, crammed full of stuff that spills out and has to be slowly sorted; carefully looking through it; throwing away what you don’t need, and eventually neatly putting away what you want to keep, with the door now closing easily. However, finding new ways to manage my emotions, past and present in the here and now is the key task that will help me off the hamster wheel of addiction; allowing feelings, not suppressing, not projecting on to others and not turning them into self-loathing.
In the moment I need to be able to clock that the emotions don’t belong to now and not respond as if they do; and find a way of telling myself that in a split second. Breathe and count to 6. Keep that mouth shut. Neuroscience and attachment theory teach us that these implicit reactions come from our early experiences, and danger in any form has the biggest influence on what we pay attention to and what we don’t. That makes sense as staying alive is the unconscious priority for all of us. The trouble is these automatic responses are from the unthinking part of our brain, the subcortical regions, primed to sense any hint of danger and to activate our fight/flight. After an unregulated outburst, guilt and shame ensue or an attempt to justify: ‘He doesn’t love you anymore, things have changed, I’m right to be upset etc’. Both perpetuate the cycle – increasing your self or other hatred and filling up the negative emotion tank ready to burst all over again. Without the lock of alcohol, it’s a pretty regular occurrence! I have to learn to accept my negative feelings and remember that they will pass. I have to unlearn my old ways, or figure out which ones I can keep.
This process is complicated by having to suppress them in order to function. I can’t allow my feelings when I’m at work, or rather it doesn’t go well when I do! I have to help others deal with their emotions; contain their anxiety, offer hope and ways forward. I have to be reflective, open and measured. All of this helps me to an extent; being in my more functional mode does lift my spirits and I love what I do; but it is part of the disconnect from the murkier parts of myself. When the murky stuff is bubbling up to the surface then it’s harder to be that functional person. Both parts of me are real and compliment each other. Without my demons I wouldn’t be as good at my job; I wouldn’t have as much empathy and understanding. Without my job I wouldn’t have the self-esteem to say I’m good at my job! Integrating these parts, not judging or valuing one above the other and not blocking either out is the task I’m facing now. To paraphrase the wonderful children’s book We’re Going on a Bear Hunt – I can’t go under it, I can’t go over it, I can’t go round it – I have to go through it.
Yoga and meditation really do help calm my mind and body. When I’m really low I struggle to do them, a perverse self-denial. I rarely denied myself a drink! Sometimes it’s hard to be kind to yourself and allow yourself things that help. Self-destruction is an easier path to choose than self- care. I allowed myself some comfort this morning and I’m writing this now. Small steps. I’ll post this now then go do some yoga!