One of the most challenging parts of entering recovery is that you are forced to face the same painful emotions and challenges, but without the help of drugs and alcohol. In a previous column, I wrote that “The best part about getting sober is that you are finally able to feel your feelings, and the worst part about getting sober is that you are finally able to feel your feelings.”
Abstaining from drugs and alcohol didn’t immediately take away the problems in my life and within myself emotionally. Although they compounded my problems, drugs were never the actual issue. Mind-altering substances were how I attempted to treat myself.
I was never able to improve my life dramatically by merely removing drugs and alcohol. Eliminating drug use would mitigate the daily consequences of things like my wife’s anger and some financial stress, but ultimately, I was still a broken man with the same problems. Abstinence without self-work just removed the only way I knew how to cope with my emotions.
I now spend time each day working on myself and developing emotional sobriety. I’m learning how to navigate my feelings without turning to drugs or alcohol.
Two ways people deal with emotional stress
When it comes to painful feelings or uncomfortable situations, I think people react in one of two different ways. You can either heighten your effort to increase the incoming benefits of a relationship or decrease what you invest to conserve energy and minimize pain.
The first way that people react to painful emotions or uncomfortable conversations is by investing more effort to earn more significant benefits. When there is a conflict, especially in a relationship, this person wants to immediately talk about it and find a solution even if the conversation is painful. They recognize that to get the most out a relationship or challenging situation, they need to invest more energy into it.
The second way to react when facing emotional pain is to withdraw or avoid it. When I get emotionally overwhelmed, I try to avoid or escape the conflict and calm myself down by removing myself from the situation. I feel as though the less emotional equity I invest into a situation, the less I have to lose or less pain potentially I can experience.
Avoiding emotional pain without the help of drugs and alcohol
Not knowing how to process pain from childhood trauma in healthy ways, I used the one method that I learned during my childhood. For most of my twenties, I used drugs and alcohol to avoid uncomfortable emotions. This coping method worked until it didn’t, and I eventually found myself with an addiction to heroin and unmanageable life.
No longer able to use drugs as a solution, this desire to avoid pain manifests itself in other ways. My desire to avoid certain feelings affects all aspects of my life but is most detrimental in close personal and romantic relationships.
Instead of engaging in a disagreement with my girlfriend, I’ll often use excuses such as being busy with other engagements. Ironically, I may even use the writing of this column as a way to avoid or delay meaningful communication. Being entirely vulnerable to a romantic partner is challenging for me, and something that I struggle with.
Author Neill Strauss said:
When someone’s buttons get pressed, what’s occurring is a regression to the emotional age where that button was created in early life. You can’t argue with a child. Wait until they’re back in an adult state again to have a rational discussion about it.
My father and older brother showed me that pain wasn’t something that a man was supposed to feel. They were tough. Being vulnerable and emotional wasn’t something a real man did, or so I thought. I learned early on that I could cover uncomfortable feelings with drugs and alcohol.
If challenged, I will revert to the behavior I learned as a child, hiding from my emotions or covering them up. I sometimes refuse to engage in a situation or discussion that might risk exposure.
People who have experienced trauma may disconnect from themselves in times of emotional stress. This disconnection is especially prevalent in people who also suffer from addiction since they already have a pattern of using avoidance to cope with emotions.
Uncomfortable situations are opportunities for self-reflection and growth. It’s crucial that I don’t remove myself and lose an opportunity for improvement. Abstinence from drugs and alcohol does not guarantee emotional sobriety, and without actively working on my emotional sobriety, I’m not sure I can sustain abstinence.
Author’s note: This post was originally written for my Portland Press Herald column “Facing My Addiction”.