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.


writing past perfectionism (# 56)

I will preface my comments with this: I am a word person, a voracious reader since preschool, an English major, and a holder of a graduate degree in Irish literature. I have steeped myself in words professionally, working as either a writer or an editor for the majority of my adult life.

And yet. . . although reading and writing (for hire) have truly been my life’s work, I have never been more than a dilettante when it comes to writing “my own stuff.” I have entertained several “novel” ideas, but never got them off the ground. By which I mean page one.

Some years ago I embarked on a long-distance love affair that generated more written words than the amount contained in Moby-Dick. Along with a smattering of poems for his reading pleasure. Not sure what I am ever going to do with that hot mess.

I have been reading blogs consistently for about 15 years (!). I started when my firstborn was a baby, and got hooked on the first wave of mom blogs, including Suburban Bliss, Dooce, Sweetney,  Finslippy, Breed ‘Em and Weep, Fussy, Catherine Newman’s blog for ParentCenter. This great, witty writing captured my interest. At the time I did not have a blog of my own. While I enjoyed seeing these life narratives unspool in real-time, I could not quite wrap my head around the idea of airing my thoughts and the details of my life for all the world to read. Instead, I contributed to a group parenting blog called Dot Moms. My bi-monthly pieces were polished, clever, and careful to hew to a chosen theme while giving little personal away.

I was, shall we say, constipated. Plenty confident in my ability to write well, technically speaking, but quickly paralyzed by the inner critic who insisted on editing everything to the hilt on a sentence-by-sentence basis. I had ideas but I could never let truly let them rip. I talked myself out of writing at all, and, if anything started to slip out, I talked myself out of anything I managed to write. Or rewrote it. And rewrote it again.

That whole writing-for-myself thing is settled, then. . . . Bad idea. . . . Now, where did my wine go? You get the picture.

Almost all those mom blogs I used to read have fallen by the wayside, and my blog interests morphed over the years. For a while, there were peak oil and political blogs, later there were 40-something dating/sex blogs. Now, ’tis the season for sober blogs, and for the first time in my bystander relationship with the blogging world, I am wading in.

Again, I am delighted by the variety and thoughtfulness of the perspectives I have found. I am impressed and moved by the sincerity, vulnerability, and quality of the words I read on a daily basis. So much insight, so freely shared.

If I let it, this could paralyze me into thoughts of I’m not original enough, I’m not generous enough, I don’t have anything much to contribute here. My stuff is not going to be perfect. It’s never going to be as good as I think it should be, so why bother. And on and on.

But I am taking a different approach this time. I am not self-editing (well, just a teensy bit). I am not sleeping on any of this. I am just writing what I am thinking about, when I feel like it, and hitting publish. Sometimes, when it has been a while, I remind myself to “feel like it,” because I know that writing, like yoga, can be a practice. You just have to show up and assume a position.

In addition, I want to share something of myself with the world of words online that has provided me with silent enjoyment for so long. I want to add my voice, instead of being a standoffish voyeur. I would love to connect, for a change.

So, here I am trying to find a new path into the vast thicket of possible words I have been hoarding, pruning, or tending on others’ behalf all my life. This blog of mine might be silly, or messy, or trite, or pretentious, or, god forbid, riddled with typos, but it is my attempt to stray beyond the perfectionism and self-inflicted limits that have been penning me in.

This is me, setting myself free.



facing rejection (# 43)

I am now almost certain that I did not get the job I really wanted. Over the last week, as it became apparent that no one was calling me or my references, I started to have moments of intense pain and sadness. I am trying to understand the exact nature of this pain, to wrap my arms around it and define it.

A couple of nights ago I ended up sobbing out my disappointment before bed, in the arms of my husband. It was as ugly as ugly crying gets. Gasping for breath, choking on snot, piles of tissues mounding up beside me. My eyes looked puffy for the whole next day. Among other things, I cried out, more than once. “I am so embarrassed. I am so ashamed.”

This is the second time that I have not gotten a job that a former coworker with my exact same experience has managed to get. This raises powerful feelings of what’s wrong with me, specifically? There must be something wrong with me. What is it? Can I fix it or not? 

I feel embarrassed to ask keep asking my former bosses for references for jobs I don’t ever get. I feel like damaged goods; doomed to be stuck in a job that is dull, boring ,and not well-paying because I can’t interview well enough to get a better job that I am qualified for and could do.

