Early in my recovery from chemical addictions I knew a guy who used to say, “I drank when the dog ran away; then I drank because the dog came home.” At the time I didn’t get it, but it rang a bell in some back room of my head. I’ve since come to find out that it’s so, so true – but now I know why!
When we use outside things to make us feel good – whether alcohol, some other drug or behavior – their initial effect is to distract us from the real world and make us feel better by altering the chemical balance in our brains. As we continue to use, their ability to make us feel better wanes. Eventually we reach the point where we have to use in order to keep from feeling bad. We’re addicted.
We fall into a pattern of using not to feel good, but simply to numb reality. We cover up the pain in our lives (at least to a degree), but we also lose the ability to feel much in the way of pleasure. Numb becomes our normal condition. We have extreme feelings now and then, and some of us pursue them because they temporarily allow us to feel more or less alive. But, most of the time, numb is the new normal for us addicts.
We become so accustomed to being numbed out all the time that eventually we simply don’t have the ability to handle strong emotions at all. We either “stuff” them, or we act out in some way. Often this expresses itself in anger, rage or severe anxiety. When it does we have no way to deal with it, and often act out physically or retreat further into our numbness. Because that’s our normal condition, we reach a point where even good feelings make us uncomfortable. This may especially be true if we have an idea, deep down, that we don’t deserve to feel good.
Fast forward into recovery. “Numb” is no longer an option, and if we don’t learn how to handle our feelings we’re in big trouble. In order to maintain healthy recovery we have to build resources that enable us to accept — and then discharge — our emotions. If we fail to do that, our inability to numb down becomes a desire to do so, and we’re on the fast track to acting out.
It’s critical to remember that feelings aren’t good or bad in themselves – they’re just there. Every feeling can be dealt with, and developing a toolkit is one of the main things recovery is about. Our fellowships, our supports, our spiritual practices and our therapy are the tools for learning to handle feelings, but the most important thing is learning to acknowledge them. Unless we’re willing to admit they exist we can’t learn to process them, and there is no other way to handle them that isn’t harmful. We’ve already demonstrated to ourselves that the options just don’t work in the long run. They might, in the short term, but do we really want to be numb until we die?