When I was a little girl I would listen to Miss Peggy Lee singing, “Is that all there is? Is that all there is?” Even at seven years old I felt this song deep in my bones. Listening to it now, it so profoundly describes a feeling so familiar to addicts and alcoholics. In the song the solution is booze and dancing but in recovery how do we get through those days when we feel bored, lonely, unsatisfied and empty – days when our disease holds us hostage to these disproportionately magnified feelings?
I looked in the mirror and a blonde woman with a suntan stared back. I didn’t recognize myself. Was I really wearing pink gym shorts and sneakers? I ripped off my tortoise shell sunglasses and started looking for track marks, scars, something to prove it was really me. New Age music came over the speakers and two men began discussing their mutual enlightenment.
“John, when I first heard you lead a meditation, I found myself carried away by the melodic rhythm of your voice and suddenly I envisioned myself conducting and entire symphony around you.”
“Oh that’s beautiful” replied John as he droned on about his twenty-five years in Twelve-Step communities. That’s when it hit me. My track marks were gone. My punk rock youth was over. And all I seemed to care about was healing my inner child and shopping at the Beverly Center. My God – what happened to my personality?
I wrote the above story when I had just over two years clean. I’d been on a pink cloud most of that time, super-happy with the life I’d put together from scratch in recovery. There’d been no warning signs that everything would change with one glance into a mirror. Shortly after this experience, I shut my down my life in Los Angeles and spent six months alone in a car traveling the country, reflecting and writing a novel. Rather than allow my existential identity crisis to push me toward a relapse, it motivated me to pursue my dreams.
Fast-forward to six years later. I’m in a therapy session saying, “I go to meetings, I work out, I’m of service, I eat healthy, I have good friends, I’m in therapy – but really- big fucking deal. Is this it? Is this all there is? I feel so bored and crazy. Where’s the euphoria?” I knew I was going to leave her office and stir up the pot. The feeling of restlessness and urgency was familiar – it was what drove me out to buy drugs back in the day. I knew I didn’t want to get high but I craving something to make me feel more alive and, like with drugs, felt powerless to stop myself once the idea got into my head. Within days I’d seduced a dangerously attractive unavailable young active alcoholic and I’d started smoking. I have to admit I felt pretty badass and was charged with the electricity of that euphoric high I’d been craving.
Within weeks I was back in my therapist’s chair only now I was crying. I felt lost from myself – anchorless. All I wanted was to go back to the way I felt before I abandoned myself with escapist behaviors. And I was pissed. Why does everything that makes me feel more “alive” always have the price of self-abandonment attached to it?
I mention these two stories because in both cases I was hit by the same feeling – that life on life’s terms was not enough. At the time I didn’t know how to value peace of mind and I didn’t know how to find comfort in the grey areas of day to day life on its own terms. I was still grieving and romanticizing aspects of the unpredictability of my former drug-using life. I wanted drug-like excitement without picking up a substance.
While the first existential identity crisis lead me on a six-month odyssey of America rediscovering and challenging myself, it wasn’t an impulsive act. That road trip required patience and planning. The second story illustrates a pretty typical addict response to feelings of restlessness. It’s usually knee-jerk compulsive self-destructive behavior disguised as fun.
In recovery there will be days when life on life’s terms will not be enough to satisfy you; days when boredom will make you pace like a wild animal desperate to break out of the cage. The disease gets a lot of mileage from the language of denial. I considered myself “unstoppable” rather than compulsive. If I’d been able to recognize that the intense pull toward acting-out was a compulsion I was powerless over, I could have applied some recovery principles to it. Instead I saw surrender as a compromise of “my free spirit”. Besides, even in recovery I’ve often been willing to suffer the consequences to get what I want when I want it. Thing is – although the consequences are always the same, when I set out on a mission for thrills. I forget the price is always some version of feeling lost from myself, of being lost and anchorless at sea.
The ability to sit with my feelings – especially the ones that can be avoided by thrill-seeking behaviors – didn’t happen over night. First I had to become willing – which happened when I was no longer willing to pay the price that came with avoiding them and then I needed courage to have blind faith that if I sat with my feelings they would not destroy me. I quickly discovered that the emotional discomfort didn’t last long. Feelings pass – even cravings for excitement pass.
The key to gracefully getting through the existentially angsty days is to let go of the need to make shit happen as a solution to feelings. Sit with the feelings no matter how much the disease is screaming for you to not sit still. Trust me – this can save you ridiculous amounts of negative consequences and inner turmoil. Meditation and breathing can help with this. If you suspect that you’re meant to shift gears or make major changes, you will know it because the need to force change won’t be there. I am NOT saying that life in recovery can’t be exciting. Maybe it will be more exciting if you can stop imposing your old ideas of excitement onto it and see where you end up.