WOW! And backwards even.
I was just hit with a tsunami of emotions. It’s amazing how one minute I’m doing fine, then, in an instant, I’m sucked into an emotional tornado.
Like PTSD, it’s an emotional reaction throughout my entire body.
When my mother passed away ten years ago, all it would take was a song, a saying, a place, or watching my girls do something I know Grandma would have loved and I would break into instant tears.
I know. I’m an unusual man.
I ask for directions. I cross-stitch. I have never learned to stuff my emotions. I’ve gone so far to the other side that I scare people. I’ve allowed emotions to overwhelm me.
I don’t have a problem going with the flow and feeling them, but at times, I can’t control them. I am swept away like Dorothy and Toto, except I don’t land in a colorful land of munchkins praising and singing to me. I’m wrapped up in my own internal emotional hell spinning around and around and around and around and…
Here’s a perfect example:
I took my girls to Disneyland for the first time when they were three and five. I hadn’t been to Disneyland for, like, 20 years. I am one BIG kid and was so excited. I pushed these poor girls trying to do everything in one day.
(I seriously recommend avoiding this strategy; meltdowns on subsequent days with overly tired kids does not make Disneyland the “Happiest Place in the World.”)
We were having dinner at midnight after the park closed and instantly I burst into tears at the dinner table. I made my ex’s friends very uncomfortable.
My ex tried to lighten the mood, “He’s either upset that Disneyland closed or he’s thinking about his Mom.”
I was thinking about Mom. How she loved to take me to Disneyland. How she would allow her inner child to come alive in the park. How it was one of those rare times with my step-sister and step-father that we were connected as a family. And I was thinking about how much she would have loved to watch the excitement of her granddaughters experiencing Disneyland for the first time.
(I had a time where a friend of mine lectured me on not taking the kids so young. He said they won’t remember it, so why spend the money? Oh, but I will never forget the joy and magic in their eyes when they met Snow White, Belle, Jasmine, and all the other princesses in person for the very first time. That first time wasn’t for them, it was for me.)
At dinner, I was overcome with loss and just allowed myself to be swept over the waterfall into the ethers below.
This was how I handled my emotions; a different version of “Let it Go.” I believed that it was important for me not to avoid, so I allowed emotions to overwhelm instead.
I now realize that as an adult, I need to learn how to regulate them, not allow them to control me.
Unmanageability of My Emotions
Unmanageability of my emotions was the primary reason I had an addiction. Not an excuse, just an acknowledgement of what was going on.
Since I never learned how to properly regulate my emotions, the only way I knew how to handle them was to medicate and not feel them. To “feel” was excruciating, so I learned how to block emotions instead.
I never learned how to properly regulate my emotions. I medicated and blocked them instead. Click To Tweet
During family week six years ago, one of the assignments for my ex was to list the various things I did that hurt her and then tell me in person. As I sat knee to knee listening to her pain, I felt her pain in the core of my being. Even now, when I see her body language or watch her react to her PTSD type triggers that my past actions caused, I still feel her pain. It tears me up inside.
This day, not only did I feel the pain she felt, but I was also overwhelmed by the guilt and shame that I caused this. I caused more pain to the one woman I love; more pain than anyone else in her life.
My emotions took over and I started to cry. I couldn’t hold it in.
The next day our therapist wanted to point out something that she’d been thinking about for the previous 24 hours. I make up that this one comment affected the way my ex and I have ever since interacted. Other than my destructive actions, this may have been one of the most harmful opinions in causing the breakdown of our marriage and our friendship.
“Phoenix, you manipulate with emotion. Did you notice that when you started to cry your wife stopped sharing her story and started to care-take you?”
Through years of therapy I’ve come to understand that this was a learned behavior from childhood. When I got emotional, it prompted my mother to jump in and protect me from my step-father.
This was a great observation. However, it doesn’t tell my whole story.
That comment was good for me to become aware of what I do, but it did nothing to dig in deeper to where it comes from, why I do it, or what I need to do to change it.
Instead, what it did was cause me to have extreme guilt and shame when I reacted to issues. It amplified that perfectionist piece that I’m can’t do anything right. It only increased my negative self-talk about my unmanageable, uncontrollable behavior.
