One Excruciating Minute at a Time

Emily Roiphe Carter“Pain is mandatory–suffering optional” goes one of the many folksy sayings woven through the 12-Step fabric. This has some basis in literal fact. Neurologists have long known that the sensation of pain and our experience of that sensation as something awful are generated in different structures of the forebrain. However, since being alive requires that different places and structures in our brains create one felt experience, pain and suffering are usually linked. What the saying means is “don’t wallow,” which is reasonable. Even so, sometime in our sober lives we will be hit with a lightning bolt of pain we can’t bear. It could be a betrayal, a crushing disappointment, an illness, a death, a loss, an obsession with the girl at our Thursday night meeting that ended badly, an economic disaster, a scorching social humiliation- the cause is irrelevant — which is maddening — because all that we will be able to think about is the excruciating specific details of the cause of our pain. Pain is like that — it shuts out access to anything but itself. When that happens billions of neurons will scream while they fire, they will scream out for their accustomed pain reliever. If it were a sound, imagine a billion mosquitoes wielding tiny chainsaws. We will call our sponsor:

Our sponsor will tell us perhaps, to get quiet, talk to our higher power, to go back to step one two and three. What, we will say, I can’t hear you over the screaming. Then they might need to put these words into an easy to hear metaphor and they’ll say something like: mop the kitchen floor. When we call back unrelieved: mop it again.

Do what is asked. That’s all we can do. The drink, fix, pill, smoke, eat, spend, screw, route is now closed. We will want more than anything to open it back up. It seems unbelievably cruel that the relief is there, but we can’t get to it, because the relief itself will only put us permanently in the state of pain we are trying to avoid.

We wonder if the universe is sadistic. We will say, we don’t care about tomorrow, the consequences, the next day. Temporary relief? Good enough. We’re trying to get through the next minute. Yes, we’ll yell at our sponsor, friend, doctor, anyone who is paid enough or kind enough to listen — it would destroy so much that I’ve gained, but would you tell someone burning to death not to jump out a window because they’ll die? It’s hot, they can’t breathe, I’m in that kind of pain right now.

If the listener is a good listener they won’t call us out on dramatics, but remember the things that made them feel the way we feel now. They’ll offer suggestions on how to get through the next minute, hour, evening, night. It doesn’t matter what the suggestion is, take it. Do what is suggested, do it automatically and zealously. Mop, and mop again, if they say so. And once more after that. If asked to pray do so in a vigorous style, chant, cry sing, fall to your knees. It actually doesn’t matter what, as long as we concentrate so hard on doing it that it exhausts us physically. The drugs your body will manufacture after exertion are lovelier than any opiate, and will not cause you to lose your job, drive erratically, or embezzle funds from your local place of worship.

The pain, of course will come back. If it’s the pain of loss, if your life partner, say, died, the pain is stealthy. It waits behind a wall of shock. Shock induced numbness is not in and of itself harmful. It can even be helpful. Like any other natural substance, it is Man who finds a way to make extreme, synthetic versions of it. Too much pain at once can be dangerous. The term broken heart arose because extreme mental distress causes physical pain in your arms and legs. There is in fact a phenomenon called “Broken Heart Syndrome” where actual cardiac arrhythmia develops and causes measurable harm. When I put my dog down it felt like a hateful hand was squeezing something behind my sternum. Then for two days it felt like I’d swallowed a ping-pong sized ball made of powdered glass. This is not by way of saying that mental pain can kill you, but by way of saying it is real. The pain you feel is real, and there is no shame in desperately wanting it to stop. However, routes open to those without the Glitch are closed to us. No scotch, no codeine, no “something to help you sleep”. And sleep may recede. The arms of Morpheus, once so welcoming and warm, become skeletal, without muscle tone. Getting to sleep is like trying to hold the hand of someone who no longer loves you. And how, in such circumstances did we usually “get some rest”?

Now we have to replace the drink, fix or pill with “call, text, or talk.” Not easy, just….necessary. Another 12-stepper is probably our best bet. Only another addict can know the way we experience emotions, which–and this is physiology not self-pity- –is different than the experiences of the Glitch-free, non 12 step world. You have to have the Glitch to know the Itch. And it will itch like hell itself.

In my experience it’s not helpful to stonewall our urges. Admitting “this is making me crave my drug of choice” isn’t shameful. Cunning as The Glitch is, it weakens in daylight. As in all aspects of recovery, there’s a miraculous paradox at work–declaring our helplessness is the first step to regaining our self control. And by control, in the case of unbearable emotional pain, I mean only the lessening of pain to the point that we can ride it out, rather than having it ride us.

Our reward is the morning after. Sometimes it comes the actual morning after, sometimes longer. The point is we have held on by our fingernails and cellphones, by crying out loud and not losing contact. We have become as little children, doing what we are told and trusting in its effect. If it’s the Big Book or a friend in the rooms, or a shrink, or a dog or all of the above doesn’t matter. We have turned our will over to someone besides us. And then, finally, we will notice light coming through the open window, tinting the sky with the coral and aquamarines of early morning. The heaviness of the damp, black night will lift, a breeze will playfully toss the air around in an invisible dance. Relief will be ours. And we will have gotten it ourselves. With it will come energy to make coffee and plans for the weekend. We will have just done something we thought we could never do.

With that in mind we can imagine happiness. We can, once again, breathe and all of a sudden, for a second, know that breathing is sweeter than anything.

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