A friend experienced a sudden tragedy this week and posted about her sadness via social media. No doubt in need of support, she shared with us that she was feeling defeated by the loss. Some of the responses were very supportive, but while reading through them, I couldn’t shake the tone of “Don’t feel that way.” No one came out and said it, but instead offered suggestions for possible distraction.
I’ve seen this a lot in the sober community, and have been guilty of it myself. Over the years it has started to irk me. I understand the suggestions come from a wonderful place.
We don’t want our friends to feel sad, and their sadness affects us…but feeling is part of sobriety. Feeling is required.
I spent many years on the other end of a bottle because I couldn’t deal with the “feeling” parts of sobriety. I drank because I had feelings, at my feelings, at and because of your feelings, and around situations that caused them. I totally understand the desire to escape from those pesky fuckers…trust me.
When I was newly sober, I was grateful for distraction because it kept me from drinking. Calling a friend, hanging out with sober people, focusing on something other than me. These things were necessary when I was new to the non-drinking world because there were so many things about my life that I couldn’t imagine doing or feeling without a drink in my hand.
It was important that I learned new coping strategies, and kept my mind and body busy when all I wanted to do was disappear into the dark corner of a bar. I had to reprogram my brain and settle into a routine that did not include booze.
I had to practice not drinking.
Now, while I can still fully appreciate the need for simple distraction, it has been my experience that it can become unhealthy. Putting my feelings on the shelf until “later” almost killed me. I was hurting in ways that my sober friends could not understand. Although I followed their suggestions and distracted myself with “other stuff,” the pain started to outgrow my abilities to cope.
I found myself six years sober and feeling unique in my humanness. I started to feel alone again. I started to hide behind smiles and laughter because it was clear that anything outside of that meant that I wasn’t working hard enough on my recovery. On the off chances that I did share my feelings, they were met with comments like, “What aren’t you doing?” These comments started to feel like kicks in the chest and I stopped sharing. Thank God, a good friend suggested an amazing therapist and I decided to make an appointment.
I sat with him and shared my secret thoughts and feelings. I told him that I knew they were wrong, and that with several years of sobriety and an amazing relationship with God, I should feel differently. His response was awesome. He suggested that I not “should” on my life and experiences, but rather, simply experience them. I was immediately turned off, but I trusted him.
He asked me what I thought would happen if I just felt sad for some of the things that had happened in my life.
I couldn’t answer. The question was not presented in a language I could understand. Just feel?? Ugh, that sounded dreadful!
With my therapist’s help I learned that the feelings I was having were not alcoholic, they were human. They could not be cured with or by the same tools I had been using to combat my alcoholism. I had to feel these emotions and deal with them. It was only in that process that I could heal.
When I see someone hurting now, sober or not, my first reaction is to meet them wherever they are and just be there. My job today is not to fix anyone’s feelings or distract them from feeling. It is my job as a friend to listen and support. I will not direct anyone to a passage in a book or suggest a distraction. I will simply offer my unconditional love and make sure they know they’re not alone.
It’s okay to feel today because it’s not the feelings that will kill us. It is hiding the feelings or feeling alone in them that is dangerous.
If you are hurting, feeling alone, or overwhelmed with a situation, please share it with someone. Even if you post it here anonymously…let us help. Let us assure you that you are not alone, and that your feelings are normal. Having feelings is normal.
Whatever the fuck normal is…
This post originally appeared on SoberMommies in February 2014.