In many ways, this observation only amplified the very behavior I needed to change.
In addition, it also set up my ex to lose empathy towards me and to judge and hold resentment because I could not “stop” those behaviors. She would always point out that my “craziness” was what she couldn’t handle.
She was not alone! I wanted to control my “craziness”, but I had no idea how, why, or what I needed to do to stop it.
Rafiki’s whispering in my hear, “Awareness is the first step towards change.”
You see for me, at this point in my recovery, I only had a part of the picture. I needed the full picture to give me the awareness I needed so I could change.
The Full Picture
Ten months ago, my perception changed and I no longer see manipulation as 100% true.
Five and a half years after that initial observation, I met with a new therapist to discuss EFT, DBT, and mindfulness. I wanted to find out how to alleviate the unexpected and uncontrollable emotional and physical pain that continued to radiate through me. I needed to figure out how to manage my emotions.
After my first couple of sessions, it was pointed out, that while I may use emotion to manipulate on some level, it seems that I take on the emotions of others.
“It’s not so much that you’re manipulating, but that you truly feel as if someone else’s emotions are yours. Not only do you have trouble managing your own emotions, you now must manage someone else’s on top of that. You need to learn the skills to take care of your higher than normal emotional energy while at the same time holding boundaries around, and not taking on, someone else’s emotions.”
I need to not only learn how to manage my emotions, but not take on someone else's either. Click To Tweet
Well that explains why I bawl at romance movies!
Oh, speaking of emotional movies; A good tearjerker was the movie Arrival. Love that one!
Why do I believe this caused a breakdown in the healing of my marriage?
When I believed my first therapist’s assessment, every time I was unable to control my emotions, I was left feeling guilt and shame.
The belief I had was that I keep doing the same things over and over to manipulate my ex to act in a certain way.
I couldn’t explain why it felt physically as if my body was being ripped in half. I couldn’t explain why what I was doing was unmanageable. I couldn’t stop repeating the same habits and hurting my ex. I believed I would never be able to change. I felt trapped in an endless cycle of unmanageable emotions that kept ripping my house right off its foundation.
If my first therapist’s assessment was correct, then I make up that my ex believes that I’m consciously trying to manipulate her to get a desired response. I make up that by feeling controlled, she gets angry. I make up that every time I react and become emotional, it justifies and solidifies her decision for the divorce.
I’m not saying there isn’t a bit of manipulation there, but when I heard that I take on other people’s emotions, that story rang more true.
In fact, it was that awareness that started the baby steps towards learning that I’m an Adult Child of Alcoholic/Dysfunctional Families (ACOA). I was not behaving as an adult, but was triggered into an “adult child” state.
Adult Child of Alcoholics
The term “adult child” is used to describe adults who grew up in alcoholic or dysfunctional homes and who exhibit traits that reveal past abuse or neglect. These ACA members have the trademark presence of abuse, shame, and abandonment found in alcoholic homes.
The following is taken from the ACOA Big Red Book:
Many of us found that we had several characteristics in common as a result of being brought up in an alcoholic or dysfunctional household. We had come to feel isolated and uneasy with other people, especially authority figures. To protect ourselves, we became people-pleasers, even though we lost our own identities in the process. All the same we would mistake any personal criticism as a threat. We either became alcoholics (or practiced other addictive behavior) ourselves, or married them, or both. Failing that, we found other compulsive personalities, such as a workaholic, to fulfill our sick need for abandonment.
We lived life from the standpoint of victims. Having an overdeveloped sense of responsibility, we preferred to be concerned with others rather than ourselves. We got guilt feelings when we stood up for ourselves rather than giving in to others. Thus, we became reactors, rather than actors, letting others take the initiative. We were dependent personalities, terrified of abandonment, willing to do almost anything to hold on to a relationship in order not to be abandoned emotionally. Yet we kept choosing insecure relationships because they matched our childhood relationship with alcoholic or dysfunctional parents.
These symptoms of the family disease of alcoholism or other dysfunction made us “co-victims”, those who take on the characteristics of the disease without necessarily ever taking a drink. We learned to keep our feelings down as children and kept them buried as adults. As a result of this conditioning, we confused love with pity, tending to love those we could rescue. Even more self-defeating, we became addicted to excitement in all our affairs, preferring constant upset to workable relationships.
