I had to learn to say no to myself.
Once upon a time, I trusted my brain implicitly. Why wouldn’t I? It had kept me alive, after all. No one had ever told me that this cerebral cortex of mine was unreliable. When my brain told me certain things—say, that I didn’t have feelings for someone anymore, that a friend had wronged me, or that my boss deserved to get an earful about how dissatisfied I was—I assumed it was correct, and acted on those thoughts. Even when I started to see that these actions often delivered terrible results—that it could mean losing a great love or important friendships and getting fired from jobs—it never occurred to me that the problem was with my thinking. The problem, I was certain, was with the unfairness of the world. The problem was that bad things happened to me.
Feelings don’t require a scapegoat
It took me roughly a decade and a half of sobriety to realize there were times when I couldn’t trust my brain at all. These were times when I felt uncomfortable, and instead of trying to tolerate the discomfort, I became determined to figure out what was causing it. I didn’t see that sometimes feelings are just feelings. They don’t necessarily have a culprit, but just need to pass through us. Addicts are notorious for not being able to handle feeling uncomfortable for even a millisecond. The discomfort is what we tried to drown out, to the point that it nearly killed us. As Carrie Fisher wrote in Postcards from the Edge, “Instant gratification takes too long.” And so I would feel uncomfortable, and identify that boyfriend or friend or boss as the problem.
Yes, it’s taken me this long to learn that if you just sit through discomfort, it will pass. It’s the precise act of trying to name it and then doing something about that which causes my suffering.
I’ve learned to pause before acting on my feelings
I’m an extremist—always have been. I decide on things and I go after them. It takes me about a second to decide if I like someone, roughly five seconds at the dealership to pick out a new car, and a good 10 seconds to commit to a career shift. I’ve jumped out of planes, swung from trapezes, and rappelled down buildings. I’ve done cryotherapy as well as sweat lodges. I was just as addicted to Ambien as I was to cocaine.
The difference now is that when I have one of my extreme feelings, I try to look at them the way I would a bad acid trip. For the record, I never did acid nor had any desire to. I was someone who didn’t do drugs that would help me experience myself more; I did ones that helped me experience myself less. But I can nevertheless imagine what a bad acid trip would feel like. So I pretend that’s what’s happening when I become absolutely convinced I suddenly see something clearly, and it’s the opposite of how I normally feel about it. I take a beat. We talk in recovery circles about how we need to pause when agitated. For me, that pause sometimes needs to last an hour, a day, or even a week. Eventually, I come back around. I often look back at the fleeting feelings I’d been absolutely convinced were deep core beliefs as a trip through temporary insanity.
In other words, to paraphrase another classic Carrie Fisher quote, “I now feel very sane about how crazy I am.” I hope one day to be very sane about how sane I am. But I’m not holding my breath.