Dealing with Tragedy Sober
Last week I got a phone call that broke my heart. Loki the dog who I spent a big part of my life with, died.
Loki wasn’t just any dog – he was the closest thing I’ll ever have to a real child. Even he thought he was a human. I lived with him for years, we slept together every night where we snuggled, and he snored under the covers.
We were bonded heart and soul, until addiction consumed my life and I had no choice but to leave behind everything that was dear to me, in order to save my own life. So Loki went back to live with his daddy full time, and he took a huge piece of my heart with him.
So in my heart, I lost him twice.
Four years previous to this – in 2014 – was my last tragedy when I lost my dad to suicide. This happened when my addictions were rampant, so I dealt with this situation (or more precisely, didn’t deal) with endless bottles of red wine, weed, crystal meth and gambling.
These were the addictions I chose to numb lifelong emotions that I didn’t know how to deal with. After my dad died, those (pesky) painful emotions still insisted on leaking into my heart and thoughts, so my self-medicating gradually increased to the point where I destroyed my life as I knew it. I was also very lucky I didn’t end up in prison.
After my old life imploded, I took up residency in the dark and lonely land of self-inflicted rock bottom. After a year of wallowing in wine and tears, I started drawing. Through the process of drawing I learned mindfulness, and I gradually healed the old wounds that I’d carried around since my dysfunctional childhood.
I learned to love myself and let go of toxic emotions that were poisoning my mental health. It was only when I repaired these large complex emotional wounds, that my reliance on addiction finally (after 20 years) dissipated. For the first time in my life, I didn’t need to self-medicate anymore.
So it was sober me that got the phone call last week that broke my heart. Loki had a long life and he had regular check-ups, but liver cancer somehow sneakily slipped under the radar, and within two days he was feeling poorly, bleeding internally, rushing from vet to specialist to find out what was wrong, and when no glimmer of hope was left, after 13 and a half years on earth, he was put to sleep.
The first few hours after I found out was gut-wrenching anguish, just pure outpouring of grief. Later in the night I managed to do some art while listening to music, putting on a brave face because I didn’t want to freak my nephew out by being an uncontrolled sobbing mess.
When I hopped into bed I looked at some photos which led to more sobbing and not a lot of sleep. I ran out of tears and gave myself a huge headache (which I didn’t want to numb with painkillers. I wanted the pain). The next day could barely see through my red swollen eyes, the headache had intensified and I felt physically ill but I didn’t care. The pain in my heart was worse because Loki was gone.
Two days later I spent some time at Loki’s home with his daddy, who was my ex. I slept in the same bed I’ve slept in 100 times, covered in Loki’s fur, smelling like him, cuddling his blankies like it was him and sobbed to sleep. And my sobbing has been on and off since then.
Small little reminders catch me off guard and I cry again. Going through the many photos I have of him causes the most pain. I zoom into that big beautiful face and nose I snuggled with hundreds of times, and realise I’m not going to see him again and it starts the waterworks again.
I can imagine this is going to go on for a while.
But thankfully during this time of emotional pain, I haven’t had the desire to reach for the red, use drugs or gamble. Thankfully, my long-term autopilot has been overridden with new behaviours because the most important thing I have now, is my hard-fought-for sobriety and clarity. This was a big test for me.
In this time of pain, I was so glad I still hate my addictions which destroyed my life.
Grief is not any easier or harder to bear when you do it sober. It feels clearer doing it sober – I felt really present in experiencing it. It still rips your fucking heart out. But there’s something else intermingled with the pain when you do it sober – there’s a feeling of it being cathartic. You can feel that you’re processing it. As painful as this process of grief and sadness and heartbreak is, it feels right.
And so it should feel right – because it’s NORMAL. Just like happiness and joy, grief and sadness are fundamental emotions that we need to experience in our lives as humans. Most of the time, we’re just not very good at it.
Our society doesn’t really embrace, encourage or adequately recognise the importance of sitting with uncomfortable, painful emotions – often we’re taught how to avoid it. We keep busy so we don’t feel it, we drink and we use drugs or addictive behavior to dull the pain, or a quick visit to the doctor will score you a little piece of paper you can swap at the chemist for a emotion-muting pill.
My destructive addictions were the result of me covering up and bottling my emotions since my teens. For years I didn’t even know I was doing it, I just had an awareness that I was not okay nor lovable for who I was, and I learned what took this feeling away.
So now I’m passionate about feeling emotions. ALL of them. If you numb your emotions through addiction or distraction like I did, they will get stuffed into Pandora’s Box to eventually burst open and unleash varying degrees of chaos on your life.
Nothing will let you escape feeling emotion – but you do have a choice how and when you do it. You can let emotion express itself as it arises in its clear, unmasked, sometimes painful natural form.
Or you can deny it and put if off for a while and eventually experience the mutated, cloudy, confusing form which WILL find a way to leak into your life. This is toxic repressed emotion, and it often comes with added mental health issues and/or addiction on top.
It’s complicated being a human hey.
So take some time to sit with emotion when it strikes. Don’t distract yourself from it because it hurts. Feeling grief is a natural, healthy reaction to circumstances that inevitably happen in life. And sooner or later, it settles. The unbearable, does (in most cases) become bearable.
Don’t cover up your grief or heartbreak. Sit with it, let it rip your heart out. Spend time alone, or get as many hugs as you can. Cry until your eyes are swollen, give yourself a raging headache, but know that it’s healthy. Know that it’s the only way to process your emotion. Know that it WILL ease and settle in a healthy way.
Sooner or later the pain will stop being so urgent, sharp and acute and it will start to settle into a chronic big ache. It may never go away, but it will settle.
If it doesn’t go away, or you are spirialing downward into depression that you are unable to stop, seek professional assistance. Sometimes it helps to remember that even in a very serious tragedy, you are not alone in experiencing it. Other people have been there before, some are going through it now, right across the globe. It often feels like you are alone, but you are not.
There are some actions that can help process emotion aside from sitting in a puddle of tears. Go outside and stand barefoot on the earth, facing the sun. Anchor yourself to the earth under your feet – be held by nature. Tune in to the immediate present and hear the birds, look at the trees and feel the warmth of the sun (or the cold air or rain) and be aware of the earth under your feet. I can feel Loki’s presence stronger, with less heartache when I do this. I feel more connected to him.
Creating anything helps to process emotion (such as drawing, painting, cooking, making music), walking helps – anything in which you are NOT distracting yourself by inputting information in your mind to be processed, such as watching endless movies, reading, playing computer games. Processing external information will distract you from processing internal emotion. Distraction is fine here and there, but if you rely on it too often, your emotion will get pushed to the back of your subconscious to niggle at your mental health, instead of being healthily processed.
Loki taught me the gift of unconditional love by giving it wholeheartedly to me, ALL the time, without fail. He inspires me to give unconditional love to others, friends or strangers – all the time without fail.
He was an amazing old soul doggy and he will be greatly missed.
Rachael Styles exists to help create a better world. She writes about recovery from long-term addiction, creates art and explores mindfulness over at www.lightinmyshadow.com
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