We are very fortunate that the lovely @suek has written another exceptional guest post for us. Sue’s writing ability combined with her willingness to be brave, honest, open, and self-exploratory makes her gold in my book. I think a lot of us will relate to this post. It’s long, but it’s well worth the read.
@suek: Being sober for 1,000 days is a huge achievement for me, but there’s something else that’s happened in the past 1,000 days that’s even more remarkable: for the first time in my life I feel like a reasonably stable adult, not like an insecure terrified child disguised as an adult. I’ve read that consistent drinking—numbing and blotting ourselves out—arrests our emotional development. We stay stuck at the emotional age we were at when we started drinking steadily. I started drinking in earnest in my mid-20s, but I was already emotionally stuck at age 7, and there I stayed, all these years, until now. I’m 54 and I feel like I just grew up.
Sure, I looked like an adult. I was already taking care of my food, clothing and shelter. I had a grown-up job, a car, a marriage, a mortgage, KiwiSaver. But I was not taking care of my emotional shit. No. I was numbing and blotting that out. I was avoiding, denying, blaming and boozing. I had never learned to deal with emotions in any kind of healthy way. I was terrified of them in fact, and did whatever it took not to experience them.
I know I’m grossly oversimplifying this, but for me, growing up emotionally has hinged on three serious projects:
1. Quitting drinking.
2. Facing a few decades of unexpressed anger and rage.
3. Taking 110% responsibility for my own shit. In other words, stop looking to other people, material things, and achievements to make me feel worthwhile.
1. Quitting drinking
I’ve written a lot about my quitting drinking project already, but not so much about the emotional bits. Emotionally, quitting drinking meant I needed to stop blaming other people for why, how much and how often I drank. There were a lot of people to blame: my parents, my grandfather and my entire booze-hound gene pool, my bosses, my colleagues, my friends… pretty much everyone in my bloodlines, anyone who had hurt me, stressed me out, or had been a drinking buddy. I had to own my own problem and face it myself. That was hard. I was quite a seasoned victim, and it was comfortable justifying blotting myself out constantly because of all of those people and what they’d done or hadn’t done to me. It was hard to stand there and look at myself, and say (and believe) “This is nobody else’s fault. You are responsible for you.” But that’s the truth. Sure, this whole booze thing involves other people and genes and upbringing and conditioning. But I’m the one who picks up the glass or not, and I’m the only one who can actually quit.
So I wasn’t just quitting pouring wine down my throat. I was also quitting blaming the whole calamity on other people. That made me feel sad, and vulnerable, and very lonely. And once I stopped believing the constant supply of blame stories, I was starting down the barrel at a huge load anger.
2. Getting angry
We were not allowed to express any negative emotions in our family. It was simply forbidden, and being an obedient child I learned to suppress emotions and smile sweetly while churning and seething inside. I never saw a single tantrum in my family. We were under some kind of iron-fist emotional grip. If an argument broke out between the kids, Mum forced us to kiss each other publicly, say “I love you” and make up. If we sounded grumpy or like we didn’t mean it, we had to keep doing it until we she was satisfied. This creates emotional train wrecks. Because I never truly resolved any issues with anyone, I was completely riddled with anger – with old boyfriends, old friends, old bosses, the Catholic Church, the government… And I didn’t know what to do about it. Until I got really sick one day.
I got hit with a viral infection and stuck in bed for three weeks. In a feverish hallucinatory moment I got the idea for what I call the furnace meditation. I imagined I was sitting next to a furnace with a little door in it. When I opened the door, there was a huge fire raging in there, white hot and endless. I made myself go through my mental filing cabinet and pull out the angry files one by one, read them carefully, decide to forgive and move on, then throw the anger paperwork into the furnace, to burn it up forever. One by one, I dug up the lovers who’d dumped me, the girlfriends who’d betrayed me, the teacher who humiliated me, the colleague who enraged me with his arrogance, the bosses who didn’t respect me, the things my parents said or did to me or neglected to do for me… over several days I trawled through those mental files and put every single one of them in the furnace and watched them burn.
Not surprisingly, some of the events and hurts popped back into my head, and I realised I had multiple angry files on some people, some events. I just kept burning and burning. Every time my mind said “Yeah but they really hurt me when … ” I opened up the furnace door and burned it again. This was very therapeutic. I can now think of many of those things and people, and feel a calm neutrality about them, which is a whole lot healthier than keeping down unprocessed rage. When I do feel rage about anything now, I open up that imaginary furnace door and throw in the paperwork that itemises the injustices, proves I was right, justifies my reaction. It’s just anger, and it’s flammable. I love this idea. It’s a way for me to get over things, forgive and move on. It’s a way for me to deal with my shit.
Removing booze and processing anger made me feel quite a lot more in control of my life. But there was still another not-so-small, pressing issue I needed to deal with.
