How to Cope With Being a Hot Mess in Long-Term Recovery
“For a seed to achieve its greatest expression, it must come completely undone. The shell cracks, its insides come out and everything changes. To someone who doesn’t understand growth, it would look like complete destruction.” ~ Cynthia Occelli
To think of recovery as linear – a continuum of getting better and better – is misguided at best. Recovery is messy as hell. It is a series of becoming undone, reforming, and blooming – again and again. Anyone who tells you it’s plain sailing once you get sober, or that your inner turmoil is a reflection of your broken spiritual state, is entirely misguided.
I just turned six years sober and have never felt so broken and undone in my entire recovery journey so far. No amount of spiritual work is touching the surface, only easing the pain and my relationship to it.
Over the past few months, I have experienced such strong emotions that they overwhelmed me to the point I don’t recognize myself. Those emotions dominate my entire being and I’ve lost all semblance of control. They’re bubbling away beneath the surface and ready to spill out at the slightest trigger. Someone tells me, everything is going to be okay is enough to tip me over the edge into a blubbering mess.
“But I’m six years sober, I should’ve got it together by now,” I tell myself.
The reality is that six years means nothing. What is a more appropriate question of your recovery is: how deep are you willing to delve into the stuff that is so deeply protected? This place houses your darkest memories: your trauma.
In his book The Body Says No, Gabor Mate explains:
“Emotional competence requires the capacity to feel our emotions, so that we are aware when we are experiencing stress; the ability to express our emotions effectively and thereby to assert our needs and to maintain the integrity of our emotional boundaries; the facility to distinguish between psychological reactions that are pertinent to the present situation and those that represent residue from the past.
What we want and demand from the world needs to conform to our present needs, not to unconscious, unsatisfied needs from childhood. If distinctions between past and present blur, we will perceive loss or the threat of loss where none exists; and the awareness of those genuine needs that do require satisfaction, rather than their repression for the sake of gaining the acceptance or approval of others. Stress occurs in the absence of these criteria, and it leads to the disruption of homeostasis. Chronic disruption results in ill health.”
My Body is Telling Me Something…
Moving to America last year and restarting my life was such a catastrophically stressful event that it triggered a stress response in my body resulting in chronic illness throughout the last year. At first, I just thought I had colds or that I was just adjusting. But as I’ve continued to get sicker and sicker – suffering with chronic fatigue, testing positive for autoimmune conditions, hair falling out, and being diagnosed with adrenal fatigue as my adrenals fail to produce sufficient cortisol because they’re burned out – I had to take note.
As I began to work with a doctor and a therapist, I realized what Mate says is true: I have unsatisfied needs from childhood, I have repressed much of my trauma, and I am unable to effectively deal with stress and self-regulate. My body giving me no choice but to take note.
After years of emotional and spiritual work, learning that I have deeply repressed emotions causing me to be sick – potentially leading to even more debilitating conditions – was like being smacked in the face. I faced a paradox: I could regulate enough to stay sober for six years – journaling, yoga, exercise, eating well, community, living in my passion, good friends – yet I jump if a door slams, and I still seek love and attention from people who are unable to meet those needs.
Stumped and beaten down, I’ve spent much of the last few months crying (I’ve become particularly great at cry-cycling), working with a naturopath, rebuilding my adrenals, reducing my stress response, doing as many restorative activities as possible, and having in-depth psychotherapy. “I feel so bloody broken. I’m falling apart,” I’ve exclaimed, sobbing, in my therapy sessions.
The Emotional Baggage of Our Pasts Inevitably Catch Up
My therapist asked me what it would feel like to allow myself to be broken. After I’d finished pulling a face, I was flummoxed. I was so good (or at least I thought I was) at presenting a façade of togetherness that the suggestion of doing otherwise appeared as not only a weakness, but an entirely foreign concept. I’ve always had to just get on with it my entire life; anything less wasn’t an option. Mate says:
“The core belief in having to be strong enough, characteristic of many people who develop chronic illness, is a defence. The child who perceives that her parents cannot support her emotionally had better develop an attitude of “I can handle everything myself.” Otherwise, she may feel rejected. One way not to feel rejected is never to ask for help, never to admit “weakness” – to believe that I am strong enough to withstand all my vicissitudes alone.”
The reality is that my togetherness was motivated by feeling that’s what I had to do – that there was no reason to dwell on things – and because I didn’t know there was another option. This is even true of my recovery. When I first got sober, I did so in a 12-Step program and I threw myself into the step work. I didn’t see the point in revisiting my childhood, I just focused on my addiction. What was the point in revisiting something I could do nothing about?
While that helped to some extent, it never got to the root of my problems. I know this method of recovery doesn’t purport to help with unresolved traumas – nor should it – but the reality is it leaves a whole cohort of people to continue in their recovery with the emotional baggage of their past. Inevitably it will catch up with you. It has with me.
The Link Between Childhood Trauma and Addiction
In addition to Mate’s work, many studies have shown an established link between trauma (adverse childhood experiences) and addiction. Untreated or prolonged and repeated trauma can change the architecture of the brain – especially in children – altering the gene expression that controls stress and triggering an inflammatory response in the body, leading to a cascade of physical and emotional dysregulation. This profound effect on the body can lead to chronic autoimmune diseases, cancer, and addiction.
The leading study on trauma is the Adverse Childhood Experience Study (The ACE Study), conducted by Dr. Vincent Felitti and Dr Robert Anda. The study measured the relationship between severe childhood stress and all types of addictions. The findings established a clear scientific link between many types of childhood adversity and the adult onset of physical disease and mental disorders. In particular, a child with four or more ACEs is five times more likely to develop substance use disorder and is 60 percent more likely to become obese; and a boy with four or more ACEs is 46 times more likely to become an IV drug user in later life.
This information explained to me why I am wired the way that I am.
While recovery is entirely possible, and it has been for many of us who have experienced ACEs, it begs the question how many of us have effectively processed our pasts? And, in the meantime, how are we coping with regulating our emotions in recovery?
I support this process through mindfulness mediation groups, restorative yoga, tai chi and Kung Fu, cycling, walking, eating whole food balanced meals, drinking lots of water, getting adequate rest, cutting out drama and unhealthy relationships, scaling back my commitments, and focusing entirely on me and my healing. And, most importantly, allowing myself to be completely undone and embracing that I am a hot mess.
That is how I’ll achieve my greatest expression.
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