It took me six years to dig deeper past my sex addiction to find the root cause of my behaviors and why I still struggled with the change I needed to have a healthy relationship. I can see how my inner child gets triggered and my adult regresses into an Adult Child.
Not only am I a Grateful Recovering Sex Addict, but I’m also a Grateful Recovering ACOA.
Through understanding and constant work, I am finding a more fulfilling life.
Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)
The next step in my recovery was learning how to not allow my emotions to overwhelm me and then react to them, but how to accept them, manage them, and work through them. I must break 45+ years of bad habits; an extremely slow process, but one that I will achieve.
It just takes TIME.
One technique that has helped me learn how to regulate my emotions is using the theory behind DBT.
DBT stands for Dialectical Behavior Therapy; a specific type of cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy developed in the late 1980’s.
DBT teaches four sets of behavioral skills:
- Mindfulness: This is the practice of being fully aware and present in this one moment.
- Distress Tolerance: how to tolerate pain in difficult situations, not change it.
- Interpersonal Effectiveness: how to ask for what you want and say no while maintaining self-respect and relationships with others.
- Emotion Regulation: how to change emotions that you want to change.
I haven’t gone through the official year long course of DBT; I’d like to eventually go through all four modules. However, I’ve been making my way through a workbook with a therapist at my own pace.
The one thing that has helped, is that when I feel off, I’m learning how to take care of myself.
I used to believe that I needed to do anything or say anything to “get this feeling the fuck OUT of me.” The only way to stop these feelings was to resolve the issue, like, YESTERDAY!
That was the cause of my reactions, my “craziness”; the belief that if I spewed onto someone else, they could stop my pain. And if they didn’t stop it, then it was their fault that I was feeling this way in the first place.
Such crazy ass thinking!
Today, to take care of myself, I must do three things:
- Distract: I must find something that will stop my mind from spinning.
- Learn to dance with the tiger, not fight it.
- Stop that hamster sprinting on the wheel.
- Stop fighting the current.
- This is not medicating, mind you. It’s finding something that will take my mind off what I’m stressing about. What works for me is listening and dancing to upbeat music or watching a movie (comedy or action).
- Comfort: I need to find a way to soothe myself. Candles, hot bubble bath, switch to relaxing music, cross-stitch. These things allow my emotional energy to subside.
- Cope: Once my emotional energy has subsided, I need to cope with what was bugging me. I don’t always get this right, but I am getting better.
“Phoenix,” Rafiki interjects. “Do you now see how jumping directly to coping with your emotions when you were in an agitated state eventually made things worse for you?”
“I think so. But I still want to resolve those issues rather than let them sit within me.”
“Time, Phoenix. You need time. You need to release the stored-up energy that comes from your childhood triggers first. The minute you go right to fix-it or resolve the problem mode of thought, without taking the time to process what’s going on, you cause tension and conflict in your relationships.”
You need time to release stored-up energy from childhood trauma before you try to fix a problem. Click To Tweet
“You’re telling me!”
“When we’re triggered. our limbic brain automatically comes online. Think of a trigger as a threat. The limbic brain is there for our survival. All logic thought, your cognitive abilities go off line. You go into survival mode. You need to calm the limbic brain to bring the cognitive brain back online to have the ability to handle issues logically.”
“That’s so hard to do.”
“When you were an adolescent you never learned how to do that. You learned how to use addiction to take care of you. Your brain stopped developing and you got ‘stuck’ as a child. You’re now learning what you should’ve learned how to do in your teens.”
“Sometimes it seems like an impossible feat.”
“It’s not impossible. Once again, it takes time. With focus, determination, guidance, and awareness you will change those neural pathways in your brain. Just like you’ve changed the automatic response that you used to go towards in your addiction when you feel off, you can do that with your emotional reactions too.”
Unfortunately, before I figured this out, my reactivity made everything worse in my marriage. It was the one thing I couldn’t get a handle on.
I now realize that it’s ok to acknowledge and accept my emotions; I don’t have to shame myself for having them. But, as a healthy adult, it’s not ok to allow my emotions to take control and then to vomit my emotions onto someone else.
I’m finally believing that I’m not hopeless case. I can and will learn how to maintain healthy boundaries around others.