3. Feeling good enough
I read a blog post over at Sober Mom Writes that shed a bright light on my emotionally stuck habit of looking outside of myself for love, acceptance, validation. None of those things can come from anywhere but inside me. That’s what I mean by taking 100% responsibility for my own shit. Accepting that nobody and nothing else is responsible for my happiness or worthiness. Think about this. It’s big. And it’s not so simple.
There IS one time in life that we’re entitled to glom onto other people to get our self-worth, and that is when we’re babies and children. Emotionally, that is what childhood is all about—finding out you’re real, you’re an individual, your emotions are real and valid, and you’re good enough just because you’ve been born. This is what a normal human being needs to go through to evolve from vulnerable dependent child independent adult.
But many of us did not come out of childhood with this wisdom and maturity. We came out of childhood as emotional wrecks, with addictions, seriously doubting our worth. This is because many of us had parents who had no emotional maturity themselves, so they simply couldn’t give it to us.
If you don’t come out of childhood feeling “good enough”, you’ll likely start trying harder and harder to prove yourself. Or you’ll withdraw. You’ll probably think there’s something really wrong with you, that you’re unlovable. If your parents don’t deliver emotionally, you might try to get your emotional fix from someone or something else. A grandparent, a teacher. A toy or friend. It will be a lifelong quest and you’ll take it with you into your relationships, your career, your old age. Sometimes, for a while, a friend or lover will look at you in the way you need, and you’ll feel happy, fulfilled. Then they’ll reject you and you’ll be utterly devastated. You’ll never feel good enough, you’ll be incredibly sad and/or angry, you won’t have a clue who you are and you’ll be in emotional pain. You’ll likely drink or otherwise medicate to try and ease that pain.
The good news is that inadequate parenting isn’t a life sentence!
As adults, if we’re willing, we can stop this madness in its tracks and find the acceptance, worth and validation we so desperately need right inside ourselves. How?
I suspect for most of us, this will be a lifelong process. For me, it’s been going on for a number of years, pushed along by yoga and meditation and sobriety. In all these things, there are four steps I’m conscious of that apply to taking 100% responsibility for my own shit:
Awareness: I had to see my emotional immaturity for what it is. The grasping, striving, overachieving, blaming, withdrawing, exhaustion, numbing out – all signs of me looking for love and self in all the wrong places. I had to see the truth of that, and realise that I would never get happiness or self worth using those methods. They had to stop.
Acceptance: I had to accept that this was my life so far, and say “so be it”. I had to accept that my parents, for all their charms and popularity, were useless at imparting emotional stability to their children and none of us ever felt OK about ourselves—we felt mostly ashamed and confused. It sucked, and it’s sad, and it completely enrages me (throw that rage certificate in the furnace, quick!), but I accept it as a fact, and I accept that there was nothing I could have done to make it better. Oh, and the hardest bit to accept – my parents probably didn’t do this on purpose. They had their own shit going down.
Attention: I had to start paying attention to what this means in my life now. How am I emotionally immature? What threatens my sense of worth? What flips me out emotionally? Being ignored, not being listened to, not being acknowledged for all my efforts (sigh!), not being cherished. Same stuff that was scrawled over all my anger paperwork in the furnace meditation. Go figure. I need to keep taking 100% responsibility for dealing with this stuff. Pay attention, catch it and burn it.
Intention: This is a hard one to write about. I’m not talking about positive affirmations or fluffy woo woo. No. It’s more like making an intentional turn in my journey, towards a different outcome to the one I’ve always had. It’s a bit like deciding not to drink again. You need to be very intentional about that or it won’t happen. You need to make it a priority or it won’t happen.
So I’ve been intentional about taking responsibility for my emotional maturity and my own happiness. In many ways I’ve just started treating myself as well as I would treat a cherished child. It’s meant becoming considerate to myself, taking the time to know what my preferences actually are (as opposed to operating on perceived expectations). It’s meant taking time to look after my health – yoga, meditation, moisturising, sleep need to be priorities, not something I do if there’s time left over after everyone else’s needs are taken care of. It’s meant changing what I read and consume intellectually, so I get a healthy dose of quality information about personal growth. Most importantly it’s meant turning off the noise, stopping all the woe-is-me stories, reminding myself constantly that nobody else is to blame for anything in my life any more, and learning to Sit Still and Be Quiet.
In that still and quiet, I have learned that this creature, this creation that is me, is GOOD and good enough, just as she is.
Am I fully enlightened and permanently installed on cloud nine? Nope. Life actually looks pretty much the same as ever. But I have a new truth now, and it helps keep me serene and calm: Whatever is going on, whoever pushes my buttons, whatever inflames my rage, I know for a fact that I’m All Good.