“I’m feeling funky,” I said when I left a message on my sponsor’s voicemail. Then I added more sentences, about how I sometimes feel wistful at this time of year, about hormones, about work doubts, about romantic doubts—about a bunch of things that make up a life, really. All things that the day before and the day before that seemed fantastic—just the way they should be, perfectly aligned with the universe’s plan for me. They even seemed that way that very morning. And then, as the minutes and hours passed that day, they didn’t. My brain seized on information that indicated that perhaps my life wasn’t as excellent as I’d been telling myself it was. I challenged those thoughts, as I’d learned to do—reminded myself that perception is everything and that I can’t always trust my brain when I’ve got a brain which I believe wants me dead at times but will settle for drunk and miserable. But those things that usually worked—those things that usually snapped the so-called bad thoughts back into submission with the alacrity of a seasoned boxer—did not. The brain still came back with the same calculation: it’s all a mess.
The difference now—probably the most major difference between my life now and my life then (in addition to the fact that I don’t fill myself up with lethal and toxic substances at alarming rates)—is that I know a sad mood will pass. It may even pass in a few hours. Certainly in a day or two, I know I’ll be back to feeling normal—which, for me, has become pretty God damn cheerful. Before, a dark mood could hit and it would last for—I don’t know. A year? Two? Certainly a few months. Until I got sober, I had no idea that a sad mood could change as fast as a light switch.
It’s probably hormones, I told myself. And it probably was. But just because something’s hormonal doesn’t mean you don’t feel the sadness. It doesn’t seem like this should be true: you’d think that awareness about what’s causing a sad mood would mean the dissipation of the feeling. And yet it doesn’t. Especially with my brain pointing out that if it was just hormones, then wouldn’t I feel this way every month? Maybe, the darkness screams, something really is terribly wrong.
And so then I get, really, one of two choices: do I try to break the feeling apart in an attempt to analyze what’s going on? Sometimes sadness hits because there’s something in my life that I need to deal with and the sadness is a message that the jig is up. The sadness, in other words, is the result of me resisting information—getting a glimpse of something, not liking what I see and doing everything possible to resist accepting whatever it is. It’s the same way I used to try to handle my cocaine use; for years before I got sober, I’d think, “Hmmm, maybe it’s a problem that I can’t stop doing cocaine when I have it in my house and also that I can’t stop buying it.” But I’d hate that thought because I didn’t want to give up this thing I’d become so dependent on so I’d keep doing coke in the face of it, trying, unsuccessfully, to push that realization away but feeling worse every second. The problem with epiphanies of this nature, of course, is that they are only perfectly clear in retrospect.
And so the second choice, then, is to practice that radical acceptance that I’ve learned in recovery: accept the fact that I’m in a funk, let it wash over me and hold onto whatever udder I can find. I can pray, of course, but it’s amazing to me that this tool that I believe in and rely on so much on a daily basis somehow sounds sort of inconsequential at times of sadness—like it’s hocus pocus, about as useful as forcing myself to smile would be.
I remember hearing a girl share in a meeting once about how she was shocked to realize that she wasn’t owed happiness at every minute. I related. I somehow became convinced, long ago, that life was about being joyful—particularly sober life. But nobody ever told me it was; I’d simply decided that this was the case and then assumed there was something terribly wrong with me if I didn’t feel glorious and giddy at all times. Because that’s the other thing: when I’m sad, I often judge that sadness—tell myself that the way I’m feeling is wrong or that no one else ever feels this way or that if I was doing life correctly, I wouldn’t feel like this. At the times that I should be my own greatest advocate, in other words, I can become my biggest tormenter.
And that’s always when I can feel myself wanting to grasp at external things to fill me up—the email declaring that the career thing I think is going to happen is definitely happening or the man in my life to say whatever will make me feel most adored or even, barring all that (cheaper highs, for sure), to go buy the dress that I can get on sale or the cupcake or whatever else I can take from the outside world and shove into my inside in a dopamine-raising effort.
But is that alcoholism or just humanism? We’re all dependent on the outside world, to some degree, to boost us up—though I do believe that alcoholics and addicts are more dependent on these things than so-called normal people. Yet I know that those things only provide a temporary, cocaine-like bump—that relying on a steady diet of external stimuli to keep my whole system running is as futile as returning to the mirror to chop up more lines. Genuine happiness, I’ve learned, doesn’t come from me getting the things that I want but from trying to give rather than get—to, in the words of the St. Francis Prayer, bring faith where there’s doubt and hope where there’s despair. It also comes from feeling grateful and getting my perspective back in gear since I know that, this particular mood aside, I have a pretty spectacular life. A girl once shared in a meeting that she feels like she goes to sleep with recovery but then wakes up with alcoholism, wondering what the hell happened. And that’s sort of what the dark moods are like for me. I have body dysmorphia—as does pretty much every other woman I know; this means that I’ll sometimes look at my body in the mirror and actually see weight that I swear was not there the day before. Even though I understand that one meal or missing one day of exercise cannot cause instant, visible weight gain, there’s no reasoning with what my eyes see. Sad moods, for me, I guess are a form of life dysmorphia.
So I meditated, prayed even though it felt pointless, worked out, went to dinner with a friend and hit a meeting. By around 10 am the next day, I felt cheerful as usual, wondering how it was possible that I’d been so despairing the day before. I told myself I’d remember the next time sudden angst hit that it was nothing to worry about, that it was just some sadness working its way through my body and would pass before I knew it—knowing, of course, I’d probably forget.