Introvert Recovery

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It’s been a long time since I’ve gone over 24 hours without leaving the house. This used to be a regular thing for me. A couple years ago, I was living in the Boston area and working from home and would often go days at a time without going outside. The weather was a bitch, but I can’t just blame the weather. It’s not like New England shuts down in the winter. I’ve had a tendency to isolate since I can remember. Sometimes, I’d drink at home, but often, I’d just hide there, blocking out the overwhelming world. My two poles of existence were intoxication or isolation. I knew very little in between.

Now, with meetings and work and social commitments, it’s pretty hard to go a full day without leaving the house. Sometimes, this still freaks me out. I’m a pretty textbook introvert; while I love people and need friends, I also need alone time and one-on-one interactions to feel energized and replenished. It’s been a challenge, in recovery, to distinguish between alcoholic isolation and healthy introversion. Introverts are generally misunderstood in our culture, which portrays extroversion as the norm, somehow healthier or more desirable. But I’ve worked hard to embrace my introvert identity and introversion in general, believing some of the world’s most creative contributions come from introverts and that our lives would be much poorer without them. (For more on this, check out Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking.)

At the same time, for me, alcoholism and isolation go hand in hand. It’s largely a fear of other people, of not being able to control them or our interactions, that led me to drink. This is why I personally need a program that forces me to leave my house and interact with people as part of my recovery. I might even go as far as to say that, for me, recovery is relationships. A relationship with a higher power, sure, but also with other people. I’ve found a lot of spiritual wisdom in Buddhist teachings, and one of my my favorite sutras is a conversation between the Buddha and his disciple Ananda. Ananda announces that “half of the holy life” is admirable friends and wise conversations. The Buddha says, “Don’t say that, Ananda. Don’t say that. Admirable friends and wise conversations are the whole holy life.”

When I don’t leave my house enough, I start to feel crazy. Even if I do a bunch of yoga to stay physically limber, my brain starts to revolt. I begin to believe my own bullshit. I snap at my boyfriend over stupid things. The beautiful world looms outside, alien and scary. Something as simple as making a phone call or going to the mail room can seem genuinely threatening. Of course, I wouldn’t realize this if I didn’t have alternative mode of living to which to compare it. Now that my new normal is going out into the world, I can recognize that staying home for too long makes me feel like shit. Prior to having this comparison, I simply assumed the feelings above were my normal. I assumed I was just destined to feel scared, alienated and isolated. Who wouldn’t drink?

Still, despite knowing what’s good for me–and not just abstractly good for me, but concretely, what feels good for me–there’s that alcoholic part of my brain that regularly goads me to do what will make me feel like shit. Why don’t you just stay in bed? it says. Why don’t you cancel? Don’t take that job; don’t commit to anything; don’t say yes. 

Last night, I was going to a meeting while in a rather shitty mood. I had just finished teaching and was feeling some compassion fatigue. I hadn’t meditated or exercised recently. I was hungry. I didn’t really want to go to the meeting. I could have gotten off the train at an earlier stop and just gone home. But I forced myself to stay on the train. And then I was at the stop near the meeting, so I forced myself to get off and leave the station. All this time, my brain was saying: Fuck this, just go home. And then I stepped into a muddy, ankle-deep puddle filled with cigarette butts. That was it. I was going home. I turned around to walk back to the station, but somehow, I ended up going the wrong way, toward the meeting. Who knows. I deal with these kinds of mind/body debates on such a regular basis that I barely remark on them anymore.

When I got to the meeting, a friend asked how I was doing, and I chipperly said, “Good!” Then I backpedaled to acknowledge I was feeling a bit irritable and “weird about recovery.” This was still very vague. Why didn’t I just tell her about the puddle? About not wanting to come to the meeting? About almost turning around? I’m sure she would have understood. But somehow, that story did not feel like something I could bring into the light of our conversation. It was already buried, in some inaccessible, isolated part of myself.

My sponsor (also an introvert) pointed out to me recently that introverts are better than extroverts at “keeping the crazy inside.” This is not necessarily a good thing. People can only help you if they know what’s going on with you. I’m trying to work on this, to better connect my interior world with the exterior one, to shed that protective, artificial sheen, that impulse to shirk real communication and just say, “I’m good!” Still, I’ll probably never be that person who weeps openly around strangers and pours my heart out to someone within the first few minutes of conversation. But that’s okay.

And it’s also okay if I want to keep Sunday as a day for myself, which is how I’m managing these days. Every day of the week but Sunday, I have some sort of commitment, either for work or recovery. This would have been an extremely threatening schedule to me a year ago, when one social commitment per week was about all I could handle. But now it’s manageable, as long as I get Sundays to loll around the apartment, take a hike, read, write and binge-watch Broad City. I might even make a few phone calls.

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