I’ve always been a person with a whole lot of feelings. When I was a kid, I preferred a day to myself with my inherited record player and a ragged copy of “Disney’s Greatest Hits, Volume 3”to playing baseball with the kids in my neighborhood or watching TV with friends. I just liked being alone. Looking back now, I realize that I needed that time to explore, indulge, and play out all the emotions I was feeling inside.
Being a little kid allowed me all the space I needed for personal reflection, but before long, it was made clear to me that little boys weren’t expected to feel deep things. By sixth grade, after attempting to become a Cub Scout and teach myself to like football, I had learned that little boys were expected to run, jump, hit the ball (or in my case, get hit with the ball), and walk off life’s biggest aches and pains. We definitely weren’t supposed to spend time sitting in our rooms exploring the depth of our emotions.
Over time I retreated from the emotional swells I once embraced. I gradually learned to only listen to my favorite sad songs in private, and when my family was around, I’d crank the upbeat (or at the very least, emotionally neutral) tunes on the radio. I learned the art of hiding my true thoughts and feelings by skillfully engineering conversations away from the topic of me. I shifted the focus to others, always asking questions and talking around anything that might have revealed that I was feeling even the slightest bit of discontent. By middle school, privately decoding Tori Amos lyrics and pondering the point of existence was a pretty regular pasttime for me.
Eventually what had started as a relatively subtle shift toward keeping my darker thoughts private became a complete shutdown of my ability to acknowledge — let alone talk about — who I really was at my core. I put up walls to protect myself emotionally, which meant keeping even the people who meant the most to me at arm’s length.
I magically transformed into the guy most likely to sing on top of tables and entertain an audience all night.
When I was 17, I found a surefire way to magically shut down my feelings: alcohol. Here was this thing that numbed my pain, silenced my inner critic, and came with the added benefit of suddenly making me the life of every party. No longer the shy, pensive kid in the corner, I magically transformed into the guy most likely to sing on top of the table and entertain an audience all night.
As I traveled down a path of becoming the fun-loving dude (who was committed to staying as disconnected from my emotional self as possible), I had become obsessed with being what everyone else wanted me to be: socially confident, carefree, and able to carry on a conversation with anyone about anything. And I was good at it, all thanks to the newfound power of a drink. Of course I found other drugs along the way, but nothing soothed quite like a cocktail — or four.
Almost every night for 15 years, before passing out drunk, I would promise myself that this would be the last time. Occasionally I would quit one of my numerous numbing vices, convinced that by ditching just one I had “cleaned up my act.” I would eat healthily for a few days and go back to the yoga studio (which by now I’d discovered made me feel better than anything else I’d tried), buying an entire month’s worth of classes. Inevitably, I would go once, maybe twice, before giving up, unable to commit to the discipline it took to cultivate a serious practice and manage my drinking.
I didn’t fit the stereotype of what a drunk looked like, so I kept on drinking.
Over the years, I quit most of my addictions, but alcohol hung on and became part of my identity. At one point in my early 20s, I made my way to an Alcoholic’s Anonymous meeting. I sat and listened to the heartbreaking stories of loss and hitting rock bottom and then walked out with the assumption that if I hadn’t lost my home, my family, and my job, I couldn’t possibly have a problem! I didn’t fit the stereotype of what a drunk looked like, so I kept on drinking.
Originally a way to avoid the discomfort of my emotions, drinking later became my go-to fuel to continue on as the person I’d morphed into. After all, who would I be if I stopped? Would my friends still like me if I got sober, became healthy, and “changed?” I wasn’t so sure what I’d find underneath all of the partying, hangovers, and secret obsession about sobriety, and I wasn’t so sure I could handle finding out.
Then, a little more than four months ago, I took my last drink.
They’re different for everyone. Sure, by the time I decided to get sober, I was experiencing regular hangovers or occasional blackouts, hitting up happy hour every night, and having a bottle of wine to myself on Saturday morning. Still, I kept waiting for my life to fall apart beyond recognition, which would allow me to give myself permission to stop drinking, when in reality, my life was already out of my control. I was physically exhausted and emotionally vacant. I was eating terribly, and I couldn’t sustain any kind of regular exercise. Most days I struggled just to get out of bed and pretend to be the person that my friends, co-workers, and family had come to expect. Hiding my lack of control had become my full-time job. I wanted to call the shots in my life, alcohol had to go.
The plot twist in my decision to stop drinking? Part of it was
deciding not to stop cold turkey. For months I spent every night desperately Googling “how to stop drinking.” I read through website after website about how to quit and how to come back from your rock bottom. I was hoping to learn from other people’s experiences, but none of it seemed to fit my life. I realized that if I was going to succeed, I had to ignore all the advice and figure out what worked for me.
With the help of a great therapist, I made a plan that included ignoring all the conventional advice. I continued to drink for two more months and ended every night by writing down the reasons I wanted to get cleaned up, documenting moments when I lost memory in alcohol, slurred my speech, or stumbled home in the daylight.
One morning I read all of those notes and knew that I wouldn’t touch a drink that day. One day turned into one week, and before I knew it, I’d been sober for one full month.
For the first weeks, I hunkered down in my apartment, finished all the books I had drunkenly started over the last year, and avoided all social situations. I slowly started going out again to connect with my friends, learning the tricks to get through it, and I was getting through it. Maybe this was going to be easy! I was feeling too good, energetic, and awake to want to go back to drinking.
Then, after about a month and a half, I hit an emotional wall. Although I’d gotten used to not drinking, I wasn’t used to flood of emotions that were no longer instantly numbed by alcohol. I really missed being able to turn my back on inconvenient and uncomfortable feelings. That’s when I realized that I wasn’t just giving up alcohol, I was walking away from the emotional escape hatch I’d built and walking toward my true self. To do that, I needed to face the complicated feelings inside. I had to take a hard look at myself and find a way to be OK with what I saw.
Fast forward four months and I’m putting the time and money I used to spend at the bar toward cultivating a consistent yoga practice and making time to meditate every day. The combination (of yoga and mediation) has helped me learn how to live in the moment and meet difficult feelings with a sense of grace that I’ve never experienced before.
No matter what I’m dealing with, I know that I can come to the mat, identify the feeling, and instead of fighting against it, learn to work with it. And this sense of empowerment extends beyond the yoga studio. Instead of binging on a pound of pasta at night, I’ve become friends with the produce aisle. And thanks to YouTube, I’ve discovered the power of Jane Fonda’s 80s workout videos, which keep me laughing while I’m sweating (That hair!).
These days the best moments are when I stop and realize how different my life looks without alcohol. I now make choices that will help take me closer to who I really am, helping me let go of how I’m “supposed” to feel and who I’m “supposed” to be. Yoga, meditation, eating better, and quitting alcohol are all just steps on a long journey back to my true self.
Photo: Toa Heftiba/Unsplash
Originally published at greatist.com on November 12, 2014.