Escaping White Knuckle Sobriety

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By Jon Ray

Sitting with the mania is the hardest part for me. Those uncomfortable feelings, projected outward, are a big part of how my addictive behavior manifests itself. When I’m honest (and isn’t that the primary solution to all things!), I actually love my mania—it’s a great motivator. It just tends to motivate me in all the wrong directions. The mania is the agitation that comes when the events in my life stir up uncomfortable emotional energy.

As a recovering alcoholic and addict, I’ve referred to it many times as the fear. When I was using, it was the paranoia that everything and everyone was turning against me. Someone says something snide, I have a bad day at work, get cut off in traffic, or see something that annoys me on the news, and I’m ready to put people on blast or just check out. That “checking out” has historically meant consumption—booze, drugs, food, sugar, coffee, smokes, information, shopping, projection (or all at the same time for a really good stint of distraction). My need to consume has been an avoidance strategy; an inability to hold space for the present moment’s emotional discomfort is triggering in my nervous system. I consume because I don’t know how to have or process my big feelings at that moment.

The first time I tried to get sober, was 7 years of fist-clenching, cursing at others, escapism, stuffing down all my feelings, and relying solely on mental willpower to avoid bad behavior. I was still allowing my feelings to mean something about me, others, and the world at large and because I wasn’t thrilled with that assigned meaning, I just didn’t allow myself to have feelings at all. My emotions back then still had a kind of power over me and I was trapped in a cage-match struggle to the death with all that excess emotional energy. White-knuckle sobriety was my projecting all that discomfort forward or holding it at arm’s length instead of owning those feelings and simply feeling them. Even now, when big uncomfortable feelings show up, there is still a tendency to want to do anything to get away from that triggered discomfort.

That desire to do anything to escape discomfort is the mania.

Now approaching a newly minted 5 years of what I’ll label as “healthy sobriety,” I have a keener ability to process those subtle or not so subtle urges and feelings as they come up. There’s now a recognition that I have the power to choose what I do with these feelings. I can choose to make them matter or not. I can examine them as energy moving through me or continue to tell a story about what they mean about me and my life. And when I can witness that emotional energy as energy rather than trying to interpret it as “past baggage,” there’s a kind of transformation that happens within me. At least those are the words I give to it. I’m not an “informed by” guy. I don’t know all the science behind what works for me, or if there’s even a logical thread to it. I see it working in myself and others. And what I know for sure is that I don’t feel like a robot anymore. That said, I’m definitely not the one to cite peer-reviewed studies to back up what I’m saying or the clinical trials that will lock it in as “science.” My only credentials are that I am (self-pronounced) an incredible seeker. I know how to look inside all the nooks and crannies that many are afraid to explore or unwilling to see. To extract value when it’s there and shuck the rest. That seeking has run the gamut from Christianity to Eastern Mysticism and the New Age, psycho cybernetics and Scientology to the Occult, John Bradshaw and A.A. to a guy in Australia who claims to be Jesus. That kind of loose affiliation to “wackadoodle stuff” makes a lot of people uncomfortable. And that’s kind of the point.

The more I allow myself space to feel my discomfort in all things, including others’ projections on me, the more open-minded I seem to become. Instead of needing to be right about everything—something the control-freak in me has always demanded—I’m increasingly open to being wrong and that seems to open up interesting new levels of the maze. There’s no longer an attachment or label about what being wrong might mean about me. And perhaps the narrative thread and greatest learning across all the woo-woo stuff I’ve given attention to is this: My addictions are about whether or not I can stomach “big uncomfortable feelings” without projecting them forward as unconscious behavior. In practice, that doesn’t look like much. I just sit quietly, consciously, for an extended period of time. I notice what’s happening inside my body. It’s not so different from what I learned nearly two decades ago in a court-ordered anger management class—I count to ten. And then I just keep counting. I sit still and soak in the present moment allowing myself to witness and observe whatever comes up. There isn’t a dismissal of the thoughts that come up, instead, I allow myself to move all of that mental chatter down into my body.

