on feeling feelings (# 120)

I have been reading and listening to all kinds of things that keep tying back to the importance of feeling feelings. I listen to the Unruffled podcast, the Bubble Hour podcast and, sometimes, Spiritualish. The topic comes up again and again.  This seems to be a crucial aspect of recovery from drinking, especially for women. I wonder if it is the same for men.

Feeling feelings is an interesting topic for me–but my most intense experience with it does not arise from my experience stopping drinking and facing life alcohol free, though it does, actually, arise from my past relationship with an alcoholic. What I have to say here is a recovery story, I believe. It’s a story of how I almost lost touch with my soul and how my soul began to speak again.

Personally, I used alcohol to escape–escape from responsibilities and expectations. My patterns did not involve overtly using alcohol to numb any feelings about particularly painful things, like trauma or physical pain or difficult relationships. I have been fairly fortunate that way. Even when bad stuff happened to me, like a break-up, I was generally careful not to get drunk as a coping strategy. I was consciously worried about alcohol serving an anesthetizing purpose for me. I knew it was risky and I avoided alcohol at those times.

Instead I tended to drink the most when I needed to blow off steam after the stress of planning an event, finishing a project, or working hard. The problem was that just existing started to feel stressful and hard, so I drank. I deserved it. Or I was having fun and celebrating, like I did after the excitement of meeting my now-husband and getting remarried, when I found reasons, at times, to drink exuberantly. What’s the problem  . . . I’m happy! 

Back to feeling the feelings. In a previous post, ancient history, part 2 (# 46), I wrote about the early phases of my relationship with a man named Mal. At the end I hinted that there would be more to say about him. There might be, but I am going to fast forward over some of that, right to the bitter, rock-bottom end.

I will offer a little context first though. In 2011, Mal and I reconnected for the first time in 15 years at a reunion of school friends. After months of passionate e-mail writing, just like old times, we embarked on a marriage-ending (mine, not his) affair. It lasted three years, during which we were living in different cities several hours apart. At the time we reconnected, Mal was a recovering alcoholic who had not had a drink in 9 years. He was  even working as an AODA counselor.

At some point during our time together, he started drinking again. Heavily. Life-threateningly. To the point of hospitalization on several occasions. This whole relationship sounds terrible and doomed, and indeed it was doomed, but interestingly I was mostly sober throughout the whole thing (technically, if not emotionally). I never drank with him. I occasionally had a drink or two out with friends in my city, but I was pretty steeped in concern about alcohol during my relationship with Mal, both at the beginning when he was sober and later when he was drinking again. So I didn’t drink much during this period of my life.

By the end of 2013, I was divorced and moving ahead with my single life, and Mal’s life was full-on imploding.

There are many details to unpack, but suffice to say that the last year of our relationship was A Total Unrelenting Shitshow. By then, I was well past the rosy notion that we would somehow find a way to be together and live happily ever after. Knowing the frightening depth and truth of his alcoholism (think Jackson Maine in A Star Is Born, and, yes, Mal, too, is a musician), I could no longer imagine a world where I might be able to introduce Mal to my children or my coworkers, never mind live with him. That said, I was still totally hooked on him. I could not imagine life with or without him.

At one particular low point, not long before he ended up in a month of residential rehab, I was feeling so anxious and stressed I could barely breathe or focus. Mal was mostly unreachable on his end, but he would be calling me (often at work) drunk or in crisis. I was constantly reacting to fresh horrors, and I knew it was unsustainable. To continue this way would jeopardize my job and my sanity. I was seeing a therapist who was helping me tease out what was acceptable for me and what was unacceptable for me. In my bones, I knew I was chest-deep in unacceptable territory.

One day, I came home from work with about a half hour before I was planning to go to tango class. (Tango was my one bright spot in this bleak time.) I was a wreck. Practically bouncing off the walls with anxiety. I think I was worried that Mal would ask me to drive 150 miles to pick him up somewhere. Whatever it was it was bad, and it was insane.

I am not quite sure what inner wisdom was guiding me in those terrible moments, but I decided I had to stretch out on my bed and force myself to imagine life without him. Imagine life never talking to him again, if necessary. Could be if I chose this, or if he died, or if whatever reason.

So that’s what I did. I lay down and pictured life without Mal for about 15 minutes. I felt the pain of this picture through every inch of my body, into my toes, into my clenched fists, into my knotted stomach. I grieved the loss of him. I despaired. I accepted that my great love was ending in ruin. Tears rolled out of my eyes, and I made myself breathe. I consciously sent breath throughout my body, to all the clenched and knotted places. I started to feel that I would be OK, that I could live through this, that I would live through this. I would love again.

I felt a weird peace and knowledge come over me. I had been unhappy, miserable, and completely and utterly foolish, but I had not done anything I was irrevocably ashamed of (yet)–not even getting divorced. I had lived, thus far, with integrity to myself (even if everything seemed fucked to any rational outside observer). I was grateful for knowing Mal and grateful for the parts of myself that shone more brightly because of knowing him. I knew I had learned something important about the limits of love and the limits of my self.

I did not know then exactly when or how Mal and I would say goodbye, but I knew our story was, for all intents and purposes, over. My soul was finally willing for it be over, and my soul was so, so, so tired of letting my heart cling tooth and nail to the fantasy. I got up from the bed, wiped my eyes, and went to dance tango (which is, come to think of it, another beautiful way to feel feelings in the body . . . ).

I did not leap up. I did not dance a little jig. Yet my heart felt lighter, and a little pocket of space had opened to new possibilities instead of absorbing more pain.

Since this experience, I have done pretty well at remembering to feel difficult things. I know from this experience that feeling–sober, conscious feeling of feelings–is the only way through the hard stuff. Without feeling deep into the body, feeling pulsing through the breath and the blood, the pain stays stuck and the head stays in its reacting groove. The only healthy way out of a place of reaction (which is ALL about flinching and clenching) is to surrender, and accept, and even, as in my example, invite the painful feeling. Bring it out of the ever-circling head and welcome it into the body where it can course freely, without constriction. The truth is: Pain needs more oxygen, not less, and eventually pain that moves will pass.

Something truly beautiful is occurring now that I am no longer drinking. As I said, I figured out how to feel hard stuff because of this painful experience before I stopped drinking, but it is only now that I have stopped drinking that I am figuring out how to feel the good stuff consistently and at a cellular level. I don’t need to jack myself into a even bigger buzz amped by alcohol (or perhaps lust-love, as with Mal).

Instead I can sit still and feel sweetness in me and around me. Freedom from alcohol and the peace I have consciously invited into my life and body create the proper conditions for joy.

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