I don't want to feel any discomfort ever.
None of us would want to admit to that extreme view, and yet, when we are upset, this thought hovers. When things feel bad, we want out, and fast. It feels like more than you can bear. My mother is sick with cancer, my company is downsizing, I didn't get the contract, my husband wants a divorce, my child has diabetes. You see that wave coming: You panic, then start to run the other way as though you can avert a disaster. If you let yourself feel the wave at all, you think it will knock you down. But what are you really running from?
-- Tamar E. Chansky, from WHY WE FEAR FEELINGS AND WANT TO MAKE THEM STOP
I write about Italy and Surdyk's and grad school a lot on this blog, and of course the common denominator is booze. But it's not just booze; it's also the fear of feelings, being feeling phobic. Caroline Knapp talks about this brilliantly. Along with the various antidotes she found to experiencing feelings (new party shoes when she was young, alcohol when she was older, cigarettes in sobriety) she writes about our need to find an external solution to every internal sensation. I relate to this search for an external solution to whatever ails internally. But I had a different experience of feeling feelings, at least initially. I wasn't always terrified of feelings. When I was young I used to indulge in feelings. I let my imagination run wild, trying to find the most horrifying or romantic or fatalistic or devastating thought or scenario, and I'd dwell in this idea, letting the resulting emotions pour through me. I loved talking about dramatic fates and extreme conditions with close friends and family. I loved the intensity that came from ruminating on life, death, specifically causes of death, and what might happen in a person's mind, driving them to various acts, heroic and destructive. I didn't know I loved doing this, or even that I was doing this, but in hindsight, I see I clearly liked to agitate and arouse my emotional state. And I always, or almost always, felt in control of this process. The year I spent studying abroad, something changed, however. I no longer felt in control of managing my feelings or internal state. This was the first time I was really cognizant of the power that feelings hold. And because of this, I became somewhat concerned that my feelings were dangerous, capable of distressing me, even doing me harm. I'm not sure if my feelings suddenly became stronger at this time (age 19/20) or if my external resources for dealing with feelings made them feel oceanic, or if some basic internal mechanism for tolerating and/or processing feelings simply gave out, or if my increasing alcohol use made feelings feel disproportionately large and strange and in need of numbing -- I just know at this time I was no longer able to handle things in the same reliable, stable way. An uncomfortable feeling would crop up and I would scan my mind looking for a code: how to stop this feeling in its tracks.
I remember near the end of my time abroad, a friend from Minnesota was coming to visit. He was a good friend, someone I'd known for a couple of years, which wasn't a long time, but with whom I'd exchanged many meaningful conversations, thoughts, hopes, ideas. He was coming with his girlfriend and while I was excited to have friends visit and see familiar faces, I was also extremely nervous. I didn't want anyone, never mind an old friend, to see me in this vulnerable, compromised state. I thought: they'll see right away that I'm not doing well, that I've become socially awkward and a little erratic and simply strange--and I don't want to appear that way. I was rational or steady enough to know I was unwell, and it was embarrassing. On the day they arrived, I went to meet them at their hotel. I put on make up, shook off my misgivings about everything (I probably did a physical shake), and headed out the door. We planned to go to a park and take in the sights of the city, so I stopped at a corner market and picked up a bottle of wine for us to share, along with two beers. I decided I better help myself loosen up before seeing them. I hadn't experienced social anxiety before, so I didn't know what this feeling was, but in hindsight, it was definitely social anxiety, and not the normal brand every human being feels, but the kind that's generated and cultivated by months of virtual isolation, along with months of leaning on alcohol to feel comfortable.
I walked down the main thoroughfare which was humming with cars, vespas, and human traffic, and I cracked open one of the Moretti beers. I laughed to myself as I did this, a dark laugh, and I thought: This is not the kind of thing I would've predicted myself doing. But the situation, my mental situation, dictated such an action. It wasn't like I felt fine and thought, wouldn't it be naughty or counterculture to drink alone as I walk along a street in Italy? No. I felt like hell and the beer made me feel like everything was going to be OK. At least temporarily. I finished the first one and got to their hotel. I contemplated slamming the second, but there seemed to be no point as I was feeling buzzed and there was the bottle of wine for us to drink.
Inside their room I started talking a mile a minute. I was aware of this, but couldn't seem to get a hold of myself. It was nervous chatter. I was overcompensating. Trying to show them that I was as sane and fun and irreverent as ever! They both looked at me a little skeptically, but it didn't really bother me. I'll win them back later, I thought. Plus, the girlfriend was looking at me from under the covers of the hotel bed, where she'd ostensibly planted herself since they arrived. Apparently she had her own issues with moods and/or anxiety. After an hour of chatter we got ourselves together and headed for the park. By now we'd hit our social stride and I began to feel comfortable; comfortable enough that I forgot about my previous obsessions with being intoxicated. We stopped by a formaggeria and picked up a couple pieces of cheese wrapped in butcher paper and wandered to a park to sit down and enjoy our snacks. I poured the wine into tiny plastic cups and we cut pieces off the blocks of cheese and talked about Minnesota and traveling and the University and such. When the wine started to get low everyone got a little nervous. Should we pick up another bottle? Should we go to a bar? I would've happily done either, but they seemed conflicted about staying out late as it was their first night and they wanted a full day tomorrow. No problem I said, you guys finish the wine and I'll drink this beer. I removed the second beer from my messenger bag, opened it, and took a sip. They said nothing for a moment and then began laughing. Do you always carry beer in your school bag? they asked. I've had it in here since last weekend, I said. I brought a few beers to a party and this one's been rolling around in my bag ever since! The lie came out so easily, so effortlessly. It could have been true. They accepted this story willingly and we resumed our polite revelry for another hour until it was time to bid each other goodnight. I walked them to their hotel and ambled home to my apartment. I considered buying a bottle of wine or something, but felt a little uneasy about my behavior that evening and decided against it.
