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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a perfect sober weekend (# 85)

This is a bit of an odd weekend as my kids are with their dad AND my husband is out of town. On the one hand, that’s too bad because it’s beautiful here and there is a fun local music festival going on. It would be fun to be enjoying this with my husband. On the other hand, I have throughly loved every minute of flying solo, and I have accomplished much , even while indulging myself in many activities I like to do.

It has been especially good, because I know it will be a sprint to the end of the year. This might be my last chance to deeply relax. So, let’s recap . . . and catch a glimpse of me in my natural habitat under the influence of nothing stronger than my own whims and interests. . .

Friday Left work at 4:45 p.m. to meet two of my best friends for drinks. I am far enough along in alcohol freedom that it doesn’t bother me when I am with people who are drinking. In fact, I realize that I actually have more fun, feel more present, and am able to leave invigorated and ready to switch gears instead of itching for more drinks. I had an NA Becks and some iced tea and soaked up late afternoon sun on the patio, instead soaking in several margaritas. After the drinks, I headed over to an outdoor tango event. This summer I have not done a lot of tango. I’ve been focusing on yoga instead and thinking about what role I want to give tango in my life, given that it will be a smaller role than it was when I was single. But last night was a great opportunity to dip my toes back in that water. Except for the fact that we were tangoing with mosquitoes, as much as we were with each other. I was home by 9 p.m., where I talked to my husband on the phone, web surfed and read.

Saturday  Woke EARLY naturally. (It was 5:00 a.m.) Instead of cursing my inability to fall back to sleep, I felt excited to have a couple of  bonus hours in the full day ahead of me. I read some more and worked on a photo downloading project necessitated by having had to get a new phone last week. Got laundry going, picked up the kitchen, had breakfast, and started watching a documentary. And that was all before 7:45 a.m. when I headed to the yoga studio for a 45-minute meditation followed by a 75-minute flow class. Home again, where I finished the documentary before heading out to shop. I had to get some groceries, as well as few things, including clothes hangers, at Target. Last weekend, I embarked on a massive three-closet overhaul but ran out of hangers before I could properly finish the job.

Came home. En route I discovered a podcast called “Dr. Death” and immediately got hooked. The story involves a multiple messed-up back surgeries by one messed-up doctor in Texas. As a former medical malpractice defense attorney, I find this topic fascinating–it’s about more than just one bad egg, it’s about the failure of the medical establishment to stop a surgeon like this in his tracks before he harms many patients.

After finishing the closets, I talked to a high school friend on the phone, then headed out for a 2.25 mile run around 6:30 p.m. More photo stuff, some light cooking (vanilla-cardamom-pear compote to eat with yogurt and tomato-mozzarella salad) a phone chat with my husband, and sound asleep by 10:30 p.m.

It was a quiet day, with very little social interaction, but it was peaceful and productive.

Sunday  Woke at 5:00 a.m. naturally, again. More futzing around with photos on my computer. Mostly deleting hundreds of bad selfies, I am embarrassed to say. I biked over to coffee shop a little after 8:00 a.m. to meet a friend from grad school (almost 20 years ago!) who was in town for an event. He and I caught up for about an hour, and then I went to a yoga barre class before biking to yet another yoga studio for ecstatic dance from 11:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Home again for lunch and great deal of laundry folding and another appointment with Dr. Death. Thankfully, all the clothes had places after the closet job. Cleaned up the bathroom and scrubbed the slightly nasty kitchen stove top. Showered and walked over to yet a different coffee shop where I did a little research related to our new soon-to-be store and wrote this blog post. Soon, I will walk home, and then bike to yoga flow, followed by meditation/yin. I will be home by 8:30 p.m. to get ready for the work week and unwind before bed. Tomorrow morning I will be fresh as a daisy and back on the yoga mat at 6:00, before work.

Phew! I am taking really good care of myself this weekend (and taking care of my family too, by doing all this house stuff, even though no one is around). This is marvelous and made possible primarily by the complete and total absence of alcohol from any of these proceedings. I felt centered and able to make good decisions from hour to hour, in which I balanced my personal desires for entertainment, friendship and movement with my needs to get certain specific projects done. There was time for everything I wanted to do, and then some.

I have gone into all this exhaustive detail about my activities because I am really pleased with myself. I want to bottle this feeling! I LOVE the difference between this kid-free weekend and kid-free weekends of the not-to-distant past. Typically I would feel a bit hungover or sub-par on one of the days. I would still squeeze a lot in, because that’s my style, but I would let house stuff slip, for sure. I would not feel such surges of energy nor would I feel true peace.

Also, when I was between marriages I HATED spending any time alone. I would either be with my boyfriend-du-jour (or going on dates), planning my schedule around tango, exercising, or generally finding someplace to be. I would go to bars alone, I would go dancing alone, if I had to, just to be around people and combat my overwhelming fear that life and love would pass me by if I did not get out there and stay out there. I had no ability to sit still and just BE WITH MYSELF . . . and all my feelings.

For a while I had a certain boyfriend who had a terrible habit of canceling plans with me whenever he was freaking out about his own shit. It was a true push-pull dynamic between us, deeply unhealthy. When he pulled the last-minute bail move, as he often did on a Sunday afternoon, I would freak out — mostly because I was utterly unprepared to spend any unstructured time alone. Looking back, it was pretty pathetic. If I had to spend unplanned alone time, I did not embrace the opportunity to get other stuff done. Instead I would mope and obsess and stress and generally let everything go all to hell.

