Most alcoholics, and I suppose most addicts, are pretty self-centered. I certainly was (and probably still am — but I’m working on it). We spend so much time figuring out when we’re getting our next drink, organizing all social events so we can drink, and eventually, when things start to go off the rails, hiding our drinks and making all sorts of excuses about how we MUST drink in order to be the happy, friendly (wife, friend, mother, coworker) we always thought we were (ha). Everything is about ME and my next drink.
And worse than that is what one of my AA friends calls the Big Baby Syndrome. We meet every set-back, fear, social awkwardness, discomfort of any sort with, you got it, a drink We also drink when we are happy or celebrating. Basically, any emotion is met with a drink. We never learn to feel, we just learn to drink to — and over –our feelings. Like a big baby, when we are at all off balance, we start crying for our bottle.
So when we quit drinking, suddenly our go-to response to any feeling is taken away. We have to sit with our big-baby selves, and feel. I truly think dealing with all these feelings, which for me manifest as crazy-making anxiety, is why it is so damn hard in the first few months of sobriety.
I was greatly helped in those first day by a great technique from the Buddhist tradition for this called RAIN (See Tara Brach’s explanation here). I won’t explain this in the detail the article goes into, but the idea is to sit, for me in meditation, and experience the emotion as a physical sensation, not identified with you — a physical sensation which, like absolutely every other phenomena in life, will move on (notice I just snuck the Buddhist notion of impermanence in there?).
So for me, here’s how it would work. Lets say I was hit by a massive craving. I would try to go sit someplace peaceful (eg., not a bar). Then:
Recognize (R) it (“Oh, that’s a craving alright).
Accept (A) it. One monk I love says, welcome it with open arms. Give it a hug, and say, oh, your poor dear, this craving really hurts. Let me rock it and soothe it like a baby (you would not, I hope, give a baby gin)).
Investigate (I) it — what does it feel like physically (is it a burning in your chest? Your throat? Is your head pounding? To what beat?) DO NOT try to figure it out (this is because I am a worthless drunk with low self-esteem) and DO NOT think of solutions (If I drank, it would go away. One drink wouldn’t be so bad). Pretend it is a feeling that floated over from your next door neighbor — it is HIS craving, and you are just trying to describe it so you can report it as lost.
Then, in most cases, as I scrunched up my eyes and tried to locate the exact place in my chest the flaming ball of fire that is craving was located, the craving would start to pass. I would realize, it is something that I observed, and it is NOT ME (N, non-identification).
This helped me so much in my first months. And here’s the great part for the budding Buddhists out there. This ability to observe and detach from our feelings — without trying to get rid of them is or smother them in alcohol or some other distraction — is the beginning of a serious practice, one in which we open our eyes to what is real versus the smoke screen thrown up by our over-active, ego-driven minds. But that is another post…