When Does Survive Become Thrive? From Emotional Dysfunction to Emotional Sobriety

07/11/2017 02:35 pm ET

When I see clients in my private practice they are often grappling with a couple categories of issues. If they have been in treatment for addiction for example, they may have had the hope that getting sober would be the primary part of their work and feel blindsided when they discover, after a couple years of good sobriety, that they feel emotionally drunk.

And then there are the ACoA’s, the children who grew up around addicts and have internalized emotional drunkenness and disordered thinking before they had a chance to model healthy behavior and functional relational dynamics. Or those who have experienced both sides of the spectrum, a sober, happy family that deteriorated into something they hardly recognized.

As Janet Woititz said in her seminal book Adult Children of Alcoholics, “ACoA’s don’t know what normal is”. And that’s because addicts don’t act like normal people, they are in a chemically altered state, that can result in anything from a fun, uninhibited evening of play to a psychotic state. And everything in between. And to complicate this picture even further, the people who love addicts, who interact with them many times a day, who make plans with them, eat meals, share a home, a family, a bed and a checking account with them….well those people tend to lose their emotional sobriety as well.

The truth is that being and addict or living with one, is a traumatizing experience that can have life long complications. For the child of addiction the trauma can emerge years or even decades after the fact in what is known as a post traumatic stress reaction or PTSD. And how many people who become addicts were themselves ACoA’s or children who experienced some form of trauma growing up and used alcohol or drugs to medicate their unresolved pain?

For the addict physical or behavioral sobriety is just the first step, emotional sobriety comes next. And for the ACoA or the child of mental illness, poverty, or dysfunction, emotional sobriety, or rather the lack of it, is also often times what brings them into treatment. And the most frequent complaint tends to be relationship or intimacy issues, which makes sense doesn’t it? Because the relational patterns that we learn as children, that we drink in through the emotional well of the family systems in which we grew up, are just those relational patterns that we tend to recreate, for better and for worse, in the families that we create. So both of these ever-overlapping populations need to learn what normal is and what it means to be emotionally sober.

A.A. in its infinite wisdom refers to something they call “wet thinking” or the kind of distorted reasoning that is part of a drug induced state. But “wet thinking” is not limited to addicts alone. Children grow up in a shared emotional space with their parents and siblings, they breathe in the feeling atmosphere of the family like a vapor, it becomes part of their pores, part of their thinking, feeling and behavior and the scent and flavor of it follows them through life.

The emotional atmosphere that we grow up in shapes our capacity for intimacy and healthy relating as surely as the food we eat impacts our physical state and health. And all of us need help in sorting out these complex and inter-generational dynamics that issue from trauma and addiction. In order to thrive, we need to cultivate our ability to bear witness to our own, inner processes, we need to be able to slow our minds down enough so that we can understand what is going through them, so that we can strengthen what Anna Freud referred to as our “observing ego”. When we can make use of this “seat of observation”, this inner place from which we can witness our feelings and thoughts as they move through our mind’s eye, we can begin to know ourselves and understand how we operate. One of the characteristics of addiction and PTSD is poor impulse control or moving from impulse into action with little thought in between, going from 0 to 10 with no speed bumps in between is how I often explain it. Emotional sobriety is learning how to live in 4,5 and 6, how to take what the French would call a “pause”, to breath into the moment and become mindful of what is going on in the here and now. In more vernacular terms, we find the brake pedal and we learn how to use it judiciously.

So when clients come into my office at this stage of recovery or with these issues the work is essentially to learn the skills of emotional sobriety and relational sobriety. First we clean out the old baggage so that those glued together places in ourselves that form emotional blocks, can be sorted through and put in their proper place. Then we learn how to stretch and exercise our emotional muscles, how to tolerate carrying more weight without collapsing and move with more ease. Mindfulness skills, learning to quiet the mind or meditate are some of the most powerful tools that one can develop. Not only does mindfulness teach us to “sit” through our thoughts and emotions and witness them, it deepens and widens our ability to actually feel feelings and see thoughts without acting out on them before we have had a chance to be with them for a moment. It strengths our neural pathways or what amount to our feel muscles, it increases our bandwidth so that we can process more emotional material without exploding or imploding: all of which means that we can hold and enjoy more love and more life! All of which means that we have a better shot at talking out rather than acting out our most painful emotions, or perhaps more realistically we shorten the triggered moment when we’re acting out or projecting and we lengthen the talking, understanding and forgiving part of the relational interaction. We kiss and make up without sacrificing our authentic responses or asking the other person to sacrifice theirs. And in addition to this we’re capable of acting on our own behalf, to do all that great stuff like finding passion and purpose in life!

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