FROM “MY NEEDS? WHAT NEEDS?” (PART 3 OF 3)
Toward the beginning of my recovery, I encountered AA’s Seventh Tradition, the one that suggests that Twelve Step groups be “fully self-supporting, declining outside contributions.” I soon learned that Tradition Seven applies to more than financial matters: it means that people who are serious about recovery make “self-supporting” a way of life. At first, this idea seemed to suggest that I should do everything by myself and for myself. (That, I quickly realized, was a recipe for disaster.) Over time, I came to understand that self-supporting simply means TAKING RESPONSIBILITY for Me, Myself and I. It means that getting my needs met is up to me, and it means that my needs aren’t anybody else’s job or obligation. Sometimes I’m capable of meeting my needs quite independently; in those cases, I don’t need help, investment or involvement from anyone else. Other times I can and do need support, soliciting assistance in handling something I can’t otherwise manage alone. In either case, Tradition Seven extends both an invitation and an expectation: it asks me to be proactive about getting my needs met (by whichever means are most appropriate), and it presumes that I will follow through on that mission, keeping the commitments I make to myself and others.
With this post, I’m concluding a three-part series about my needs in early recovery. In Part One (The Question That Changed Everything; facebook.com/SAngleSupport/posts/1529080357351742:0), I explored my basic need to be needy. In Part Two (Let It Begin with Me; facebook.com/SAngleSupport/posts/1531421607117617:0), I addressed ten needs that others met for me, on my behalf, at my first meeting. Here in Part Three, I plan to highlight three imperative NEEDS I HAD TO MEET FOR MYSELF in recovery. They’re lessons I’ve had to learn the hard way, struggles that nobody else could (or should) have shouldered on my behalf. These three challenges stretched me beyond belief. They strengthened me. They “stress-tested” me. They developed my young recovery muscles, through exercise and repetition. These lessons taught me that I could, eventually and ultimately, meet my own needs. They gave me confidence, and they proved my competence. These three lessons laid my foundation, preparing me for anything and everything that came next.
#1: I NEEDED TO FEEL MY FEELINGS—AND TO LEARN THAT I COULD, WITHOUT EXCEPTION, SURVIVE THEM. By the time I reached my first Twelve Step fellowship, I was emotionally overextended (at best; emotionally incapacitated at worst). I was riding that infamous roller coaster, reacting to the ups-and-downs of my husband’s addiction and recovery. Internally, my emotions consumed everything: they knotted my stomach, constricted my lungs, fried my brain and silenced my voice. Externally, my emotions broke down the floodgates, pooling behind my eyes and pouring down my face. I didn’t invite these emotions to take over, any more than I could make them disappear. I remember calling my sponsor from the bathroom at work, saying “THIS FEELS SO AWFUL! Something must be wrong! Recovery’s not supposed to feel like this, is it? Please tell me, before I go crazy: how can I make these feelings STOP?”
My sponsor’s response was unexpected, but it led me to an important cornerstone of my emotional recovery. “Feelings are just feelings,” she quietly stated. “No more. No less. Feelings are important, but feelings aren’t facts. Feelings are powerful, but feelings won’t kill you. Feelings are just feelings, no matter how intense they get.”
Screeching halt. Wait a minute. You mean, these unbearable feelings DON’T indicate a life-or-death emergency? From that day on, I began to explore my feelings with an attitude of safety and security, from a realistic (not reactive) vantage point, one that was neither overwhelming nor too threatening for me to handle. My sponsor didn’t dismiss or shut down my feelings; she didn’t label them as wrong or inappropriate or insignificant. Instead, she encouraged me to experience my feelings within a manageable and measurable framework. She taught me to categorize intense emotions as an experience I would LIVE THROUGH, not one that I could DIE FROM. Pretty soon, I realized that even when it FELT LIKE life was crumbling down around me, THE REALITY WAS, my life was still standing. In actuality, I MYSELF was still standing! And over time, that survival experience provided a powerful message of reassurance: it promised me that I could and would hold up, no matter how intense my emotions got along the way.
#2: I NEEDED TO TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR MY TRIGGERS. Before recovery, I knew what a trigger FELT LIKE, even though I didn’t know what it was CALLED. For the record, here’s a simple definition I use for myself: “Triggers are incidents or environments that push one of my addiction-related buttons.” For me, triggers manifest by highlighting one of these three experiences: (a) pain from the past, (b) anxiety in the present, or (c) fears about the future.
In early recovery, my triggers were countless and constant, and I laid them ALL at my husband’s feet. “Don’t give me reasons to get triggered,” I begged him. “If you don’t get triggered, I won’t get triggered, and both of us will live happily ever after… without triggers.” At that point, my triggers were inextricable from his actions or inaction. For example, if I discovered that my husband had a slip, I responded to his trigger by getting triggered myself (translate: pain from the past). If my husband seemed withdrawn or preoccupied, I worried that he was triggered, so I climbed aboard the trigger train, too (translate: anxiety in the present). If my husband missed one of his regular meetings, I presumed that his triggers would be greater than normal, which exponentially multiplied my own triggers (translate: fears about the future). It’s fair to say that my early recovery was TYRANNIZED by these powerful triggers, entirely at the mercy of whatever my husband did (or didn’t) do.
