I Don’t Always Feel Relief After a 12-Step Meeting

August 15, 2019 Kristance Harlow
scrabble tiles of lifelong learning

I can’t seem to figure it out, the sinking feeling in my gut, the feeling that I am too visible, too likely to be ogled and leered at by some man old enough to be my father. What the actual hell is this feeling in my gut? I call it a homesick feeling. Maybe it is something else entirely, but it makes me want to cloak myself in a protective layer, strip myself of sexuality and erase the sexualized parts of myself. I feel a deep shame and am overcome with a sorrowful lonesomeness as if a hole has cracked into existence and swallowed me whole. I feel stripped naked: Too visible. Too human. Too vulnerable.

It happens almost every time, at almost every 12-step meeting. I want to disappear. There is a black hole in my gut, a homesick longing that begs me to give in, and I would, if I knew what it wanted. I fear it wants to swallow me whole.

An Emptiness Inside Me

I don’t always feel better after attending a recovery group meeting; sometimes at the end I feel worse than I did before I got there. I don’t share the experience of always feeling supported and comfortable that seems to echo through the rooms. At nearly every 12-step meeting, someone invariably says, “When I walk into the rooms, I feel immediately at ease and at home.”

Well, I don’t.

There are times when the entire affair goes swimmingly. I’ll laugh and relate and feel at ease. I will connect to other people’s shares and fully articulate my own. It will all be very nice and fun. It will feel really good, on all fronts. Then, as soon as I leave, a pit in my stomach opens and I can feel myself falling in. Other times the aching lonesomeness begins as soon as I step inside the room.

Dangerous Adaptability

I survived my life because I could change according to outside circumstances. It has always felt dangerous to do anything other than adapt. For much of my life, it was dangerous.

From my adaptations have sprung multiple versions of me. Other people are privy to the Light-Hearted Jokester and the Loud and In Charge Diplomat. Being honest when sharing about my experience with addiction and recovery means another part of myself might become visible. I have spent a lot of time with Depressed Me and revealing her is scary. The Quiet One fears she makes people uncomfortable with her silence. She’s acutely aware that she is not the Jokester and doesn’t want to be noticed and doesn’t want to slip into Depression in public.

My defenses are up in spaces where I’m allowing unvetted people to know something real about my life. I begin to feel unworthy and not good enough: proof that my worst enemy is my own mind. My instinct tells me: Don’t reach out for a while. Don’t be early for the meeting tonight, go late to avoid chitchat and leave early. My brain fills with excuses to avoid discussions and socializing.

Getting to know me means you may grow to understand who I am in all my contradictions, which will make it harder for me to adapt. I know that facilitating communication between all of myself is necessary for healing. But the truth is, sometimes it’s really difficult. It’s difficult to be seen, to be open. Yet each time I attend a meeting, that is exactly what I’m doing. I’m expressing myself with complete honesty. I am trusting the process, despite my fear and discomfort.

I can no longer neglect the parts I’ve long tried to keep hidden. Together we must heal. Together is the only way we can heal.

Playing the Long Game in Recovery

Why would someone continue to go to something that they don’t always like and don’t feel immediate relief from? I’m playing the long game. Seeking immediate relief is what I did in active alcoholism. In recovery, I’m learning to resist that behavior.

Over time I have seen the subtle and dramatic improvements in my mental wellbeing and quality of life. I can see the changes in my life outside of those meetings. The people around me notice my rediscovered joy, my grounded perspective, my newly formed boundaries. I go to the meetings because it’s part of a treatment plan that works for me. It’s a commitment I made to myself. A commitment to heal from trauma, because I deserve to experience a better life than I once lived.

I feel inspired by the possibility that if I keep trying, the healing work will be able to fill the hole that is always there; the emptiness which has eternally been ebbing and flowing in strength, making me happy and fearful in turn. I’m aiming for a stable emotional baseline.

It’s not going to happen overnight, but it is happening over time. The inspiration itself comforts the sorrow.

Progress Not Perfection

When I first got sober, I was in a very dark place. I was trapped in my own head and despite having survived everything, I couldn’t feel safe. I could only feel the pain from the past. I thought I was alone. I believed I was too broken, too sick, too lost. Finding anyone else who could truly understand what I was going through seemed out of the question. I didn’t think I was unique or special in my pain, I just believed I was hopeless.

Then I found a therapist, a psychiatrist, and 12-step meetings. All of which worked in tandem to lead me from the darkness.

Today I’m not feeling that despair or sorrow. I feel content more often than I feel abject depression. I used to cry every single day and now I laugh every day. I used to swing from one overwhelming emotion to another, with no control over where my mind was taking me.

Climbing out is an ongoing effort, but what kept me down—one of many things—was that I expected myself to be just be “better.” I thought I had to be different than I was. I now accept that this is hard work, but the results keep me doing it. It isn’t supposed to always be easy. I have to continually work on dismantling the defensive walls that have become maladaptive in their formations.

So, I let myself be, I take breaks to enjoy the view that is coming into perspective as the stones of my fortifications are disassembled. Sometimes I get scared, and put back a stone that was particularly heavy, afraid to lose such a significant tool of protection. That’s okay, too. I try not to judge myself. It’s a journey of progress, not perfection.

Published first on The Fix.

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