I ask myself things like:

  • Where do I feel this thought in my body?
  • What emotional energy is ready to move in my nervous system (body)?
  • When I’m perfectly still, what do I notice stirring inside of my body?

My mania is a mental event, when I can draw it down into the body, I take my power back over it and create a more efficient system for processing it all out. As I first started this method of exploring my emotions, my nervous system was so ill-equipped for handling large currents of energy that I found myself bouncing around and often had to pace the room or go for a walk while I chewed on it all. Sometimes I would go into the forest on my property and chop wood. Sometimes I would put Nirvana in my headphones at full volume and run as fast as I could. Sometimes I took a tee ball bat to a particularly mean compost pile. And sometimes I would write scathing letters I never sent. There are volumes of legal pads in my storage unit full of curse words and nasty comments, lambasting just about everyone I’ve ever encountered in my life. This process helped me grow the muscles of my nervous system. It started to give me emotional capacity.

The first time I tried to get sober, I was white-knuckling it all the way because I couldn’t allow myself to explore my own shadow. I was pretending to be up to speed with my new sober life.

I thought being sober meant you were supposed to be perfect and that you couldn’t think about or acknowledge any of the dark ideas that would manifest in my mind from time to time. But of course, as someone wise once told me, “Joy and grief are the same river.” By interpreting my trauma and darkness as something bad happening inside me rather than simply seeing it as trapped energy ready for release, I prevented myself from having any experience of genuine creativity, joy, or relief. The key to learning to live again was to allow me to go to that dark space through safe expression. By allowing myself to fully express my rage, frustration, and grief, a funny thing started happening—I would move through those feelings and eventually burst out laughing. Yes, folks. That level of relief looks genuinely crazy. But for the first time, I started to feel alive.

Over time, these emotional expression practices opened up and strengthened the “pipes” of my nervous system. Now, when big feelings come up, they don’t shake, rattle, and roll me as much—I don’t have to project them forward—and I experience a new phenomenon: capacity. My nervous system is capable of holding and processing the energy of my urges, rather than rejecting it and pushing it outward as bad behavior. The impulses and urges register in the same way that I see weights at the gym; they’re an opportunity to find out if I’m ready to grow the muscles of my nervous system and lift a heavier load. When an urge comes up, I set a timer for 5-10 minutes and just sit with its energy. Sugar craving. Set a timer. Coffee craving. Set a timer. Craving to send a nasty email or text message. Set a longer timer. It’s taken a ton of practice, but I no longer have to project that emotional energy outward as an avoidance strategy. I can just sit with it, witness its power, and watch it transmute back into creative potential. My sitting practice is a proactive exploration of old trauma ready for release. I consciously seek out pockets of emotional energy that are ready to process before a life event has to trigger them. Instead of only dealing with emotional overflow, I do my best to consciously explore the areas within me that are ripe for emotional release. I actively seek out the things that might still trigger me and then feel my feelings until they’ve dissipated and created a greater capacity within me. Of course, it’s still easy for me to just feign busyness and grumble about everything in my life without actually taking a hard look at any of it. I’m great at kicking that can down the road. But I’m getting better at stopping; at using reality as a mirror that shows me something about myself.

Life shows me how to hold more space for myself and others. The frustrations, annoyances, heartache, and otherwise are all a gift (which is a terribly annoying thing for someone to say—but it’s been true for me!) I see the frustration. Acknowledge it in my body. Sit with those big feelings. And watch them dissipate, dissolve, and transmute back into creative power. In this way, my darkest days give me the opportunity to really live again. Godspeed.

on Ray is a heart-centered copywriter and digital marketing consultant for high-level executives and awakening entrepreneurs. He teaches a simple practice—feel your feelings—as a way to unlock creative potential and show up as a more powerful and profitable leader. Jon has used these techniques to lead large teams at Google, in the real estate space, and now running

his digital marketing agency, Awaken Entrepreneur. As a recovering alcoholic and addict, he points towards emotional processing as the primary way to release “white-knuckle sobriety” and truly step into a place of peaceful expansion.



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