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[ Personal Narratives ]

Beyond the Bottle #8: Feeling Feelings

It’s a little after midnight and I just finished watching Still Alice—the Julianne Moore film about a woman and her family coping with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Spoiler alert: it’s sad and doesn’t end well. I cried. I cried a lot, which is a great thing because I remember a time not all that long ago when tears weren’t possible. Alcohol robbed me of my feelings and emotions. It seems like a tiny, innocent crime, one that you’ll go years without realizing until you recognize your emotions have actually been hijacked. It’s grand larceny.

I got a call in March of 2011 at work saying my grandmother had died. I’d had no connection to my paternal grandmother and this was the only woman in my family whom I felt truly loved me. We won’t get into the nitty gritty of that just yet, but suffice it to say that during a tumultuous divorce, she was a welcome constant. She smoked like a chimney (thyroid cancer took her in the end) and cursed like a sailor. She was from Manchester and she was England. She lived through World War II. Queen and Country and all that. She was nothing like my immediate family but she there for me more than any of them. She was the only person with the balls to stand up to my father. I immediately knew I missed her. I comprehended that I’d never speak to her again. That I’d never again receive a birthday call from her (the only one in my family who consistently rang the day of despite long distance charges).

I sat in my office knowing all of this. Knowing that I should cry, knowing that I should feel sad but instead I just felt numb. I was incapable of feeling. I remember thinking that if I squinted hard enough and thought about sad things long enough, the tears would come. I did but they did not. I got up, bought cigarettes at a gas station and walked to a pizza shop a few blocks away, where I purchased a slice and ordered a beer. It was sometime in the afternoon, in the middle of a workday. It began with one beer, but on the train ride back to New York City there would be two cans of Four Loko, a blackout and complete annihilation well into the next morning. Days later instead of flying to her funeral, I’d fly to Las Vegas. The rest as they say is history. I’ve been able to forgive myself for that transgression but I’ve never been able to forget.

My emotional state whilst drinking can best be described as cloudy. It was neither possible to feel feelings nor decipher them. Everything was backwards. Love vs. Lust. Care vs. Concern. Ally vs. Asshole. Since it became impossible to figure out what was going on with me, I stopped trying altogether. Shitty feelings suck. I think we can all agree being depressed, upset, and otherwise discontented isn’t ideal for none of us truly like feeling bad. Feeling shitty at times is inevitable but I didn’t want to accept that as an option. I wanted the elated euphoria 24/7 but that isn’t sustainable.

Since I didn’t know how to cope or process anything I felt, I drank it away, hoping I could tamp them out altogether. Maybe enough Jameson would make them go away. Maybe enough Maker’s Mark would silence the torque tightly winding within me. And for a long time, it did.

Until it didn’t. My magic elixir stopped working one day and that scared me. It wasn’t that booze stopped getting me drunk, it managed that just fine. But the myriad of reasons I was drinking didn’t evaporate. They lingered wherever I went. I felt dreadful all the time. The sting of rejection. The never-ending mire of self-loathing. The bedridden depression. There they were, front and center.

I’ve been in therapy nearly all my life. I’ve only learned to be honest with a therapist and actually get help and proper treatment in the past few years. It makes no sense, paying someone to lie to them on an hourly basis. But then again, alcoholism makes little sense.

In therapy and in conversation, I’ve often wondered why I felt the need to drown my feelings in alcohol, why I couldn’t have chosen a more “healthier alternative”—kickboxing, proper therapy, hot yoga—to workout the knots and the pain. The truth is, the answer to that question isn’t important. I am wired differently. But for argument’s sake, I’ll say that I never learned how to cope with feelings which only fueled my alcoholism. From an early age, trauma and awfulness followed me like a plague. So once I felt that sweet release at the end of a stiff drink, I thought I’d found my out, my survival tool. I’d really found an in to something far more dark and painful than I could have ever imagined.

Today, feeling feelings is great. I’ve since come to understand that feeling bad is just a part of life. Good things happen and we feel good, bad things happen and remind us how good we have it. Sometimes you just cry because you’re really sad and sometimes you really cry because you’re watching a sad movie and that’s okay too.