When I first quit drinking I frequently felt as though I was teetering on the threshold of a massive cliff. The edge represented the abyss of my feelings, the emotional reservoir that I had successfully avoided for my entire adult life, and I was petrified of letting myself go anywhere near it. Daytimes were manageable, filled as they were with childcare or work and characteristically lacking in the impressively stubborn self-destruct button that would worm its way into my head as the days evolved into early evening. But when darkness descended I routinely walked to the brink of feeling, and would always run in the opposite direction.
I know why I was so terrified of feeling my feelings: I’m still very conscious of it now, the enormity of human emotions, the turbulent effect they can have upon me, how they possess the unnerving potential to grow unwieldy and all-consuming. Emotions can be big, exciting, terrifying, out-of-control, barely there, impossible to ignore and pleasant, but crucially, they are merely a part of what it is to be a human being – and that fact took me a while to get my head around when I first stopped drinking.
Initially, feeling emotions felt bizarre and uncomfortable. I was so accustomed to quashing the whole spectrum of my reactions to life that, once free of alcohol, living turned into a medley of colossal ups and downs and my kneejerk response of seeking numbness did not disappear for several months. What I noticed, however, was that as time went by I began only to wish away the bigger feelings. Boredom, slight shyness and mild grievances – those became doable fairly early on. The challenge lay in the real tsunamis of the emotional range; grief, heavy regret, heartache. When they hit, the old tendency to flee from myself would rise up from the ashes and eliminating them would require an inner strength that I never knew I possessed.
It was incredibly difficult to ride the storm and just ‘be’, but now, after three and half years without alcohol, I’m there. I can feel without feeling terrified.
Here are a few things I have learnt about managing my emotions;
- This too shall pass – emotions don’t last forever. Some of them might feel uncomfortable and unpleasant, but bad feelings come and go like tempests in your soul. When I feel unhappy nowadays I just sit it out but with the comforting knowledge that my internal state has no permanence.
- The anticipation of experiencing feelings is far worse than the reality. Numbing our emotions with alcohol is not actually the ‘normal’ human experience, despite the way society normalises heavy drinking. Feeling our emotions is OK and entirely natural, and it will feel less bizarre the more you do it.
- Negative emotions can be a challenge to deal with, but sobriety allows for both good and bad emotional rollercoasters. Yes, you may have to cope with heartache, grief, disappointment or stress without the numbing properties of ethanol flat-lining your emotional state, but try feeling the purity of joy, pride, relief, falling in love or a sense of achievement free from an alcoholic fog. There’s nothing like it.
- Living in the moment by practising mindfulness truly helps when it comes to managing out-of-control emotional states. Meditation is an excellent place to start with this and there are tons of books and online resources on mindfulness to tap into. I can’t recommend this as a way of life highly enough.
- Regard every challenging feeling you experience as a major stepping stone in your journey to emotional wellness. With each one you will grow stronger and better equipped to deal with the good ones, the bad ones, and the ones in between. Avoid wishing your feelings away, and accept that they are a valid element of your life experience.