Monday, April 20, 2009

Nothing More Than Feelings

Day 105

Early in my crazy-person career, I visited my college's medical center because I was so depressed I wanted to kill myself. This was a problem.

I was grabbing life by the throat. I got out of bed most days at sunrise and jogged. Then came the black vinyl planner, filled with lists. Lists of things to do and people to call, lists of goals and mission statements, lists of errands, lists of lists. I had been ad-libbing for too long, and was determined to eradicate every piece of procrastination from my life. If it could be organized and prioritized I filed it neatly into my white rectangular Ikea shelves. Everything else was put on a list. After sitting at a white rectangular Ikea desk, I sat at a piano, by myself, for hours. Then I set my alarm clock and napped. The second part of my day was filled with rehearsals and classes and work. Piano students paraded in and out my door.

My first therapist was prematurely balding, gentle, and had a self-deprecating sense of humor. In a particularly illuminating session, he told me this: I was trying to put all my ducks in a row so that I could avoid emotions. He was right. I had a list of approved emotions: sadness (in proper amounts), excitement (on Christmas morning), and compassion (for poor people.) Everything else was to be avoided, if at all possible. At that point, I believed that if I were organized enough, I could avoid the shame and embarrassment of ever being unprepared. With enough work, anger, disappointment, regret, anxiety - all of these were avoidable.

As you may know, this is not how life works. So I radically altered my approach and began to experience real life. I'm proud of me, and the progress I've made. But old habits die hard, and to my surprise I recently found myself sitting in the same therapy session with a different counselor, more than fifteen years after the first. This time I'm an addict. And instead of working a black vinyl notebook planner, I'm working a program of recovery based on the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. And somehow, I got the idea in my brain that if I work hard enough I can avoid certain emotions. Not the normal ones – I've accepted those of course – but the messy and unsightly ones, like despair and rage. So I cried as told of a night when I had crashed emotionally, tears of frustration and shame at my lack of progress. Shouldn't I be past this by now? I wanted to know. Does feeling this bad mean I'm not working hard enough?

I learned that this is what matters: When I was feeling shitty I didn't act out sexually. No porn. No illicit conversations or emotional affairs. I didn't put chemicals into my body to numb the pain. Instead I went to sleep. We talked about other options: call a program friend, read something helpful, journal, pray, take a walk. Even the lazy stuff is better than relapsing: sleep, eat, watch TV. None of these is harmful in moderation. What's important for me to remember is that I don't have to solve the problem immediately. I don't have to fix the emotion. And let's face it, when all I can think about is suicide, I'm probably not in a real constructive place anyway.

In review:
1) seemingly unsolvable situation leads to outrageous emotion
2) feel emotion = OK
3) relapse because of emotion = not OK
4) immediately analyze and solve problem = not necessary
5) immediately purge and eliminate emotion = not necessary (or possible)
6) bide time in constructive (or possibly not so constructive) manner
7) revisit situation when thinking clearly
8) gratefully continue sober life

Works for me.

[Photo by Cayusa under C.C.License]


  1. Great post Eli! Isn't it amazing that we always seem to resort to "if I can only work harder..." I can avoid feeling, I can avoid having anything out of control, I can avoid...whatever.

    I so know that one!

  2. I don't run my life with lists anymore and it feels really good.

  3. This spoke to me..I'm a list maker extraordinaire. The more messed up my life, the more compartmentalized I made it. Funny, I can gauge my contentment on the number of lists I have going on. Thanks for an insightful post.

  4. I do list's and then dont do list's like everything in my life I am inconsistent... it makes me nuts...

    I always thought if I worked harder, did better i could make anybody love me,,, it began in childhood and finally 40 years later I get that it does not work that way.

  5. Hi Eli

    I have given you a blog award --

    Mary LA

  6. Eli, I have something for you over at my blog...