So, how did I escape from the torture and tyranny of Triggerdom? The answer is simple, but it’s definitely not easy: First, I stopped blaming my husband for causing my triggers, and I stopped expecting him to reduce them, relieve them or rescue me from them. (I did ask him to respect my triggers, but that’s another post altogether.) Second, I began to manage my own triggers, tending to whatever emotions flared up in response. Triggers continued to present themselves; that’s par for the course in partners’ recovery. But over time, I began to conduct mini “interventions” for myself, taking steps to ease my discomfort in the immediate wake of the trigger itself. I learned to ask myself questions like, “What would feel BETTER, here and now, in this specific moment? Must I stay in this place? With this person? Watching this movie? Can I go somewhere else? Do something else? Talk to someone else? Can I leave this room? Change this channel? Discard this magazine? Can I cancel that reservation? Decline that invitation? Avoid that environment? Can I excuse myself from that meeting? From that conversation? From that activity? Can I say no without explanation? Or can I say yes, with qualifying conditions? What will feed my soul when I feel like I’m starving? How can I soothe my loneliness, when everyone I love is unavailable?”
As I began to ask and answer these questions for myself, I realized that I AM NEVER TRAPPED INTO A TRIGGER from which I cannot escape. There is no twinge that cannot be tended. There is no panic that cannot be pacified. Hear me when I say this, loudly and proudly: IT IS INCREDIBLY LIBERATING to take control of my own triggers. This is so important, it’s worth saying twice: IT IS EXCEPTIONALLY FREEING to stop expecting others to remove my anxiety. Realistically, I can’t protect myself from getting triggered in the first place; triggers are an unavoidable part of life in relationship with a recovering addict. But just as realistically, I can protect myself from relying on someone else to fix my triggers when they occur. And ultimately, that’s an awesome form of independence and empowerment.
#3: I NEEDED TO HIT MY OWN BOTTOM. Before recovery, I thought I understood the concept of “hitting bottom.” At the very least, I’d watched it happen to addicts on television. Wasn’t “hitting bottom” the point where addicts lost their grip on everything that mattered, when life no longer felt worth living?
As I settled into my Twelve Step meetings, I met lots of “normies” (non-addicts) whose loved ones were addicted to lust and sex. Some of these women shared life with addicts who “hit bottom” in acutely painful and public ways: getting and transmitting sexual diseases, fathering children with friends or mistresses, being arrested or imprisoned for sex crimes, watching reports of their infidelity broadcast on the local news. Some of these women remained with their loved ones, healing together as a family through the worst of the worst. Others walked away from addicts they’d loved for decades, choosing instead to heal independently, seeking an entirely autonomous fresh start. Beginning recovery in THIS environment caused me to gulp on multiple occasions, and it definitely made me reconsider everything I thought I knew about “hitting bottom.”
But here’s the point of this whole section: As the partner of a recovering sex addict, I needed to hit MY OWN bottom. I needed to STOP banging my head against a concrete wall, one emblazoned with slogans like “Please be honest,” and “Just say no!” I needed to stop bruising my hands black-and-blue, trying to squeeze water from a granite rock, one inscribed with seductive phrases like “I wish you would,” and “If only you could.” And just as addicts need to get desperate for recovery, willing to do anything it takes to get sober, that’s precisely what I needed, too: I needed to get desperate for my own recovery, willing to do anything it took to change the way I was living.
My “hitting bottom” story could fill a library, but I’ll spare you the gory details and get straight to the crux of it: After a few years of FORCING my marriage (unsuccessfully) to become what I wanted, I finally released my iron grip (no joke; I’m dead serious about that one) and whispered these words to my Higher Power:
“Okay. You win. I’m done. I give up. I’m willing to stop trying to fix this marriage, my-way-or-no-way, against prevailing odds. I’m scared to death about you-know-who-knows-what-comes-next, but I’m going to let go and let you take over. I’ll accept whatever marriage you have in mind for me, not the one I’ve been fighting to make happen. I’m even willing to leave this marriage, (God, this is killing me), if that’s the ultimate solution to this mess we’ve created. In the meantime, I’m a wreck. I’m broken. I’m exhausted. And I really, really, really don’t know what to do.”
With that prayer to God, I confronted my deepest fears about the war I’d been waging: I faced my dread that somehow, despite my best efforts, I could end up with another divorce on my record, withering at the end of a second failed marriage.
That was my bottom. Yes, it was awful. And no, I honestly DIDN’T know what would happen next.
Years later, as I look back on that day, I’m choking back tears all over again. I pause for a moment to honor the guts I poured into those whispered words, the vulnerability I scraped from the deepest part of my little-girl soul.
That night, I cried because I thought my marriage was over. Tonight, I’m crying because it wasn’t.
IN CONCLUSION: I’m sitting outside in my garden right now, on the eve of my nine-year recovery birthday. I’m feeling more emotional than usual tonight, as memories from the past decade hover around the glow of my laptop. It feels good to write about recovery on this occasion, wrapped within the comfort of hindsight and reflection. Here in the dark, amidst this chorus of crickets, I realize that I’m waiting for the clock to strike midnight. This may sound silly, but I want to be the first person to wish me “Happy Birthday.” It might not seem like a big deal to anyone else, but I WANT that meaningful moment to remember, just between Me, Myself and I.
Because, after all, who else really understands what it took to get here?
GAELYN RAE EMERSON
©2015–2019 | All Rights Reserved
BACK TO ME, MYSELF and I was written by Gaelyn Rae Emerson in 2015. It was originally written for Sisters of Sobriety and Serenity, a social media blog for recovering women, with special thanks to its creator, Katie Maslin. Republished by Women Ever After, with minor biographical edits pending.
For more writings by Gaelyn Rae Emerson, click here or email firstname.lastname@example.org.