The second part of Step One from the Basic Text of Alcoholics Anonymous is “…that our lives had become unmanageable”. By the time I was ready to surrender many parts of my life were unmanageable. I couldn’t pay bills, maintain any type of healthy relationship (be it friendship, romantic or familial), keep commitments to family job, etc. or keep up any semblance of self-care. Saying this, I believe that the true root of my unmanageability lay in the fact that I could not manage my emotions.
I first started self-medicating to deal with emotions I didn’t like (i.e. – couldn’t manage) such as fear, anxiety, sadness or anger. These were all painful emotions to my psyche and who likes to suffer pain? In an attempt to manage this pain, I began to drink alcohol and later would partake of marijuana, cocaine and crack (and a slew of other types of substances ranging from depressants to psychedelics to stimulants). Escaping the pain of my emotions through self-medication worked for many years. I believed I had found the solution to my problems. After awhile I wanted to escape or increase any type of emotions. If I was feeling happy I wasn’t satisfied and wanted to feel even happier. Snort some cocaine or smoke some crack and my dopamine increased providing me with a false sense of heightened happiness. It wouldn’t last long and it was a quick nose dive back to one of the emotions that caused me pain. As a result, the whole cycle would begin once more.
Once I sobered up I began the journey of learning how to manage these emotions. Part of the 12 Steps is getting rid of unwanted baggage – resentments, anger, fears, etc. I firmly believe that in order to prevent myself from getting more baggage I had to learn how to manage my feelings – all of them. The first step was learning how to identify them. I had started to regularly self-medicate at the age 16. The majority of all future relationships, crises and problems were dealt with in an intoxicated state. As a result of this I never properly learned how to handle any of those things in a healthy fashion. I sobered up at the age of 35 and about nine months into my recovery I entered into a relationship with another alcoholic who hadn’t started self-medicating until her early 30s. We would get into arguments and I would handle them the way a 16-year-old would causing her to become even more angry. I couldn’t understand why she was getting angry at me as I had never learned how handle confrontation in a healthy manner. It took several years, working a good 12 Step program, outside help and personal growth (on both our parts) for us to begin to resolve issues in a healthy way. Fast forward over 10 years later and we are still together and still learning. It isn’t always perfect but it’s 100 times better than it was in the beginning.
One thing, early in our relationship, that frustrated my partner was my response when she asked me how I was feeling. I would say, “good”. She would say that isn’t a feeling and I would insist that it was. After debating this multiple times, I finally printed off a list of emotions from the Internet (they had faces beside each) and put them on my fridge. Whenever she asked me how I was feeling I would point to three of them and say why I felt that way at the moment or earlier in the day. I think this may have been our couples’ therapist’s idea but can’t remember for sure. Regardless, this helped me begin to learn how to identify my emotions.
I’ve since learned that the words we attribute to our emotions are our way of describing what is going on in our bodies. When I my heart rate increases, my muscles tense and my face gets red there is a good chance I’m angry. When my heart races, I have trouble breathing, my stomach in is knots there is a good chance I’m anxious. When I have a lump in my throat and my eyes water there’s a good chance I’m sad. Etcetera, etcetera. By paying attention to my body and becoming aware of what physiological responses relate to which emotion I have learned to react to each feeling in a healthier way. The old me would get angry and have an unhealthy outburst. Now, by gaging what is going on in my body, I can tell when anger is building, decide my options for a healthy reaction and proceed with said reaction. It doesn’t always work but as the Big Book says, “progress not perfection”.