Life is so different now. I feel happy and secure with my partner, my husband. We spend a lot of time together, but when he is away I embrace having time for myself. I keep busy, but I don’t spend all that energy I used to expend putting myself in the path of strangers (i.e., men), adventure/experiences, and, many, many times, alcohol. I was always seeking to escape myself and my situation and propel myself into something new, no matter how meaningless and un-nourishing it was.

I am grateful for my perfect sober weekend and for this sweet life I am creating. Better late than never.

yoga (# 21)

There is a yoga studio near me that I have attended intermittently over the past four or five years. It’s kind of expensive but occasionally has a sweet, sweet 20-visits-for-$100 offer. At the time, I wasn’t really in yoga mode, but I was enjoying barre classes around  town (anywhere I could get a Groupon). This place had barre classes, so I would go to them occasionally, and I could really milk my $100 deal for many months. The barre classes were a casual supplement to all the other things I was doing at the time: running, Zumba, body sculpt/boot camp classes, and tango.

Fast forward to fall 2017. The $100 deal popped up again, so I jumped on it. I was still running, but in an increasingly lackluster way. I was continuing to do other classes, ,too, but feeling pretty uninspired and like nothing was working for me. I thought I would just do barre again, but here and there I started interspersing some yoga classes.

The backstory is that I have done yoga off and on since first trying it about 18 years ago, but it has never been more than a once-a-week thing for me. So I was surprised when all of sudden, I wanted to do yoga all the time. Like every day, if possible. Twice a day, if I could do a restore-type class after a flow class.  By Christmas, I was totally hooked. My 20 visits were up, so I decided to join as a member. I figured that if I went 300 times in 2018, each class would be an absolute bargain at less than $3.50. Already this year I have gone to more than 150 classes, and it’s not halfway through the year.

As my husband says, when I am into something I am all in. But why yoga? Why yoga right then? Truth be told, I needed a focus and a challenging. Something complex I could work on and improve. Something that would help me appreciate my strengths and confront my limitations. Work had me feeling kind of bored and unchallenged so I wasn’t going to find what I needed there.

Tango had served as that challenge for me for the last 5 years. I had learned so much, but it was receding a bit as a focus for me. Partly, I was tiring of dancing with the same people in my not-large tango community. Week after week after week. Partly, I had been in a relationship with my now-husband for about two years. He tried tango, and it wasn’t for him. Tango was not looking like something that we going to be doing together for the rest of our lives.

To add to this list: in addition to suspecting that I was drinking too much, to the point of interfering with my overall mood and my self-confidence, I was going through a hard time with my 15-year-old daughter and I was being hard on myself about it. Taking her struggles with school as a reflection of me as person and parent. And, lest I forget, we had just bought a house that was total fixer-upper. We were going through a two-month remodel while still living in our rental house for the first two months of 2018.

On the yoga mat, my mind did not stop spinning on all this stuff completely, but it did slow down substantially. Without mirrors everywhere, like the gym, I was not obsessing about all the ways my body was changing for the worse. Instead I enjoyed observing the differences in my body each day, purely as sensations. I noticed that I sweat WAY more in the late afternoon. Sometimes my balance is way off–impossible to say why. I never felt worse when I left yoga than when I arrived. I walked taller everywhere I went. When I did go dance tango, I felt more grounded, I could follow better, and I could breathe better through my little fuck-ups.

Anyway, yoga was proving to be an unadulterated positive force in my life. The next question is: did yoga play a role in my decision to stop drinking. Yes, a part. It was becoming important to go to class daily. Some days, only a the 6:00 a.m. class would work for my schedule. I didn’t want to risk missing it to sleep off the previous night’s drinks for an extra hour.

Perhaps even more important than this practical reason, I was appreciating yoga a practice of intention and choice. In this arena, at least, I was being successful at choosing what was best for me. I chose to go to class. I chose to use a block if I could not balance. I chose to take child’s pose if I needed a break. I chose to show up each day to see what would happen. I chose to be kind to myself when I wobbled and stop beating myself up about all the stuff, at least while I was on the mat.

I began to want more of this centered feeling, and I began to feel clear about how I could attain it. I certainly was not finding any of this peace or deep-seated pleasure in drinking alcohol. Just irritation, disappointment and agitation.

A drinking life is by nature monotonous except when it is distracting. A life of practice, be that practice tango, yoga, writing, music, or making art, is always unfurling, metamorphosing and revealing new mysteries.

energy (# 8)

One criterion for determining whether one is alcohol dependent: passing up favorite activities for opportunities to drink. I could feel this happening over the past year. I was having a harder and harder time waking up to exercise. Also, I was opting to have a glass of wine after work, which turned into several. At that point, I wasn’t in the right condition to exercise or go to tango events like I used to do several times a week. Lately, I have been tangoing about once every two weeks at best.

It has been enjoyable running again (3 days in row!). Tonight I went to tango class. Tomorrow, I will be up at 5:45 a.m. and happily heading out for a jog. It feels good to look forward to my activities again. I now have room in my brain to anticipate such things, since I am no longer pinning my hopes on having a drink or three.