I'll never forget the first time I actually encountered bad feelings in sobriety. It occurred after over a month of what I have referred to as easy sobriety. I was doing great in my recovery. I was exercising every day, writing, accomplishing things I had wanted to accomplish for years, and all of a sudden it hit me. I had a bad day. I panicked. What does this mean? Am I going to fall off my path now? Does this mean all the good things I have experienced are gone? What do I do? Will I be able to find my way back? The questions poured out of me and I was scared. What I didn't realize, was the bad day had nothing to do with my drinking or not drinking. It had nothing to do with my successful sobriety or potential for relapse. My bad day had only to do with one thing. I was not used to feeling bad, in sobriety. Up until that point, all my days were really, really good. Before sobriety, I never allowed myself to feel bad, I drowned those feelings immediately upon arrival. On that first bad day of my sobriety, I simply had to understand something many people on this planet automatically know. It is okay to have a bad day. The next step was learning what to do with those "normal" feelings.
Doesn't our drinking put us in touch with our feelings?
Since I am talking about feelings, let's be truly honest. It was not only bad feelings I avoided. If I was excited, I drank. If I was scared, I drank. If I was anxious, I drank. If I was breathing, I drank. I honestly can't think of an emotion I did not justify drowning in alcohol. When I look back at my time before sobriety, I spent most of my life numb. This is actually quite funny when you think about it. I mean, doesn't our drinking put us in touch with our feelings? We would drink and pour out our heart and soul to whoever was unfortunate enough to be in our vicinity. Or, we would pour out our heart and soul to nobody at all. We were often very emotional in our drunken stupor. Our highs were extreme highs and our lows were extreme lows. I remember how I used to get into these manic moments of happiness while drinking. I wonder what my kids or even my dogs thought about me in those moments. Of course, I also got into those manic moments of depression too. I don't want to know how those moments affected my kids, partner, friends, or family.
All these "feelings" I thought I was feeling, were not really my feelings at all. They were simply reactions to my inebriation, and they offered me nothing emotionally, physically, or even cognitively. The reason my first bad day in sobriety was so important for me was it forced me to realize how much I had missed in my life. While it may seem like a good idea to forget and drown out bad days, doing so only makes bad days worse. When we do not work through our bad days, they tend to compound and create other problems we could have avoided if we were emotionally present enough to do so.
What could have been a night of celebration and joy, turns out to
be a night of regret and loathing.
Drowning out our good days doesn't really make any sense at all. At the moment, we think we are adding to the high by drinking. In the end, we are only numbing ourselves to the happiness we could have enjoyed while ensuring it is an incredibly short-lived high. We wake up hungover, feeling like shit, and then struggle to piece the "happiness" of the night prior back together. What could have been a night of celebration and joy, turns out to be a night of regret and loathing. No matter how we look at it, drinking not only suppresses our positive "happy" feelings but actually decreases any potential we have for happiness at all. What we thought was a way to add to our joy, turns out to be the polar opposite. Alcohol erases all semblance of pleasure leaving us confused, saddened, sick, and alone.
Now that we know and are aware of what drowning our feelings does to us, how do we go about allowing ourselves to begin to feel again? When we are not used to feeling much at all, feeling anything can be quite scary, disorienting, and even a little terrifying. I feel comfortable saying I was somewhat terrified the first time I felt a bad day in sobriety. It felt as though I would imagine a child feels during their first temper tantrum. I wanted to throw a fit. I wanted to jump up and down, pound my fist on a table, and yell at someone. Since I was not numbing my feelings with alcohol, those actions were the only thing I could come up with to deal with the unwanted feelings I was feeling. It is important to be patient and kind to ourselves in the early stages of feeling, again. We are just not used to it, and that is okay. While patience and kindness is a virtue at this time, we also must begin rethinking how we react to emotional stimuli.
When unwanted feelings or situations occur, instead of drowning
them in alcohol, we must: STOP, think, evaluate, and react.
When learning how to deal with our feelings again, I like to call on something I learned while teaching scuba diving. The underwater environment is a foreign and potentially tumultuous world. We are not meant to breathe underwater, so when things go wrong and our breathing naturally increases, the underwater environment can turn deadly rather quickly. To combat the problems and feelings associated with a foreign environment, I taught my students a four-step approach to avoid over-reacting to problems or feelings.
STOP - Before we can make any positive changes to a situation, we need to stop what we are doing. Continuing forward only exacerbates the problem.
Think - Once we have stopped what we are doing, we have the time and ability to think about what happened.
Evaluate - Now that we stopped and thought about what happened, we can make an informed decision about what to do next.
Act - This is the key, we act instead of reacting to a situation.
When unwanted feelings or situations occur, instead of drowning them in alcohol we must: STOP, think, evaluate, and react. In the past, we used to only react to situations and feelings. Think back on your active addictions and try to come up with a time when reacting benefited you. Reacting pretty much ensures a negative result. This happens because by reacting, we do not act from a place of informed decision making. We act from a place of emotional stress. Whether our reaction to the stress is to drink or simply freak out, the result will be the same. As I taught my students, the most important step in the four-step approach is the first one. STOP. Until we stop what we are doing, we cannot effectively make a positive change.
Understanding why we feel a certain way gives us an enormous
amount of power and control over our feelings.
How does this look when dealing with feelings? Let's take a look at one of the most obvious feelings for which we like to justify our drinking. Anger. Early in my sobriety, I remember having an incredibly volatile argument with my son's mother about his wellbeing during the early stages of the lockdown. Whether my anger was warranted or not, at the end of the conversation I was heated, angry, and spinning. In the past, I would have begun drinking before the conversation had even ended. I would have justified my drinking by convincing myself it would help me calm down. In reality, it would have only escalated my emotional state, lowered my inhibitions, and ended up causing the situation to spiral out of control.
When the conversation was over, I had two options. I could either drink or I could take the advice I gave my students. I chose the latter. I sat down and did nothing for a few minutes. I didn't even try to think about my anger, I just sat my ass down and stopped. It took virtually no time for my emotions to begin to deescalate. Once my emotions calmed a little, I was then able to think about what was causing my emotions and my anger. Understanding why we feel a certain way gives us an enormous amount of power and control over our feelings. Once I understood why I was feeling angry, I was then able to formulate a plan to deal with my feelings. I wrote an informed and thoughtful email to my son's mom about my concerns and we ended up working out the problem.
STOP what isn't working and formulate an informed and
effective plan to do something that does work.
Having a bad day has nothing to do with our drinking or not drinking. It has nothing to do with our potential for relapse or failure. Having a bad day just means we are human. What separates us from "normal" people is how we deal with those bad days. Do we react as we did in our addictive state, or do we act from a place of intention as we now do in sobriety? The difference really does begin with the first step in dealing with problems. STOP what isn't working and formulate an informed and effective plan to do something that does work.