Nothing more than feelings

Conspire alum Lauren Johnson continues her series on incarceration, recovery and life in general.

At one point during my addiction I became aware that I don’t like to feel emotions that are unpleasant. Nothing surprising about that I guess. I mean who really does? I was aware that doing meth, in combination with my crossword and scratch off bingo lottery tickets, was a way for me to avoid feeling those things. I vividly remember a summer after a very difficult break up. For months shortly after I woke up in the morning (I did usually sleep, just not more than a few hours), I would start a book of crossword puzzles that I would finish later that day. Some people were amazed at this. I simply told them what I had figured out – that if I am solving a crossword puzzle, it is almost impossible to think about anything else.

In treatment, we were exploring the subject of feelings and I mentioned this. I had an AHA moment that one of my “thinking errors” as we called them, was not wanting to feel or deal with anything unpleasant. There was a neater term that we used for that, but I don’t recall what it was. Point being that feeling sad, or mad, or angry, are things that a lot of people often try to avoid.

We spoke about fear. In the beginning of the discussion the participants talked about how fear was bad. The general consensus in the room was that it is not good to be scared.  We were in a prison setting so admitting fear may just be unnatural for that environment. The facilitators began to bring up instances when fear is the instinct that keeps you alive. It warns us to help us stay unharmed. Fear of touching a fire keeps us from getting burned. Therefore fear is not inherently bad. WOW! What a profound thought. That “negative” emotions weren’t bad. Just something that everyone experiences.

The facilitator said something else that day that struck me as profound. Many of us fall victim to one thing or another. Have a difficult time at some point in our journey. Often people will ask the question “Why Me?!” To which she replied, WHY NOT YOU?! What makes you so special that you shouldn’t have to endure some hard times in your life? Why not you, when there are people around this world who have an enormously difficult life compared to you? Every day people suffer. Lose loved ones, lose possesions, don’t eat, etc.

I got to really absorb that. I thought about how even in prison, we had a lot of luxuries that millions of people around the world, do not have. Millions of people that did not committ crimes don’t get three meals a day and a fresh pair of clothes to wear.

I had the realization that actually feeling things that feel uncomfortable, or even “bad” is a part of life. It is something that is natural, and meant to be. Realizing it helped me change my perspective about the way I deal with situations. It also has an impact on how I advise people who come to me for help. I often tell people to feel it. Give a certain amount of time to feel the yucky feelings and experience it as much as you can bear and then some. The only way out is to go through it. Not sure where I heard that sentence but it is truly significant.

I remember a story that I believe illustrates that point. An anecdote of a caterpillar struggling in its cacoon. Someone happens upon it and notices its struggle. Not wanting to see the poor caterpillar go through such a tough time the person surgically frees the caterpillar from the cacoon. The problem of course being, that it is necessary for the caterpillar to struggle through its metamorphosis in order for it to grow into the butterfly it was meant to be. The same way our struggles in life strengthen us and transform us. Similary, if we avoid going through it, we are unable to move past it.

Unfortunately this isn’t a problem that is only found among drug addicts. This is such a common problem that I thought it even more important to write about it. Stuffed feelings have a way of manifesting in a plethora of unhealthy ways. One of the things that I have noticed in the majority of classes that I have taken in conjunction with rehabiliation is that in the beginning everyone is handed a piece of paper with a list of “feeling” words and a bunch of emoticons next to them to aid in understanding. When a class starts everyone is asked to go around the room and say their name and how they feel. Amazing that such a simple thing could be so important. I think everyone should have to do this throughout their day. It should be standard starting in elementary school. Being able to identify feelings and communicate them is a very important skill. All too often we avoid feeling them so much that we have a hard time identifying them for ourselves much less communicating it to someone else. Being able to communicate those feelings appropriately to another person has a lot of healing power in it. Hearing things said out loud helps to process the thought in a more complete way. It is often surprising that something so simple that can aid in the complex problems that we have. Journaling is another thing that sounds so easy that it seems ridiculous that it could help us through a hard spot in life. It seems that way unless you have tried it and seen for yourself. I think Myspace was onto something having people sign in and do a feelings check along with their status. I wonder if we could get Facebook on board with an idea like that? Let’s start thinking about what it really is we are feeling. Pay special attention to emotions like anger since that is a tricky one and usually has an underlying emotion fueling it. Don’t be scared to feel it. Then don’t get so stuck in it that you don’t move beyond it!

-Lauren Johnson


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