I said before that I felt this particular job might have come up too quickly for me. I wished I had been alcohol free for longer, gotten steadier and more confident. I did the best I could, but fell short of the mark. That leaves me feeling even more anxious about applying for other jobs. About this particular job, I at least felt very secure that I was well qualified. With other jobs, the fit is not likely to be as apparent and as ideal. I will have even more to be anxious about going into other hiring situations.

I don’t know how I will manage the stress and uncertainty of the  job-search process better. How I can arrive at equanimity in the face of my capacity for feeling ashamed.

Who I am so afraid of disappointing? My parents? My former boss? My kids? My friends? My husband. No. Nothing quite makes sense. I am afraid I can’t justify my own choices to myself. That I will never be able to resolve this tension between achievement and falling short. Never resolve the question that maybe I am not doing the right thing, and if I were doing the right thing, I could be both fulfilled and successful at the same time. But what is the Right Thing? And why can’t I figure that out. 

I am still not drinking and very happy with that decision, but, boy, am I raw right now. In the past I probably would have had a lot to drink one night, blown off steam, and moved on fairly quickly from this rejection with a fuck-it attitude. Instead my sad, shamed feelings keep circling around and bubbling up with intrusive regularity, causing me to question, second-guess and bemoan every professional decision I have made in the last 25 years. That is a heavy burden for my soul to carry. My melodramatic tendencies are in full flower. Which means I feel doomed.

On top of the crushed hopes about the job, I am also soaking in the bitter sense that all this “doing my best,” is simply not paying off. I seem to need tangible evidence, “gold stars” of some sort, to feel justified in making the life changes that I have made. I want quicker fixes. I admit that.

A new job, new number on the scale–something! Instead I am feeling so bad. So stuck. Shuffling between a stifling job and home, dealing day in and day out with the steady stream of bad news a difficult teen brings. I rely on yoga, runs and books for temporary anesthesia. My husband is supportive, but also kind of thinks I am not much fun right now.

I am OK, as I knew I would be, no matter what happened. But I’d prefer to be engaged, vibrant and fun.



somewhere on the stress wheel (# 28)

On the downside, I haven’t been feeling very motivated to write. On the upside, I have stayed alcohol free, and drinking/not drinking has been the least of my worries. Socializing with friends, I find, is truly more enjoyable when I am sipping soda water, iced tea or even NA beer. Sometimes I miss drinking wine with my husband, but I love waking up hangover and fuzzy head free.

My stress has arisen because I applied for a new job. I really want this job and am very qualified for it, but it is competitive. I had an interview that went pretty well, but could have been better. I was very nervous, and it showed. I have been trying to let the waves of anxiety come and go as they please, but I am getting so tense and already pregaming how I will spin the situation to myself if I do not get the job.

Somehow, I think I will feel better right now if I have some prepared story I can tell myself and others to explain why I did not get the job. I am freaking myself out with how control freaky that attitude is. Anyway, much of my focus in the last two weeks has been on the interview.

One good aspect of all this: I know that I am doing the best I can right now. I know not drinking is a good choice and sticking with that decision is boosting my confidence. A few months ago, I was feeling pretty down on myself, and I was not sure I could find and land a better job. But I can feel my self-confidence rebuilding. Maybe the interview would have gone better if I had had even more time free from alcohol, but this great opportunity arose and I went for it instead of deferring it. I feel good about that.

I like that I didn’t have to wonder whether it would be ok to have “one drink” the night before my interview. And I didn’t have to quell my nervous energy and anxiety by drinking heavily on the evening after the interview. I am riding this out with a clear head and trying to remind myself that I will be OK no matter what happens.

good fences (# 11)

A few posts ago I mentioned having to protect boundaries on several fronts, which was causing some stress. I am happy to report that on one front, at least, the situation resolved. Peacefully and completely. Standing up for my boundaries worked.

While the situation was temporarily stressful, I have saved myself weeks of additional trouble. In a nutshell, I have been involved in a group for about 5 years. The group runs events twice weekly and has very little structure. Events are run by a rotating band of volunteer facilitators.  Basically our group had required only a leader/treasurer responsible for the schedule of one set of weekly events and a coordinator to maintain the annual schedule for the other set of weekly events. That second person was me.

I fell into the role a year ago when the former leader (who had filled both roles) left town. The person who volunteered to be the new leader said she would be leader, as long as someone else handled the scheduling for one day per week. Reluctantly, I agreed to do that, but no more than that. While my assigned task was not burdensome, the group dynamics gradually got overwhelming. The new leader wanted to expand the group and do some other things, which created friction with some of the volunteer facilitators.

