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[ Personal Narratives ]

The Monster Inside Me: Dealing With Negative Emotions in Recovery

March 8, I got a phone call from a friend who was not in good shape. Can you come over? she texted me. I’m thinking about jumping off my balcony.

She was mid-divorce, newly sober, and on a rotating schedule of psych meds. I didn’t have to think about it. I’m on my way, I wrote back. 

The next 12 hours, I kept her company while she paced, grieved, cried, screamed, and waited for the urge to hurt herself passed. Her husband had mistreated her; her life was coming apart at the seams. She didn’t want to drink, but she wanted to die. She wasn’t willing to go to the emergency room, but she’d already talked to her therapist and the suicide hotline and set up an action plan for what to do if the feeling got stronger. 

I made her Cream of Wheat and made sure that she ate. Played the guitar leaning against the meditation pillow in the corner. I talked to her children, checked in with her friends when they called. It was a long night. I slept on the sofa next to the big window that looked out at the Portland skyline. The apartment was on the eighth floor, overlooking a courtyard ringed with small azaleas. Concrete. 

I was afraid and not afraid, because I knew what it was like to lean over the railing and wonder if I would change my mind on the way down. Maybe I would. Maybe not. I’d heard a story on the radio about people who’d survived a jump from the Golden Gate Bridge. Almost all of them said they wish they hadn’t done it, and that they were grateful that the fall hadn’t killed them. I had been sober for almost nine years, and I knew that emotions were temporary. Anger, always a problem for me, was not fatal unless I kept it bottled up.

I had to learn that the hard way.

I showed up to my first AA meeting with about 1,000 days sober: lonely, hard days. I looked at the Twelve Traditions on the sticky, laminated sheet somebody handed me. The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking. When the group leader asked me to introduce myself, I asked if I qualified.

“We can’t tell you that. You have to decide.”

“But I don’t drink anymore,” I said. “I haven’t had a drink in almost three years.”

I looked down at the words again. I was afraid that I wouldn’t belong, and after all that time of trying to manage my recovery by myself, I knew that I needed more help than a search engine and a therapist would give me. 

“Well, I don’t have the desire to stop drinking. I already stopped. Do I qualify if I never want to start again?”

I went to that meeting once a week for months before choosing a sponsor. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do, and thankfully nobody told me. The other group members were all much older than me, decades into their recovery. I didn’t want to be around other people my age, or new people; I am grateful that nobody ever cornered me, or witnessed to me about how the 12 Steps were the be-all, end-all of sobriety. I had to have my recovery on my own terms. I went to the group until I felt like I belonged there. When I finally asked one of the women in the group to sponsor me, I knew I was ready to grow.

It was a difficult time. I was in the middle of a divorce myself; I had nowhere to live, no money, and no job. I was terrified that I would lose custody of my son if I made a single mistake, much less picked up a drink. I was convinced that his father was watching me, following me. He didn’t want to let me go, and I was afraid that my circumstances would force me to stay in the marriage. My heart burned inside me, as though covered in ulcers. 

“Talk to The Dude,” my sponsor advised. So I did.

I took every suggestion people gave me, because I had run out of ideas. I felt stupid, and humiliated to be losing my relationship and my home, losing everything so publicly. I felt like a huge failure. Instead of making me sad, my grief turned into anger. 

“I just have to let it out,” I told my sponsor. “I feel like it’s going to eat me.”

“It’s your opiate,” she said. I wrote the word rage on the back flyleaf of my Big Book. You’re not good enough. Nothing is good enough.  

“You get high on your anger.”

I wanted to slap her. What else did I have to protect me, except my anger? I was so afraid, and terrified to let my guard down. If I just accepted my circumstances, which were a combination of my actions and their consequences, what would happen to me? I risked losing my desire to fight.

“I don’t want to calm down,” I said. 

She sighed. “In that case, I can’t help you.”

She was right to back away from me: I was not in my right mind. I was physically sober but emotionally batshit. My behavior was unpredictable, and even the people who said they cared about me said that I was hard to be around. Nobody loves you enough, said the monster inside me. Everything seemed to prove that I just wasn’t lovable. 

I thought of this while I listened to my friend rave about her husband. She would get her revenge, she swore. Their children already sided with her, and so did most of their mutual friends. She could ruin him, if she wanted. I nodded, not arguing. My sponsor was right: it was like watching someone who’d snorted a bad cut of cocaine. 

“You’re already doing better,” I said. 

She tossed her head. “I might still jump. I might.”

But I knew she wouldn’t. 

When I left the next morning, I gave her a hug.

“Thanks for having me over,” I said, as though it had been a slumber party instead of a suicide watch. “It was good spending time with you.”

“Really?”

“Absolutely,” I said. I said goodbye and went out into the rain. Everything seemed brighter to me, clearer. I looked down at my shoes, the red bricks under my soles, the bit of moss in the seam of the sidewalk, a penny that I didn’t pick up.

It seemed to me that the best way to deal with my own monster was to help someone else with theirs. For the last six years, I’d been learning to tame my own difficult emotions—how to subdue them, or cope. Over time, I simply had less to be angry about, and instead of panicking and trying to drum up more negative feelings, I learned to fuel myself with other things. It was love, after all, that gave me the strength to stay up until the wee hours, soothing my friend. Anger couldn’t have taken me that far. Love sustained me where anger and fear could not.  

As I walked, I found myself breathing in time with my paces, as though my whole body was a perfectly timed mechanism. Peace in, stress out, the two-step meditation my sponsor taught me. By the time I was a few blocks away, I had no anger left in me at all—not my friend’s, and not my own. I was empty, and happy about it. I felt the rain, and I knew I was enough.

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