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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family portrait, with bottles (# 9)

During my entire childhood, my parents rarely drank, to my knowledge at least. I remember once tagging along at a holiday party. My mom drove home, which was remarkable to 7-year-old me because she never drove when my dad was in the car. And, yes, my  dad was a passenger on this occasion, but he was otherwise occupied by disgorging the liquid contents of his gut out the window, while the cold night air rushed the stench of it into the backseat where my brother and I pretended to sleep.

The next morning, my dad matter-of-factly hosed off the bespattered car in the driveway before squiring my brother and me to some kids’ class at museum and then to a coffeehouse for chocolate cake. It was a Saturday almost like any other.

I eventually came to understand that my dad’s father had “the Irish curse.” He was gregarious,  clever, jolly, sentimental, but. . . there was a big, big but.

My grandpa was an excellent letter writer and raconteur with a bottomless store of tall tales about his obsessions: bears, trains, Paul Bunyan, Irish history, baseball, and old Chicago. He was at his best with his grandchildren. I loved him.

When I was around 30 I learned that when he was nearing but not yet at retirement, with one child, my aunt, still at home, he got canned from his job as a vice-president for a foundation for showing up drunk, often. He then tried to launch a new career as a realtor, but he lacked the focus to make a go of it.

I learned from my aunt that my grandpa used to lock himself in his bedroom for days on end with nothing but a black mood and a bender’s worth of whiskey, leaving my aunt, who then in high school, and my grandma tiptoeing around saying prayers and pretending everything was as it should be.

Thus it was that my dad (although clearly capable of a binge) made a conscious effort in adulthood to gain the upper hand over his family history, largely avoiding but never entirely renouncing alcohol. Meanwhile, my grandpa sealed his unraveling by falling and hitting his head during a boozy fishing trip, while in his late 60s. He was never the same: It was as if he’d had a stroke. My grandma couldn’t or wouldn’t take care of him. Though a devout Catholic, she legally separated from him, probably for financial reasons, so he could get set up at a nursing home.

My grandpa stayed there, permanently brain-damaged, until he died a few years later. My dad took me to visit him once, I must have been about 12/13; it may have been in 1985. Disconcertingly, he was ranting about the White Sox losing the pennant to the “damned Yankees”. . . which occurred in 1964. I never saw him again.

My grandma kept up her pattern of dutiful visits to the end, but mostly she got on with her life, playing bridge with friends, working part-time at a dress shop, and going to church. She got an apartment and reupholstered her favorite chair in pristine white fabric, simply because she could finally control her environment enough to keep a pretty white chair white. She actually told me that.

Skip ahead two decades, back to my parents.

My mom and I have never had a close relationship. Early on, she tried too hard and was too nosy with me. Her efforts to bond with me, her eldest daughter, were awkward and didn’t go over well. I do credit my mom with giving me a childhood as happy and secure as a shy, perfectionistic bookworm could have. Family dinners every night, freedom to roam around a safe neighborhood all afternoon with a pack of kids, lots of books to read and creative projects to do, encouragement to find and follow my interests, healthy structure/rules, the whole bit. Given my mom’s depressive tendencies, I really don’t know how she summoned the energy for all those years of hardcore stay-at-home parenting, when her natural state is curling up on the couch with a book. I suspect that those years gave her real purpose, and once they were over, she floundered.

She did not drink when I was growing up.

Problems emerged started in 2002 or 2003. By then, my dad had had a quadruple heart bypass. At some point his doctor had suggested that my dad drink an occasional beer to help keep his arteries smooth. Around the same time, my mom, who was very overweight and somewhat depressed her whole adult life, had a gastric bypass surgery. She shed pounds and started to feel more active, cheerful, and social. When my parents were meeting friends for dinner, my dad would nurse a single, modest, medicinal beer, while my mom ate a golf ball’s worth of food and developed a taste for liquid refreshment like Manhattans and martinis.

