Recently at a dinner meeting with some friends in recovery the topic of discussion centered on “Feelings.” Those emotional feelings that the newcomer is shocked to be experiencing again without the numbing relief of addiction or the ones that stem from the difficulties of life–such as work, relationships, or dealing with the “people problems” that always remain central to recovery. We discussed the idea that dealing with feelings in recovery, particularly early recovery, can be extremely difficult and dangerous to one’s sobriety. All of us in recovery are familiar, either personally or through working with others, how relapse can often be centered in an emotional response driven by those ever pesky “feelings.”
As the conversation turned, some of the more commonly heard points were made. It was argued that “feelings aren’t real” and so they shouldn’t be a concern. Another point of view was that feelings, as represented by the notion of emotional extremes, can be dangerous to recovery and that it is important to maintain a fairly stable and evenly balanced equilibrium —and that the classic reference to “emotional sobriety” is about limits and avoiding extremes. The philosophical questions about feelings being real or not was also discussed as it was proposed that “feelings aren’t facts.”
One of the more experienced members of the group noted that feelings are emotions. And that while certainly it is a fact that we all experience feelings, and that the experience is quite real, the point worth noting is that feelings, being expressions of emotions, aren’t permanent. We can’t medically “treat” our emotions or feelings unless they are persistent and prolonged, for instance in the case of someone who is suffering from depression.
I was enjoying the conversation and shared my own experience that in very early recovery I loved feelings when they were positive and found the negative feelings to be frequently and profoundly difficult and challenging to my sobriety. More than once I claimed that someone or something “made me” feel a certain way and so what else was I to have done other than go drink/use about it? What was clear from the conversation was that this problem with feelings was an experience that is a common conundrum in recovery and there seemed to be no direct answer.
For me, in active addiction, my ability to deal with feelings was limited and immature. In recovery I have learned that one of the great joys and freedoms to be gained is the ability to live life on life’s terms and that includes not only being open to my feelings but also having the ability to fully experience them in ways that connect to their deeper meanings. Recovery has allowed me to parse away some of the reactive emotional responses that strong feelings engender and move towards the place of accepting the joy of feelings–be they “good or bad”.
Today the ability to have compassion and stand with others in their pain is part of the joy of being a full human sharing common space with others. Similar to joy, it is really the connectedness that I celebrate–that undergirds the experience. Perhaps a part of this reality, this connectedness that grounds the circuit of feeling, is what enables the somewhat counterintuitive ability to “match calamity with serenity.” To some degree or another, my experience with the powerful nature of those emotions and feelings–that stir responses that are rooted in active addiction–take place today against the backdrop of a life that is lived within the framework of a spiritual awakening.
The goal and role of a spiritual awakening (or spiritual experience), that is the central element of classic 12-step recovery, surely must operate in the world of my feelings. The fact that my feelings are real is worth confirming. That there are emotional responses involved is clear. However, what is fundamentally changed is that I have a different response to life today. Two results of this new response are clear. First is that I experience completely new feelings and emotions that are part of the never ending process of growing and improving my conscious contact with a sense of spirituality. These new experiences are the spiritual gold-dust of a new way of living that shows me on a daily basis how life holds much more than I can ever fully know. Secondly, I am able experience older feelings and emotions in new way that alleviates resentment and agitation and places me into the “sunlight and “realm of the spirit.” My ‘todays’ are no longer held hostage by negative feelings and emotional restlessness rooted in the unresolved guilt and shame of my past or fear of my future.
In recovery, as a result of gaining some measure of emotional wellbeing and balance, I have learned to trust my feelings. I am developing and improving an intuitive understanding that is trustworthy. I do not run from feelings and emotions in fear nor allow them to overwhelm me. I don’t try to excessively contain them and limit my humanity to a narrow band of experience. Instead I can welcome them and embrace myself within them. I can learn how to experience them in a way that is deep and meaningful without becoming lost and untethered to my sense of reality–the integrity of who I am today–not who I was in the past. Feelings and emotions are always part and parcel of the love that is central to the human condition and an acceptance and understanding of my participation with them is the actualization of my faith.
(A Year of Days — Posts / Blog / Book).