When I got sober, I knew I would need to learn how to regulate my emotions, how to cope in new and hopefully healthier ways. I didn’t know how or if I would be successful, and I suppose I still don’t, as success can only truly be measured by the day.
What I didn’t piece together quite so easily was the correlation between emotional regulation and emotional maturity. Regulation is an essential skill for which I missed the lesson as a child. So now, in adulthood, I have to re-parent myself.
It is a dark moment when you look back on your past pre-sobriety and experience the guilt, shame and regret of retrospect. It is another level of mortifying when you recognize how altogether childish you have been your entire adulthood, intoxicated or not. The real work of sobriety began for me when this truth settled in.
Sobriety can be a real mindfuck. The metamorphosis of mindset, self-belief and spiritual outlook is disorienting on the best of days. As my awareness of self increased, I began to mend the parts of myself that were at war with each other.
A central principle of recovery addresses healing a fragmented sense of the self. For me, this required taking a brutally honest inventory of the worst, most abusive behaviours and characteristics of myself. And importantly, recognizing that they coexist with my most morally upstanding and benevolent sensibilities.
This merging of dark and light aspects of self made room for forgiveness, and eventually I started to feel real love for myself. From there, I developed a practice that merged two previously opposing approaches to self-management: discipline and compassion.
In the past, I only used discipline to punish myself after a black out, to show up for a job I loathed, or push myself at the gym after a binge. I never associated it with love, joy or gratitude. I disdained anything that required discipline.
Compassion was for others. I offered it in heaping amounts, encouraging loved ones and clients to be kind to themselves, and offering my time, energy and resources to provide support beyond my limits.
When I began to see discipline and compassion as parts of a whole, my self-image shifted and self-care became less about indulgence and more about routine. I used to get my hair done, binge on food and drink, and lie on the couch watching shows when I started to burn out. Indulgence was how I understood rest and reward. Somewhere between mindfulness meditations I recognized that I didn’t feel any better after these episodes.
When you have spent your life intellectualizing your feelings as I have, it is very challenging to discern when going to the gym is punishment or self-care. Chronic fatigue from endometriosis and a history of disordered eating complicated this considerably. Listening to my body while trying to practice self-discipline for self-care left me constantly decoding mixed messages.
Intuition can be a frightening thing when you live in your head. The most helpful strategy I have learned is to ask myself two clarifying questions:
What would someone who loves themself do?
Which option offers me expansion?
A tarot reader at the CNE this past summer gave me an invaluable piece of advice along these lines: go with the first answer that comes to your mind. Anything after that is your brain overcompensating.
Sobriety is an on-going exercise in navigating the space between the head and the heart. I understand the spirit to connect the head and the
heart, and to represent the intuitive impulse. I expect that is part of the reason recovery models often draw upon a connection to spirituality.
Once I could practice compassion and discipline simultaneously, sobriety became more intuitive. What I have learned about life, about adulthood and about myself on my sobriety journey is that there are no gifts without trials, and no trials without gifts. Opportunities to experience love, joy and abundance may always heed lessons in anger, depression and emptiness. And bravely facing the emptiness will eventually give way to lightness, and bring opportunities for connection. Fortunately or unfortunately, there is a grounded feeling that comes with accepting this truth.