No Pain, No Gain


“No pain, no gain.” I’ve endured that taunt since high school. Fortunately, or unfortunately, I’ve always had an extremely high tolerance for physical pain. I once caught an entire high school baseball game with a broken wrist and played left field in another on a broken ankle. I played high school football games with everything from
broken fingers to a torn quadricep. Add alcohol to this disposition in early adulthood, and you end up in your fair share of barroom brawls—replete with face-scarring, broken-bottle swipes, bloody noses, black eyes, and enough face-first collisions with concrete to permanently dimple any chin. Nothing to be proud of, for sure . . . unless, of course, you’re an active alcoholic in need of another tall, barroom tale to tell.

What did I “gain” from all of that pain? On the one hand, not much—not until later, in my late twenties, when I rigorously studied the martial art of Aikido for three years in Japan and learned, for the first time in my life, the true importance of conflict avoidance. On the other hand, physical pain does teach you one valuable lesson: Time heals all that can be healed. Most cuts, bruises, and breaks (if not critical or life threatening) do mend—less and less efficiently as you age, but mend they will.

Emotional pain, however, is entirely different. Time alone has never been enough to heal my emotional pain. For years, from the age of 11 to 38, I had the instant cure for feeling anything; alcohol—properly abused—could dim, dull, or dissolve most any emotion I didn’t care to confront: relationships failed, I drank; my father died, I drank; my wife and I ended our marriage, I drank. I will never forget the sunny morning I left my first wife after 8 years of marriage. I loaded up a newly purchased pickup with my feeble belongings, hopped on I-35 in Kansas City headed for Des Moines and cried all the way to Kearney, Missouri (about 20 minutes outside of KC) where I pulled off, loaded up the cooler in the back seat with beer, and began a three-year celebration of my freedom. That celebration ended one night in 1993 when I fought the law and the law won. That night also marked the beginning of the end of my ability to cure everything with a drink.

What then? What do those of who have never allowed ourselves to feel a genuine emotion do when suddenly, as full-grown but under-matured adults, we are forced to “feel?” If we hope to stay sober and survive, we do exactly what we should have begun to do the day we took our very first drink: Grow up.

For me, and I’m only taking responsibility for my own experience here, “growing up” has meant much more than simply trying to behave in a mature and responsible fashion. That would never have been enough to keep me sober. For me, growing UP has quite literally meant growing upward spiritually to a genuine relationship with a higher power I choose to call God. Time alone has never healed a single emotional wound for me, but time + prayer + meditation + action on a daily basis has made it possible for me to say, in all honestly, I am current with the souls around me and quite content to die in my sleep tonight if that’s what’s in the script.

In subsequent posts, I hope to talk more specifically about how that very formula (time+prayer+meditation+action) has delivered me on more than one occasion from the often dismal shores of emotional pain to the much brighter side of personal gain. I’m hoping that some of you, especially those of you with longer periods of emotional sobriety, will share your own strategies for dealing with emotional setbacks—strategies designed to benefit the newcomer. In other words, I’m hoping we can all join in an active discussion of the solution.

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