I lived far away by then, so I had only an intermittent window on what was going on, but I could see my mom was drinking with gusto. My now-ex-husband thought the new habit agreed with her. Typically tense and snappish, my mom became expansive, humorously opinionated, and playful under the influence. Still, there were warning signs. It must have been 2005 or so when my parents came to visit us. That Friday night, we headed to a popular restaurant. The wait was horrendous, and we had a toddler in tow. My mom had several drinks while we waited. Finally, after about an hour, we decided to leave. On the way out the door, my mom took pains to inform the hostess in slurred, but no uncertain terms that “the shervice was very shoddy.” Jeez-us! With that, I was out the restaurant door and halfway across the parking lot propelled by the rocket fuel of pure embarrassment.

My mom’s doom was assured and rapidly attained when she discovered two-buck Chuck at Trader Joe’s, and began marinating in goblets of cheap red wine every night at home, instead of occasionally over-indulging in strong cocktails. Up and down the stairs she’d trudge, from kitchen to upstairs TV room, refilling her glass to the brim each time, sloshing it on the carpet (since replaced, thank god). Eventually, she’d conk out snoring in her chair, shake herself awake, and drag herself up to the third floor to bed. The situation was becoming alarming.

I never said anything to my dad about it—my family members were never ones for frank communication about our failings when we could let unpleasant things fester in silence. Still, I often wondered what my dad thought about this new chapter in his life. My dad spent his entire adult life trying to be the responsible opposite of his alcoholic father, only to watch his wife, who had never been a drinker, become a lousy, stinking wino inside five years.

Once, I caught a part of an “Oprah” episode about people who had bariatric surgery and wound up replacing their food addiction with another addiction—to booze, drugs or sex—because the underlying emotional hole had never been treated or filled. I speculate that this is part of what happened to my mom.

Visiting my parents was a real treat for few years. All my life, already, I had passionately resented my mom for being overweight and not taking more control over her life and health. And now this! I became a silent ball of fury. I could scarcely look at her. I also realized that I really couldn’t leave young daughter in my mom’s care at night, so that meant my now-ex and I were trapped around the house, instead of availing ourselves of grandparental babysitting. For the most part my dad acted oblivious to the situation, but late one night I did overhear one brief, bitter, and pointless (because my mom was so loaded) fight between them.

The worst, for me personally, was when younger daughter was born. My mom came out to stay for three weeks to “help.” She did help some, with cooking,  shopping, etc., but not like she had helped when my older daughter was born, six years earlier, before her drinking started. This time, she was entirely preoccupied with not running out of wine, white-knuckling through each day until the hour when she could reasonably uncork the first bottle. With a new baby in the house, my ex and I weren’t drinking a drop, so it was painfully obvious how much drinking she was doing.

Late one evening, with a wholly unnecessarily nightcap in her wobbly hand, she splattered wine all over the wall next to our stairs on her way up to bed. My 6-year-old pointed out the mess to us in the morning. You see, we had just repainted that wall before the baby arrived. My ex hastily touched up the paint before my mom resurfaced that morning. No one said a word. I was hugely relieved when my mom left.

About eight months after that, my dad called to tell me that my mom was in rehab. It was the first and only time my dad and I had an honest conversation about what had been going on, and how we felt about it.

My mom has been sober for about ten years now. My ex used to joke that it’s too bad my mom had go and piss all over what could have been a beautiful relationship (in moderation) for her twilight years.

Yes, my mom is back to being her tense and snappish self, but there is more lightness of spirit there. I feel respect for her, and I no longer feel viscerally angry in her presence.

My mom did/does AA. I can see that she has been learning to be less reactive.

She’s still very prickly and private, though. Always has been. I suspect she and I will never discuss what happened with her, never mind why it happened and what it all means. I know the steps require my mom to make amends in some way. Maybe she will with me someday; I hope she does, if it would be helpful and necessary for her.