5 Things Sobriety Taught Me About Vulnerability and Emotion

This post originally appeared on The Fix. 

When I first got sober three years ago, I never imagined I would tell even my closest friends, let alone write about my experiences and emotions for thousands of strangers to read.

Then again, I wasn’t the same person then that I am now. I didn’t like to show weakness, meaning I hated to cry in front of people. Talking about my emotions was like pulling teeth. I had this idea in my head that I had to have it all together, and that letting my guard down meant I had failed at achieving that image.

The only time I truly let my guard down and allowed myself to be emotional was if I was drunk—however, I could blame that slip on the alcohol, as many people do. When I was sober, it was back to being a brick wall. I thought this method was working out pretty well for me, but then May of 2013 rolled around and I found myself in an inpatient treatment program for alcoholism.

I quickly realized that when I couldn’t drink, my foolproof method of sharing drunken emotions and bottling up sober ones failed me. I found that with no excuse of being drunk, it was so difficult for me to express how I was feeling and why. I sat in many sessions with my counselor and said as little as possible, making it clear I wasn’t going to open up to a stranger.

My sobriety went nowhere until I finally gave into the mentality that being vulnerable didn’t mean I was weak. In fact, it meant the opposite. Here’s how sobriety has taught me the importance vulnerability.

1. It’s OK to not be OK. Clearly anyone who is in a treatment program does not have their life completely together and is probably not OK in some shape or form. I spent the better part of the first month in treatment trying to convince myself (and everyone else there) that nothing was wrong with me, that my life was perfectly manageable and I had no reason to be in treatment. This month was valuable time that I could have been learning about myself and taking in messages from my peers, but instead I sat in a circle with a face of stone and said as little as I possibly could. It wasn’t until the day came for me to tell my “story” to the group that I cracked and began crying in front of them all, which was my worst nightmare. But to my surprise, no one cared. In fact, no one even seemed to notice. Pure, unfiltered emotion was the normal there. So much so, that by not showing it, I was the one who had been isolating myself and making myself feel that I didn’t belong. Once I let go, the purpose of treatment began to make sense to me.

2. Showing emotion isn’t a weakness. Think about it. Falling in love involves emotion, and most people don’t view loving someone as a weakness. So why do we get it in our heads that showing the harder side of emotions, like sadness and anger, somehow means we are weak? It doesn’t mean that at all. Being able to talk about and fight through those emotions means the opposite—it means we are strong. It means we can recognize something in ourselves and express it in order to confront the underlying reasoning. Then we can take action.

3. People are less judgmental than I always thought. My biggest fear pre-sobriety was that I was going to react the wrong way at the wrong time, and that someone would judge me for doing so. In treatment, after coming around to the idea that it was OK to not be OK, I often cried openly. No one thought less of me for it. Today, at three years sober, I still cry openly (and somewhat often). If I read something that makes me happy, I cry. If someone tells me something that hurts, I cry. If I feel sad, I cry. I no longer fight my body’s response to certain situations. I’ve accepted that I am an emotional person, and now I cry when I want to cry and laugh when I want to laugh. And guess what? No one cares. Not one person has looked at me and said, “Why in the world are you crying? What is wrong with you?” Not a single person. In fact, most people take the time to try and understand, to fully grasp what is going through my mind and why my reaction is what it is. People are better than we give them credit for.

4. Other people can learn from my mistakes. I sometimes cross paths with people who are in the same position I was in in early sobriety, people who are numb to every feeling coursing through their body. I want badly to grab them and scream, “NO! Don’t fight it. Just feel it.” But I can’t, because I doubt that would go over well. Instead, I have to just say what I can say (or write what I can write) and hope something rings true for them. I have to hope that maybe I will say something that will make them pause and realize, “OK, she is being vulnerable and everything is still OK. Maybe I can do that, too.” Maybe, just maybe, talking and writing about my past can help even one other person to straighten out their future. If it can, it’s worth it to me.

5. Having too many emotions is better than having none. I look back sometimes, and I have no idea how I kept so much of myself bottled up for so long. I’ve realized now that that person wasn’t who I was. I’ve always been who I am today; I just fought it for such a damn long time. If feels freeing to know that today, I am who I am. Sometimes that means I laugh, sometimes it means I scream, and sometimes (often) it means I cry. Though being vulnerable and open can be frightening, it feels so much more authentic than how I was living before. I know who I am, and so do the people around me. I’d take living open and vulnerable over living closed off and numb any day—I only wish it hadn’t taken me 20 years to start doing so.

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