This kind of thing didn't happen a lot, but once was enough to make me stop and take notice. You can't do something like that and not wonder if perhaps you're teetering, if perhaps you're not just walking the line but actually stepping over it into that new territory: the territory of someone with a problem.
I still had two months left in Italy at this point and by the end of the year I knew I was in trouble.
When I came back I moved into my old bedroom in my parents' house. It was the middle of summer and all my friends had their own apartments, with leases that lasted until August. The first two weeks back I didn't have a job, or a real desire to see people. I wasn't sure what to do with myself. I was twenty years old. Night would come and I'd be standing in my parents' kitchen, the clock on the microwave glowing eleven p.m. My parents would be asleep upstairs in their bedroom. My older sister would be miles away, at her apartment in Uptown. My younger sister out with friends. My own friends were either home in Wisconsin or Illinois, or in the city and available, but I'd decided things were different now. I'd be standing there, in a familiar place that felt unfamiliar, with thoughts that felt unbidden and unstoppable. And I'd reach up into the wine cabinet and pull down a bottle. I'd twist the cork, easing it out without too loud of thwuk! and pour myself a big, full glass of Malbec or Petit Saint-Joseph or Syrah, depending on my desire (an alcoholic wouldn't care about such distinctions I assured myself). Then I'd take the glass in hand and lift it to my lips. There. Whatever had been going on in my mind just moments ago, whatever memories, or fears, or questions had been brimming or roiling--of these there wasn't a trace of evidence, not even a shadow. Just holding the glass--before I'd even taken a sip--I felt lighter, freer, less burdened. I felt equipped to deal with things. I felt my feelings contract into manageable, understandable entities. Life was back in perspective. Everything was fine. All I'd needed was this little elixir.
As much as I knew I was doing this--drinking to deal--I didn't know. I truly didn't. Knapp says: you know and you don't know, you know and you won't know. When I did seem to know, I'd tell myself: this is temporary. You've had a long, difficult, lonely year away and no one understands what you've been through, what you're going through, and you need a little relief. And that was the feeling: need. Drinking to dull my feelings was not an optional method of dealing, certainly not as optional as I pretended. I felt one way (crappy, conflicted, a little terrified) and after drinking I felt another way (released, untroubled, capable of experiencing happiness--specifically, unquestioned or unqualified happiness). When I was sober and happiness came upon me, I immediately started to worry after it: how long would it stay? When would it leave? What price had it come at? But happiness experienced in an altered state felt easier, less contingent. It was as if I unconsciously gave myself permission to experience, bask even, in this feeling--without distress over its fleeing or its accuracy or whether every human being was happy at this very moment, too. I'd be in a bar sitting next to a friend, or in a group, and I'd go to the restroom, and while washing my hands I'd look in the mirror--and I'd just smile, or laugh. I couldn't help it. I felt good. In this state things were just easier, simpler, happier. Life was something I could not only handle, but I could enjoy.
It's the great paradox of drinking. You need it to deal with the very feelings it works to create. Problem drinking makes your ability to experience feelings dwindle, and eventually becomes your only--or at least surest, quickest, most trusted--way of dealing with the feelings life inevitably brings forth. To let go of that balm, to resist employing it in a moment of terror or sadness or celebration or anything--"that is the task, that is the hard thing." I know I wasn't sure if it would be possible. Could I really survive my feelings? I simply wasn't sure. Of course I am not the only one who has tried to relearn (or for some of us, learn for the very first time) how to experience a feeling, a sensation, a thought; how to accept it as it is, and for what it is. Some people believe feelings are information. Sometimes that information is upsetting, disappointing, maddening, perhaps nearly intolerable. But drinking doesn't make any of that information go away. In fact, it scrambles the information into something less readable or intelligible, less possible to engage with and handle. Drinking in this way doesn't lead you out; it leads you deeper into the morass. But how to see it as such? When you're in it it's so hard to see. You're so used to instant gratification that delaying a good feeling or walking through a bad one feels absolutely unacceptable. Perhaps that's why it often takes a disaster to push someone into sober living. Yet not everyone needs a disaster. Sometimes it takes hearing something, reading a book, seeing a movie, happening upon something that makes you wise up and see your drinking for what it is. Sometimes it takes a random thought in the middle of the day or early in the day or late at night; a thought like: I don't like who I am anymore, or I can't do this to my loved ones for a second longer, or simply, things could be better. You might not truly believe it's possible, but you hope so. Suddenly you decide to accept that you won't know what's going to happen and you don't have to know. All you know is you are going to try to live life on life's terms. And with that hope you take your first step into the unknown.
"You can't stop the waves but you can learn to surf." Jack Kornfield