One of things you may hear in early recovery is: ‘The good news is you get your feelings back, the bad news is you get your feelings back.’ I don’t know about you, but I wasn’t really excited to hear this.
My feelings were the reason I drank. I had no other coping mechanism to deal with my emotional life except to numb it with substances. Getting my feelings back was not good news to me. But I also didn’t want to go back to the living hell of drinking and trying to survive my life. I couldn’t live like that anymore, so reluctantly, I had to find a new way to manage the feelings I’d had spent my life running from.
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For an alcoholic in early recovery, learning to understand and deal with your feelings is like being a baby learning to walk. We are hesitant at first and easily stumble, but slowly and surely we gain our balance. We keep practicing and practicing and then one day walking just becomes something we don’t even think about, we just do it.
Learning to manage the full spectrum of your emotions is just like that.
I truly understood this when I was about 6 years sober. Two life changing events happened to me within 24 hours. They opened the door to feelings and emotions that I never would have been able to cope with in the past.
The first event was my first date with a man who I would eventually marry. It may seem extraordinary, but when we sat down for dinner that night, I knew, 100%, that he was going to be my husband.
Then, the next morning, my best friend died.
As soon as I heard the news my first feeling was anger, anger at God and the Universe for letting this happen. A giant mistake had obviously occurred and I was furious with God. Then I had this enormous feeling that she was OK in the place she had transitioned to. She wasn’t in pain or suffering. She was fine even though she was physically not here any more. Once I realized that, I just felt incredible sadness, because I would miss her so much.
What I began to understand through this experience, was the grief and sadness I was feeling honored our relationship. How I was feeling was the appropriate response to the event that had happened. By just letting those feelings wash over me, I validated the feelings we had for each other. And there was, despite the incredible sadness, something very beautiful about that. When I heard the news she had died, for a split-second I wanted to run from the tsunami of feelings I knew were coming my way. But I didn’t. I stayed still and surrendered to them.
At the same time I was grieving for my friend, I was also embarking on a relationship with the love of my life. So at the same time I was feeling intense sadness I was also feeling incredible joy.
Because I was able to feel the grief without the urge to run, I believed I learnt a life changing lesson. Loosing my best friend at that particular moment in my life, taught me, that the only things that really mattered in this life are the people you love and the time you spend with them. And that lesson served me enormously going into a new relationship. Without it, who knows how things would have turned out. Of course I wish I could have learnt this lesson any other way than losing my best-friend. What happened sucked, she died too young and the world lost someone very special. I don’t believe she died for a ‘reason,’ or for me to learn this lesson. Bad stuff happens in life, no one gets to escape that. All I could do was respond to it as best I could. And anger and bitterness at her death were not going to be the healthiest responses for me. I had to learn a new way, so when forced to, I did.
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I never want to mislead you that once you get sober life is always going to be wonderful. Because it isn’t – sometimes it’s going to be really hard and sometimes it’s going to be really painful. But the good and the bad are all necessary – they create the tapestry of our human experience that is rich and beautiful. To run from my grief would have been a great insult to my friendship; by being willing to grieve honestly, I honored what was between us.
This is what feelings and emotions look like in long-term recovery. They are real and honest, beautiful and messy, but most importantly they are necessary. They are what makes us human. This is the good news, we get to feel again, and by feeling, we get to live again.