My ex has always been good at this. This is just one of her many admirable traits. She has always had the ability to step away when she’s off and process stuff before she responds and says or does something she regrets.
For me, I’m still a work in process.
Ok, Phoenix. Why This Post?
I can feel the emotions welling up in me as I start to explain what I am feeling. I sit in this seat on an airplane and the tears slowly drip down my cheeks while listening to:
How He Loves
I am containing my emotions since I am in a public space, but then I also know that I need to release the pain I feel. Hence, why I’m blogging this, trying to learn from an observer perspective, and get out of being a participant in my own pitiful story.
The flight attendant on the flight I’m on had her work schedule changed last minute. Instead of getting to her destination by noon, she won’t get there until late tonight. She was supposed to see her daughter and hasn’t seen her since Christmas Eve. Due to this change, she won’t see her for another month or more.
I could sense the frustration, the anger, and the disappointment that her plans had changed.
I found out later that her 17-year-old daughter moved out to live with her dad. I could see the pain in her eyes, watch her hands shake as she hands me my coffee, see the sadness seeping out all the pores of her body. When she said, “I miss her,” while taping her heart, her pain merged with mine and I was instantly swept away.
I wanted to crawl into a hole and just release all the pain I felt for her. All the pain I felt for myself. My whole body and soul ached. I took on her pain. It only made my own pain so much more powerful. I was overwhelmed by grief, by sadness, by heartache, and by anguish.
Divorce is so tormenting.
The loss is so great. The dreams and goals that were collectively made are gone. Families are ripped apart. Friends feel like they must choose sides. Life gets more complicated transporting kids from one household to another. Trying to remain amicable as co-parents while managing so many multitudes of emotions. And the kids, who seem like the resilient ones, end up having to deal with that trauma years down the road when they become adults.
As for myself, not only does my career take me away from home, the home I want to go to when I finish working is now gone.
I am blessed that I still get to see and spend time with my girls. I am grateful to have a place to live. But it isn’t the same.
For instance, due to my commute, I will get to my house late tomorrow night. I’ll pick my girls up after school the next day at 3:30 pm, have dinner with them, then drop them off at my ex’s house by 8:00 pm so I can catch a 4:30 am bus the next day to go back to work. I get four and a half hours with my girls after not seeing them for 12 days and it will be another five days before I get to see them again.
I don’t get to come home to my wife. I don’t get to have two nights at home with my family. I don’t get to kiss my girls on the head while they are sleeping the first night I’m back in town. I don’t get to have breakfast with my girls and my wife in the morning before school. I don’t get to whisper “I love you” to my wife as I quietly leave for work once again.
Instead, I go to an empty house. I’m not included in my family’s daily life through telephone conversations because my ex and I don’t have the same relationship as we used to. I only hear about my girl’s day when they talk about it. Those of you who have kids know that when they become teenagers, they don’t talk as much to Mom and Dad as they used to. Sometimes getting information is like pulling teeth.
I thought my life was lonely before and I always bitched and complained about being gone, but it’s so much lonelier now. I didn’t appreciate what I had until I lost it.
Ok, correction. Life is lonely when I want to dwell on it.
I have a larger network of friends. I take care of myself better than I used to. I’ve also learned how to better work through my emotions.
I just miss my family.
Then my thought goes to my mom. I don’t feel those overwhelming emotions like I used to. I feel sad, but not overwhelmed by my grief and pain. It’s now easier regulate the pain from my mother’s death.
Is it time?
Is it the work I’ve done?
I’m not sure. I just know it’s possible that at some day not be overwhelmed by loss. It only took ten years to get to that point with my mother. Do I have eight more years to go before I’m not overwhelmed by the loss of my divorce?
I look forward to the day where the pain of my divorce is not a daily ache.
Hence this blog. A way to process. A way to reach out. A way to hopefully create a community for all of us to help each other get through our painful life experiences.
We are all here together.
Together We Can Heal
The flight attendant made plans with her readjusted schedule. She had a layover in another city the next day for numerous hours and was going to have her daughter fly to her so they could spend time downtown together. When I heard that, I felt joy and prayed that there were no further changes in her schedule so she could have the connection she so seriously craved.