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Managing Emotions.

3 May 2012

Some of the signature conditions of the alcoholic are defensiveness, self-righteousness, deflection and projection. Obviously, it’s not only alcoholics who feel and behave this way, and equally obviously, each alcoholic is an individual, and expresses things a bit differently. However, my experience is tha nearly every alcoholic exhibits those behaviors in ways that are troubling to themselves and the people around them. Troubling is a vast understatement. These behaviors, while present in every person to small degrees, rise to truly toxic and destructive levels in alcoholics.

And, like most of the difficulties we alcoholics get ourselves into, they don’t go away just because we stop drinking. Our relationships don’t get magically repaired. Our debts don’t get magically paid. Our bodies don’t magically recover from the abuse we inflicted upon them. Each of these things takes time, patience, perseverance, and slow, deliberate toil. The sort of thing that humans everywhere do to negotiate their way through the world. The hardest of these things, for me, has been to learn how to manage my emotions in a new way. A manner that is of service to me, still honors the emotions themselves, and the circumstances that gave rise to them, and doesn’t alienate people I care about.

Yesterday was one of those days. I went and spent the afternoon in the hospital with my cousins, my aunt and uncle, and the two-day-old corpse of their infant son. Gabriel is a tiny, blue ragdoll. They were making casts of his hands and feet. Everyone was numb. My cousin held this tiny corpse to her body like a living child. A nurse was there. This is a new method of grieving, I was informed. It’s supposed to alleviate trauma in the parents, I suppose. I found it deeply unsettling.

I spoke to my sponsor, and to another friend. I cried. I shuddered. I took a walk and then a bath. I ate. All things appropriate for the circumstance. Then I got into a stupid debate about flirting on twitter. A debate I had no business being in. No one was looking for my opinion. No one asked for it. I was the only man in a conversation with several women. I was polite, but frustrated. After about a half an hour, I gave up. I apologized for making any comments at all.

Not because I have nothing to say on the matter. Not because I have no right to talk there. I do, and I do. But yesterday wasn’t the time. I wasn’t ably separating the spheres of my emotions. Normally, I can. I have learned to. Frustrations from work do not get taken out on people in my personal life. Personal difficulties don’t get dragged to work. Learning to appropriately manage my emotions was complicated and difficult, but for the most part I learned to do it pretty well.

I stop and think before I speak, most of the time. I don’t make blanket assertions that I don’t have evidence for, unless they’re plainly opinion. And when I am upset, I look inward rather than outward. One of the things you will hear, if you sit around the tables of Alcoholics Anonymous long enough, is, “When I am upset about something, there is something wrong with me.”

Now, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t also something wrong outside of me. All too often there is. Like a dead infant. I can’t begin to tell you how wrong that is. But what it does mean, which I think normal people learned a long time ago, is that I am, in a very important way, responsible for my emotions. I’ve been told many times “you can’t help how you feel.” But I don’t think that’s true. I can, through careful reflection, help how I feel. And I can certainly manage how I react to my feelings. I can examine the disquiet within me and slow and settle myself and look for the good in every situation.

In that conversation I had with my friend, the person so new to sobriety, I was asked a critical question. “Aren’t you glad you get to be present for all this?” I’ve made that point myself, and it’s one that my sponsor often makes. And it’s one of the core principles that good sobriety is based on: being useful to others. Being of service. Even when that is uncomfortable and confusing.

I’m grateful today. Grateful that I have a shoulder for people who are in mourning. Grateful that I can feel sick with grief. That I am not numb to the experience of living, because I am inebriated and altered. I am grateful that I can be circumspect in sadness. That while I am often distressed, I am rarely distraught. That when I do find my defensiveness, self-righteousness, deflection and projection welling up within me, I can look at it honestly, and recognize that these are emotions designed to prevent me from taking responsibility. Emotions that will lead me to selfishness and fear and isolation.

And I can forestall them. Apologize to those I’ve inflicted them upon. Correct my actions. Explore my motivation. And find the core of it.

I am incredibly sad. I am angry. I feel a sense of injustice. I am grieving.

