Feelings Do Matter
“Feelings,” I have been told by many of the old timers in the AA rooms, “don’t matter.”
I have always struggled with that notion because, as a kid, I learned very early in the game that I needed to be a silent observer in my family. If I weren’t, if I decided to confront my siblings or my parents, I would pay the consequences—a smack across the face, a sarcastic remark, or worse, just indifference.
In this early family environment, it would be safe to say that I had learned to shut down, not just as a defense against negative reactions from my family, particularly from my emotionally unpredictable mother, but as my way of surviving.
I thought for a long time that being detached from my emotions was, of course, a far more superior form of living than those in the muck of emotional tantrums. (I might add here, that I used to think that any strong emotional reaction related to joy, grief, or rage was a reaction “out of control.”)
So, when someone says that “feelings don’t matter,” my first reaction, of course, is to be angry, another emotion I have been told by the AA literature, needs to be left to the “experts.”
Over time in the AA program, I have learned never to take a statement to its absolute literal level. I have also learned that for every self-convincing statement made at a meeting, there is usually a contrasting statement that has equal validity. The important thing, for me, is to wait it out, to realize that learning is a process, that the “last word” is seldom the last word.
Having a Pulse Vs Overreacting
For many people, like myself in the recovery rooms, feelings do matter. They are an indication that I am truly alive, that I have a pulse, that I am connected to the world, not as a detached observer, but as a living, breathing, sentient human being.
On the other hand, I know that many of my emotional reactions can be a sign that I am too attached to a feeling, that I refuse to surrender to serenity because I am caught up in the fever of wanting to be right, to be self-justified, to put the world back in the order I think it should be, or that I have to have someone or some thing right now.
Addiction’s Curse: Emotional Numbness Vs High Drama
Addictions also have a way of numbing reactions or of raising the ante.
Inside of my chemical dependency, I can hide inside the booze, the joint, the needle, or the prescription drug and the world can quietly disappear. A wife’s honesty suddenly drifts into the undifferentiated chatter at a crowded restaurant, a child’s hunger just another nagging cat pacing the floor in front of a cabinet of cat food.
My addiction-of-choice can also make me a fearless improviser or conflict-driven participant looking for another crisis.
Drama and excitement are what I used to look for on my weekend binges. I justified this drama, of course, by rationalizing that my repressed, ordered life needed to “feel” something. So why not induce a high that would transport me into a world of fantasy or a high-risk environment where I could throw everything to the wind, as they say.
Psychological implosions certainly have a toll. After a night of hard-drinking and a black-out, I would often wake up panicking that my wallet was stolen; that I left my car somewhere near the last bar I walked into the night before; that my five credit cards were making the rounds of all the stores at a local mall; that the sex I had with an anonymous partner may have been unsafe. I don’t have to tell those in recovery that the variations of those events, of course, did happen.
Addicts of all stripes, I might add, are often grandiosity seekers. We are prone to fantasizing about the next epic possibility that will open us to fame and fortune—a famous rock star, an NFL quarterback, an Olympic swimmer, an owner of a plush condo in New York City, a New York Times Best Seller novelist, a randy owner of a second BMW, or a sex life that would rival Cleopatra and Don Juan.
The common, ordinary world, to many an addict, is just not enough.
Sobriety: Being Ordinary and Knowing How to Feel Again
So, how do we manage to live in that ordinary world in sobriety? And how do we learn to feel again without the need to self-implode as our only way to find a pulse in our lives?
Let me tell you from own experience: If you wait long enough in a recovery program and you do the work—surrender, self-reflection, complete transparency, amends (current and from the past), service, and undisturbed silence (meditation for some, prayer for others, a combination of both, or just plain-old purposeless silence),—your psychological world will come alive.
You will, eventually, become satisfied with your own company. You will not have to frantically try to fix every moment of occasional panic, loneliness, boredom, fear, self-loathing, or the sense of being unfulfilled—all of the old demons that manage to seep through the cracks of one’s general contentment in recovery—if, and a big “if,” you’re actively engaged in recovery.
And “being alive” in sobriety also means that I can give myself permission to be outraged by social injustice without feeling I have to conquer the perceived enemy of that social injustice, that I have to vanquish dissent, or that I have to be the next Mother Teresa. (I think I’m being honest, by the way, that I have greatly reduced my messianic complex or my desire to be what I once called “The Great Explainer”–my blog writing can still suffer from those two syndromes, but I believe that my writing has shifted over the years into a realm of compassionate self-expression, not from any epic desire to be right or to put the world back into order.)
Being alive in sobriety for me has allowed me to feel all kinds of feelings—grief, joy, sensuality, desire, yes, even anger—without having to hide or to think that I am out of control. I can now call myself “normal” by getting legitimately pissed off at a reckless driver passing me on the inside lane or a customer treating a waiter like a personal servant. But I don’t have to take out an AK-47 to wipe them off the map. I can be momentarily angry and then just move on.
I also discovered in recovery that I can desire someone or something without having to be satiated by the object of my desire. (As my therapist once said, “you don’t have to have every beautiful thing that floats across your bow.”)
My Higher Power: The Feelings of Transcendence and Connectedness
I would like to conclude by saying that I definitely have “feelings” about what the AA program calls “God” and the “Higher Power.” They are feelings; they are not the result of any intellectual search or synthesis, even though I have certainly gone that route. But they are experiential moments of transcendence that I cannot fully explain. I just know that when I have them, I am connected to the world sometimes by grief, sometimes by joy, and sometimes by compassion. Being inside any one of those feelings, I have an existential sense of oneness and serenity I never experienced during all my days of active drinking.
So, for those old-timers who continue to say “feelings are not facts,” I can only say that, for this old timer, I’m glad I have them. For, without them, I know I would be less than the chronically contented old guy that I am.