We had two contrasting topics at an AA meeting this morning—Happiness and Grief, emotions I have struggled with so much of my life.
Today, because of my sobriety, they are emotions I have learned to be comfortable with.
My sobriety has been guided by the 12 steps, sponsors, service, meetings, the stories people share, and the Higher-Power Spirit of my understanding. That Spirit, for me, is the power of transformation I continue to experience in AA.
And that sobriety has given me the kind of happiness I never experienced in my alcoholic drinking days.
It is the kind of happiness I call “chronic happiness.” The kind that makes me smile warmly at a friend’s success, laugh at a corny joke, sit contentedly watching a nostalgic film without getting cynical.
At the same meeting, someone shared their grief, grief jump-started by gut-wrenching trust issues.
I am always amazed how the program is able to absorb those two emotional extremes without telling us that we “must” be at a certain level of happiness protecting us from too much grief.
Or even that grief has a more intense emotional content than happiness, which I believed during my heavy drinking days and much of my early adult life.
Over the many years in the program I have discovered that happiness and grief are two sides of the same emotional coin.
I don’t remember, exactly, how those two emotions completely dovetailed when I got sober. But I do remember one incident, in early recovery, when I totally internalized a deep grief in having hurt my wife by my drinking and recklessness (I vividly remember the feeling of overwhelming grief in that Episcopal Church basement). I realized, then, that I could truly “feel” something for someone.
Once I internalized that deep sadness for another person, happiness began to arrive in small doses. I am convinced that that first experience with grief in the rooms of AA made it possible for me to experience other emotions, especially happiness.
I find it interesting, even ironic, that happiness often arrives with a tinge of sadness for me, almost as if the fullness of that happiness is too much to bear. Or that feeling of being overwhelmed by an experience. I think that’s what happens when people experience “tears of joy.”
I also found that if I can truly experience happiness, which is a deep form of connectedness to the world, then I know, conversely, I am capable of grief, another form of connectedness to the world.
One is about fullness, the other about absence. And my experience has been that they play off of each other.
And more importantly for me, to experience grief over a broken trust makes it more probable that I will experience happiness, for the kind of hard-hitting grief we’re talking about here often seems to give a deeper texture to happiness.
Finally, happiness and grief seem to juggle my psyche in ways that deceive me into believing that they are totally unrelated, when, in my experience, they are not.
“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.”) Continue reading
Grief and Addiction Recovery by Glynis Sherwood MEd, CCC, CSAC
A while ago I received this email from a woman experiencing the opposite of the positive emotions she had hoped to find in recovery.
“I’m in recovery from alcoholism and should feel happy, but I feel sad and angry and empty – almost like I’m grieving. But not only has nobody has died, in fact I got my life back. I’m worried that if I keep this up I’m going to start drinking again. How do I make sense of my emotions and hold onto my recovery?”
As you can see from the desperation of her tone, this woman feels confused, fearful of relapsing and maybe a little guilty about feeling grief rather than joy in the midst of her recovery. But not only are feelings of grief common in recovery, mixed feelings ranging from joy and sorrow can be present too, adding to the confusion. It’s hard to deal with such emotions, but that does not mean that these feelings are wrong. Our emotions are there to tell us what we need, and if our legitimate needs are being satisfied or thwarted. It’s the same way with grief. But how do we understand the role of grief in addiction recovery? Continue reading