And I am so grateful that I can be present in these feelings. That I can sensate and persist among the sloughs of this human burden. Because I am. And I am sober. And that is good.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. 3 May 2012 11:26

    A powerful post for sure. I think being present for all the pain and the joy of living is the best that we can do. It doesn’t change the circumstances, but helps me to behave in a way that befits what is happening. It is about being real and not covering up what I am feeling. At least that is how I have felt when I grieved my parents. It was raw and gut wrenching. And I know that the pain stayed with me for months.

    Your description of dead baby Gabriel being hugged by his mother was also gut wrenching.

  2. bronironi permalink
    3 May 2012 12:18

    Good thoughts. I hope you’re feeling a little better today.

    Yesterday when you left the conversation and apologized for your comments that bothered me because it seemed like you were just shutting down on us and disengaging because it got hard. It was only in your next post, when you clarified how you were feeling, that it made more sense to me. I think I assumed since you were engaging in banter about flirting you were feeling fine (the things we can’t tell on the internet!). Stupid assumption. But it still irks me that you felt the need to apologize for participating in a public conversation with friends. You had just as much right to be there and be part of that conversation as anyone, and your questions were reasonable. Sometimes text w/out the ability to hear the tone of voice and see body language can mess up a conversation online and lead people to read text the wrong way, which gets folks riled up. I’ve certainly said ‘i’m getting too emotionally invested to discuss this reasonably right now, I’m waking away for a bit’. And there may sometimes be things worthy of apologizing for, but participating in a public conversation and saying reasonable things is not one.

  3. furtheron permalink
    4 May 2012 03:28

    Thanks for this post – humbling…

    Firstly – I can’t begin to imagine what the poor parents are going through. I would myself have felt very very uncomfortable in that situation.

    To be reminded that it is an honour to be there to go through this is indeed worth remembering.

    The compartmentalising of emotions etc. is however hard – for me anyways. For example yesterday I was annoyed about something at work, it was troubling me on the journey home. I was sullen when my wife collected me in the car about half way back from the station as she does pretty much every evening, without me asking, without me thanking her… I was quiet in the car. She then said something about an activity we needed to do (clear our bedroom wardrobes as we have a new carpet to be fitted on Saturday) I thought we’d do it after dinner. She’d started and was saying “can you do this and that”… I felt under pressure. Unjustified. Then my daughter has an issue with a bank account that is landed on me as I walk in… I snapped. Unjustified. My wife snapped back… I took a breath, took a few minutes then offer to make coffee and asked what was up. She’d learnt some awful news regarding two children in her class….

    The emotions etc. we suppress in the “professional” environment too often “come our sideways” (as my sponsor says) in another situation. Now however I do deal with it better. I washed up after dinner, completed the emptying of the wardrobes then sat with my wife for the rest of the evening and all was well…

  4. 4 May 2012 14:50

    I am so very sorry to hear this news. Your presence was important as a witness to the lost child and share the burden of loss with your family. It is too much tragedy to handle alone.

  5. jo(e) permalink
    4 May 2012 16:57

    That’s one of the biggest things I’ve had to work on over the last couple of decades — allowing myself to have feelings. My old pattern: start to have a feeling, and IMMEDIATELY react, often with an unhealthy response that helps shut down the feeling and leaves me numb, or perhaps shifts me to some other feeling. My new pattern: start to have a feeling, give myself time to feel the emotion and name it, think about different options, and then choose my reaction. Some days I actually manage to stick to the new pattern. And sometimes I fall back on the old pattern because it’s just sooo easy to react.

    Condolences to your cousins. That’s difficult. I’m glad you were able to be there for them.

  6. 4 May 2012 17:27

    I really needed to hear this.

    My 5-year-old niece drowned in a backyard pool some years ago. By the time I got to the hospital, the scene was much like you described above: her blue body, her parents clinging to her. I can still see it like it happened yesterday.

    I’ve never been asked (or asked myself) the question your newcomer asked of you. Am I glad I was present? The drinking me would say absolutely no – but now I can say yes, I am. It is the most painful situation I have ever been a part of, but yes, I’m glad I was there.

    Thank you so much for writing about this and making me think. My condolences to your family on the loss of baby Gabriel.

  7. 6 May 2012 19:37

    What a sad time — my condolences for the loss of the baby Gabriel. Perhaps in being sober you are more present for all — the good and the bad feelings. Intense, but more authentic.

    You might like to read this story — it may really resonate for you:

    Best regards…

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