At first I tried participating in the process, offering specific perspectives I had due to my professional background. It became clear that the new leader was very impulsive. She tended to solicit ideas from others as if seeking consensus, but then she would make sudden unilateral decisions. I started feeling dread in the pit of my stomach about how the process was going. I knew I had the skills and knowledge to help guide the group forward, but I just plain did not want to do it. I became involved in the group in the first place because it offered a healing practice. I was afraid of losing touch with my original purpose for participating.

I decided that, no matter what, I no longer wanted to play any kind of  leadership or advisory role and I wanted OUT of those responsibilities before I got sucked even deeper in. I told the other facilitators that I was stepping back from organizing the schedule or advising on anything. I knew I had to step back completely by taking myself out of the communication loop entirely, but I didn’t want to burn any bridges. I still wanted to be a member of the group and a facilitator, without coordinating anything.

I was anxious about my decision, worried that things would get hairy, that events would get canceled in the short term, and that people would be disappointed. But I reminded myself that I had previously stepped up to fill a void. I had to trust that if a new void opened up in my absence, others would rise up and fill it. I just had to be firm and clear about my intention not to continue at my previous level of participation and then follow through with corresponding action.

Sure enough, when I stuck to my guns and didn’t participate in further organizational discussions or meetings, other people did step up. Someone took my former role, and some other organizational questions have also been resolved for the time being.

I feel an immense sense of relief and gratitude. Plus, I am happy that I did not play the martyr and force myself to stay involved until I got unhappy, frustrated and pissed off enough to lash out at someone. I did not make the mistake of thinking that I was the ONLY PERSON who could do my task properly. I kept my cool, told my inner control freak to sit down and shut up, got myself out of the equation, and let the other people with a stake in the outcome take ownership.

Right now, it is so important for me to keep my focus on cultivating peace and health. Part of taking care of myself is making sure that my plate of responsibilities is manageable and that my discretionary activities (outside of work and family life) bring me joy, not frustration and dread. I feel great about how this situation played out. Good fences. Good lesson.

doubling back (# 6)

Since resuming not-drinking after one boozy evening about a week ago, and then setting the day counter back to zero, I feel like I’ve been in a holding pattern. Like I am waiting for my life to pick up again once I get past day # 32. I think this must be a very common experience for the newly sober who restart the clock.

The first 32 days were full of discoveries. I was watching my moods with curiosity, feeling better and brighter. I still feel good, but not so shiny and reborn. I want to skip ahead to day # 33 and beyond, to all the epiphanies that may await once I enter new territory instead of doubling back.

But here I am slogging into summer heat and my boring job, meanwhile fending off various and sundry annoyances. I am having to “establish boundaries” on several fronts, with several people. With time, I have gotten better–by which I mean more efficient–at the mechanics of doing that, but the process of boundary enforcing still provokes internal anxiety and turmoil. I’m stressed and somewhat joyless.

The boundary between me and alcohol remains clear and secure, and there is relief in that, at least. I suspect there is a worthwhile lesson here in redoing these days of early sobriety.

decisions (# 20)

A while ago, I made the comment to someone, my therapist, my husband or both, that I was so tired of making a thousand little decisions. I just wanted it to stop, the incessant “if this, then that” loop. I thought it was just the way my somehow fucked-up brain worked. In reality, it was just that more than half of the decisions going on had to do with drinking, or not, or how much, and the other half of the microdecisions were hard to make because my brain was kind of fuzzy. Not necessarily full-on hungover, but much less sharp than it could be. Easily distracted. Flitting around erratically like a gnat.

So, fast forward. Everything is much more clear, and my baseline decisiveness has been restored to its factory setting. I no long dither about which yoga class to go to (morning or evening), what’s for dinner (what I had planned or whatever’s easiest), what to do this weekend (fun stuff or productive stuff, instead of doing both). I am getting on with life and feeling reminded that my mind is not inherently messed up. Instead, it is gladly emerging from a unfortunate period of getting jerked around by an increasingly diabolical force.

It’s like I was trapped in a car with an absolutely terrible driver (um, kind of like me, depending on who you ask). An unreliable second-guessing driver who keeps taking wrong turns, swerving when it would be best to stay in the lane, banging U-ies, and constantly tap-tapping the brakes.