November 29, 2012

Get a handle on your emotions to prevent relapse

Control your feelings, don't let them control you

By Kip Flock

Ray had a year of unbroken sobriety after completing drug treatment. He was blessed with a loving wife, a promising new career and kids that adored him.

He was attending Twelve Step meetings and following his aftercare plan. He was grateful for sobriety and the fellowship that embraced him. Then contact with his support system faded. He picked up drugs again. What could explain his relapse?

Emotional SobrietyRay bravely claimed his slip and again re-engaged with recovery. Underneath his excuses for using again, he discovered a vast reservoir of feelings that fueled returning to his active addiction. He discovered that his hopelessness radiated from a childhood terror of his father’s threatening outbursts. His dad’s lack of praise and constant treatment of contempt were a constant source of anxiety. Ray said he’d shared these details before in treatment and while working the Twelve Steps and was shocked at the eventual magnitude of shame and fear that emerged. His body began to shake and his nausea increased as he remembered his father’s hostility. It’s no wonder that his core relapse justification was helplessness—that any change toward sobriety would be futile.

Confront the Past

Many make the mistake of blaming recovery for the feelings used to justify relapsing. I’ve even heard people being shamed for not working the steps properly when their unfinished past emotions rear their ugly heads. Judgment is usually passed under the guise of friendly advice on how to work the program correctly. But recovery isn’t about avoiding mistakes or difficult emotions. It’s about confronting our past and honestly assessing our emotions in a safe and accepting environment.

Now Ray embraces fear as an opportunity to express his emotional past in safety rather than as reason to hide in self-loathing. Emotional sobriety validates childhood emotions to release us from the impossible expectations we’ve created for ourselves. Ray believed that he had to be perfect in his career and family life to enjoy the rewards of recovery. No one in his support circle was making such inhuman demands on him. He was convinced that he was unlovable while openly suspicious of anyone who said that they cared. His sobriety gave him the acuity of awareness to realize pain he’d suffered even before he started drinking and using. Early fears were finally coming to the surface because he was more awake to see and feel them.

Relief from Shame

I was very fortunate to have a dear friend who cared about me enough to intervene before I reached an emotional boiling point for relapse. He looked at me and said, “Kip, when are you going to get to your shame?” At first I was miffed, thinking I was eight years sober and doing pretty well, which was true on the outside. I hadn’t been obsessed with drinking, but I was plagued by a sense of dread that propelled me into overworking and eating. There was nothing happening in the present that could justify such disturbance. I was blind to how shame was blocking awareness of my distress. My trusted friend could see it. I just couldn’t ask for help about what didn’t exist for me.

After attending feeling-oriented workshops at three different treatment centers, I began to see how my coping style from childhood was interfering in my present life. I discovered that growing up in a family with a history of workaholism, alcohol dependency, overeating, gambling and co-dependency set me up for self-contempt even well after abstinence in recovery. My anxiety was not about my adult relationships at all. I needed to do emotional release work around my family of origin to free myself from torment. I found a good therapist for my inner shadow work to help me disconnect from debilitating shame voices. If you are working a solid recovery program yet still becoming emotionally hijacked, then emotional sobriety skills can support your Twelve Step progress toward the serenity that you deserve.

Emotional Salvation Skills

Fortunately, there are simple strategies that are useful in your quest for emotional freedom. First, find safe people who will witness your feelings without giving advice on how to get you out of your feelings. Before, I would have distracted Ray from sadness to cheer him up. Second, separate thought-generated feelings from authentic emotions. Feelings initiated by negative self-talk need to be examined long enough to challenge the self-defeating inner voices that can lead to despair.

When we access authentic feelings of original pain, the strategy is to feel the feelings with strength until completed. Such strength has two characteristics. First, we claim conviction of endurance that we can survive these feelings. Second, we allow sadness, anger, fear, shame and joy powerful expression, verbally and with congruent body movement. Ray finally fell into guttural sobs to find sweet release on the other side. Finally, name feelings and attach them to the right object. Ray thought his anger and shame were about his wife instead of his father.

Connecting the real object with your feeling is easier said than done—a true act of courage.

Emotional sobriety is not about eliminating strong emotions. It’s about having your feelings instead of them having you. The only way out is through. You can only feel like yourself with emotions. Ask for help from professionals who can guide you through your journey. I wish you well deserved support in the “next frontier” as Bill W. put it. Your “quiet place in bright sunshine” awaits you.

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