The first time I heard someone say “I used over my feelings” the first thing that popped into my head was “Really? I used to have fun.” I couldn’t relate. In fact, I felt kind of sorry for him. Using over feelings -what did that even mean? By the time everyone in the room finished admitting that they had also used over their feelings, I felt like I was in that depressing group therapy scene in Drugstore Cowboy. The lighting is stark in the bleak, institutional room and we see Matt Dillon’s character disengage emotionally as everyone takes turns being grateful for their seemingly pitiful little lives. I knew how he felt at that moment and recognized the look on his face. He wasn’t going to stay clean and neither was I. After this experience, I continued to get high for a few more months but I couldn’t get that guy talking about “using over feelings” out of my head. Once I’d heard the truth everything changed. I couldn’t seem to get high enough to forget that I had a choice about it.
Until then, I’d never given any thought into why I used drugs. As an adolescent I was consciously constructing my persona. Rebellion was in the air throughout my childhood – in the news and in the movie theatres. There was a new generation saying, “fuck you” to conformity and kowtowing to authority. I was too young to really grasp what was going on in the world but it mirrored something I felt deep inside. Until then, I’d felt very alone. I found my people, the counter-culture freaks and anti-heroes, on the big screen. It was a look, an attitude, and a style. Once I adopted the image of the edgy, thrill-seeking, wild girl all I had to do was find drugs to legitimize it.
Writing this as a long-time recovering addict, it’s obvious that I was searching for a way to change the feelings inside of me. And I found something outside of myself that did the trick. Like every other addict, I used over my feelings.
Recovery is about learning how to deal with our feelings. Since experiencing feelings is not in our skill-set (even clean and sober) we continue to find ways to avoid them – always seeking something outside of ourselves to change the way we feel. In early recovery we drink pots of coffee, chain smoke, try or hope to have lots of sex, or search for love. Later in recovery, we spend endless hours on the Internet, work out until we’re injured, fast for ten days instead of four, spend until we’re bankrupt, work 60 hours a week, stay busy every minute. We tend to create drama in situations because one large pain is easier to focus on than feelings of insecurity, loneliness, worthlessness, disappointment, self-doubt and self-loathing. When life is going great, we worry about what it’s going to feel like when something goes wrong. I’ve known addicts who take Tylenol in case they get a headache. Simply put, addicts can face down the barrel of a shotgun but we don’t do well with emotional discomfort.
So what happens when we stop running? We feel fear. Remember how the fear of withdrawal kept you using long after you wanted to be clean? Fear controlled us. It doesn’t just go away because we are clean and sober. So we do what we’ve always done – we try to control it. Seeking outside stuff to escape into, to alter our feelings, to change the direction of things. We’re fortunate to have a lot of pillows to land on when we get clean. I think going from feeling nothing to feeling everything, we’d surely explode and run back to using. So while we get comfortable with some of our feelings, we avoid others by throwing back pots of coffee, eating until we can’t move, having sex, shopping, getting 40 tattoos. As long as we don’t use, we gain positive experience from the feelings we do sit with (they didn’t kill us) and it helps give us courage to face new ones. But there’s a trick to all this: if you get clean and spend all your time “acting out”, avoiding feelings, seeking comfort, pleasure and escape and you don’t deal with anything you’ll probably relapse. Remember we use over our feelings and this also means if we don’t start to get comfortable in our own skin, we will use again. Pain and fear don’t magically disappear no matter how great the sex was, how many tattoos you got, or how whole your new relationship makes you feel. It takes work to stay clean.
You need someone to talk to. This can be your 12 step community, a therapist, friends you trust who love you – do not give this job to your romantic partner. You need a safe place where you can be honest about what is going on in your life and in your head and how it makes you feel. To lower the pressure on a tire you have to let some air out. Becoming vulnerable and honest with other human beings is how this process begins. You don’t need advice – you just have to let it out. This is often the first experience addicts have acknowledging how they feel. And I will give you a tip: it’s easy to talk about how angry you are, how much hate you have but it takes real courage to reveal jealousy, loneliness, disappointment, sadness, hurt. These are the feelings under the anger. Our feelings get hurt – just like when we were kids. Talking about this stuff, taking the air out, will reduce the pressure. It will feel weird at first but you’ll notice a shift in your mood and it will give you momentum to do it again. Remember – you don’t need feedback or advice. We start the process by hearing ourselves connect with what we are feeling. As time goes by, feelings become less frightening.
You’re tired all the time, you’re masturbating every day, can’t believe your appetite? My guess is you are having some feelings. Look for the signs. We don’t have to run anymore. Sometimes feelings suck. There’s no other way to describe it – thankfully feelings also pass. Feelings may not be facts but it is a fact you’re experiencing feelings. Face them and recover or run from them and hope you find some courage before you use again.
Although this post is geared toward early recovery, even after years clean our knee jerk reaction to an uncomfortable feeling will still be to find something outside of ourselves to change it or delay it. With practice, it happens less and less.