Thursday, August 30, 2012

Cool but Scary Approach to Recovery: Tolerate Feelings and You Won't Need an Escape!

Tony had just gotten back from his family's last trip of summer and was struggling to pull out of vacation mode. He had one more day off before he had to go back to work. After sleeping in, he had a hard time getting started on his "to do" list. He felt ineffective and out of sorts. 

"Days like that are uncomfortable and taxing," he recalled the next morning in our session. "I tried to pull myself out of it. I started talking to myself, 'If I don't get those chores done, the world isn't going to come crashing down. It's okay that I have to go back to work tomorrow. And when I'm back in the office, I can only do what I can do. It's okay if I'm not given the opportunities I want, if my boss keeps assigning me menial tasks and none of the bigger jobs I'd love to dive into.' I remind myself, 'My boss's opinion of me does not define who I am and in the end doesn't really matter.' I tried to hold back the tide of those thoughts and feelings, but they kept pounding away at me. I had to fight them all day. It got tiring." 

Two times later that evening Tony came close to going back to porn--once on his iPad and once while scanning movie titles on Netflix after his wife and kids had gone to bed. The thoughts and feelings that weighed on him had depleted his energy and deflated his hope, leaving him wanting a fix. 

What had gone wrong? How could he handle things differently in the future?

Although it was perfectly natural for him to try to convince himself that what he was going through was "okay" and "not the end of the world," it hadn't worked. Throughout the day, his life had seemed distinctly NOT okay. I encouraged Tony to consider another way he could have handled those feelings: 

"What would it have been like to accept the fact that you don't feel okay, that you're in a state of mourning the loss of summer? What if you'd let yourself fully experience the depth of sadness and loss of vacations and camping being over for the year? What if you'd focused on the knot in your throat instead of trying to turn your attention from it? What if you'd let yourself shed a few tears? What if you'd accepted that you're often anxious at work and feel underutilized there. What if you'd fully entered into the aggravation of things not going well at the office these days? Acknowledged how painful it is that your boss doesn't think highly of you? You spend a big chunk of your life at work and it is important to you. It would be heavenly if your boss thought the world of you and saw you as his go-to guy! Sometimes life slams you in the face harder than others. Staring at those painful realities made it a hard day, a not-okay day. What if you settled into that off kilter feeling and let the emotions and thoughts and the day itself simply be what they were, instead of trying to talk yourself out of them?"

Tony wrote me this email a few days later: 

The good thing about recovery is that I can feel emotions again. The bad thing about recovery is that I can feel emotions again!

Learning to face my emotions rather than running from them is the most difficult part of recovery for me. I have turned away from and masked almost all strong emotions in my life through pornography, sex, distraction, working, or even movies and reading.   

Almost every time I relapse, I can trace the process backward to a strong emotion I was escaping. Unfortunately, at times my efforts at recovery have oriented toward adding one more layer of escape and avoidance: I'm tempted to soothe a hard day by going to porn... and then I try to escape the urge for porn by reciting a scripture, counting the floor tiles in the store, starting a conversation. Well, those things don't necessarily "work" in the sense that they typically don't address the original deeper emotion--the feeling of inadequacy, the anxiety, the fear, the loneliness. Going to porn doesn't directly address those feelings, but neither does counting tiles or starting a conversation. It's just an attempt to distract myself from my original distraction (porn). So no wonder the sexual urges keep pounding at me: the underlying feelings that drive them are still as potent as ever! The fact that I'm constant fighting is a sign that what I'm doing isn't working.

I need to really face the issues.

So I’m trying now to orient myself to the strong emotion in a direct, head-on way. I'm practicing accepting it, giving it some time, and not trying to "fix it" right away. 

During our session you asked me, “What would be there if you didn’t say to yourself ‘it’s ok, people don’t have to like me’, or ‘All I can do is my best,’ or ‘I don’t need that drug anymore.’ If I didn’t say that to myself, what would I use to cope?" Wow. Maybe nothing? I don’t know what would be there. Fear? I’d certainly be afraid that if I didn’t fix the emotion or soothe it somehow, then I’d relapse for sure.  

What I’m discovering is that there doesn’t have to be anything there. I don’t have to "Fix that emotion right now!" I can choose to stop and feel the emotion. Accept it. Realize that it is an emotion. It's not good or bad, it just is.  And it’s ok for me to feel it. I can feel sad. Angry. Alone. I can think through what caused it, why I don’t like it, and even challenge the idea that it's bad for me to feel it. 

It's an amazing thing to challenge the assumption that distressing emotions necessarily mean that things are "all wrong" right now. I've always been convinced of that: When I feel bad, it means something's wrong. And the sure indicator something's wrong is how bad it feels! It always seemed to me that in an ideal world, the things that were making me feel bad would be different than they were. What a shift it's been to entertain the possibility that this messy world is ideal, even though it feels bumpy and off sometimes! 

If I feel inadequate, I can stop and feel it, and realize that its okay I'm feeling it. The reason I feel inadequate is because I'm in touch with the gap between who I am and who I want to be. I want to be the very best husband, father, son, brother, and friend. It's painful that my life isn't there yet because I do love the people in my life. Love + Imperfection = Pain. I'm in pain right now. If this is the price I pay for the depth of my feelings for my loved ones, then I'm willing to pay it. That love--and I guess maybe even the pain that goes with it--is something that enriches my life, not something I should escape.

Beautifully said, Tony. Thanks for sharing your journey, and for letting me share it with my readers. 

If addiction has been an escape for you the way it was for Tony, try out this experiment for the next three days: Radically accept the full catastrophe of what you go through and how you feel about it all. Then please write and let us know what it was like and what you learned along the way.

This is your mission, should you choose to accept it... (And I won't look down on you at all if it scares the daylights out of you.)

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