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My wife hates hairy faces.
I recently returned from chaperoning a week-long youth mission trip. The eight males on the trip all shared one shower, one toilet, and one sink in a church basement. I knew that bathroom time would be at a premium, so I left my razor and shaving cream at home, thus enabling me to get in and out with maximum efficiency.
My wife came to greet the mission van when we returned home, and when I reached out to hug her, she looked at my seven-day beard and pushed me away. I tried again, and she rejected me again.
I am needy and sensitive. That rejection crushed me. The last few days of the mission trip were lonely, and I had high hopes for passionate intimacy on the night of my return (after I shaved, of course).
My wife was mostly messing around when she pushed me away, but it still hurt. I don’t take that kind of rejection well. I’m a writer. I’m vulnerable for a living.
My vulnerability is almost always rewarded with admiration and support. When my written opinions and experiences are rejected, I’m prepared for it because I write some controversial stuff. My skin is thick, and I’m eager to defend my opinions when faced with rejection and alternate points of view.
But this was different. I guess I don’t care what others think so much, but my life revolves around my wife.
I am keenly aware of how unmanly it sounds to admit the massive wave of pain that washed over me when my affections were rebuffed. It threw me into a tailspin. I had only been away for a week, but my fantasy for our reunion that evening was fairy tale-ish. What seemed inevitable only moments prior was suddenly dismissed to the rubbish heap of wishful thinking.
I wasn’t just pissed off because I wasn’t getting any. It was much deeper than that. My wife’s playful brush-off stung like getting skin caught in a zipper—the unexpectedness was responsible for most of the pain. I stood there in soul-crushing disbelief while my wife giggled and mic-dropped my still beating heart to the parking lot asphalt.
I have the emotional maturity of a 15-year-old pubescent boy. It would be embarrassing if anyone knew. But I did the masculine thing and pushed the rejection way deep down inside and returned to unloading the van and saying goodbye to the mission kids.
But here’s the problem: I can’t keep emotions suppressed anymore since I stopped drinking alcohol two-and-a-half years ago. So the pain lingered on the surface and kept me in a depressed funk for the next four days. Yep, that’s right. I moped around the house for four solid days after that minuscule repudiation.
I lost an entire night’s sleep while my pain and anger smoldered as I watched the ceiling fan spin over our bed. She said she was sorry. She confirmed that she was joking around. She tried to hug me, but it was too late. An immature 15-year-old is as resilient as a soap bubble.
Why do I peg my emotional maturity at mid-teenage boy? Because that’s when I started drinking and stunting my growth.
My life has improved drastically over the 30 months of my sobriety. My shame and anxiety are gone, my thoughts have stopped racing through my brain, and my wife and I don’t yell when we argue. I no longer crave a drink, and I like to listen more than I like to talk. I traded euphoric highs and cavernous lows for peaceful compassion. It’s mostly much better. Mostly.
I spend a lot of time writing about, and working with, people who are trying to stop drinking. When I’m down, like I was for the four days after my hug brush-off, my wife says I look like I’m carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders. In a way, I kind of am.
When my ultra-sensitive exterior is pierced, I feel like sh*t. I also feel like a fraud for inviting others to join me in drowning in the deep end of the dry pool. Sobriety is great! Life without alcohol is fabulous! Except when something minor sends me reeling and I no longer have access to my 80-proof tether to bring me back.
I’ve learned a lot since I left my deadly vice behind. I’ve learned that my emotional immaturity is really more a part of the human condition than it is collateral damage from alcohol abuse. There is nothing unique about suppressing emotions with the thing that brings us comfort.
My glass of whiskey on the rocks is another person’s quart of ice cream and another person’s risky sexual encounter. And when we use our weapon of choice to medicate away unsavory feelings, we eliminate the need to learn how to deal with disappointments naturally. This lack of emotional preparation leaves us standing naked in an ice storm.
I don’t know how to speak Mandarin, and I’m ill-equipped to calculate the proper reentry trajectory for a spaceship returning to our atmosphere. But this lack of preparation doesn’t scare me because I have no travel plans outside this continent and I rarely, if ever, receive requests for assistance from NASA.
But I do need to know how to handle playful rejection from my wife. I’m 46-years-old and I pout like a child. That’s kind of a big problem.
So what do I do? What do we do when we stop drinking or stop cutting or end our fixation with porn? How do we handle the debilitating side effects that come from addressing our mental illness (yes, I consider addiction to be a form of mental illness)? How do we grow up emotionally when we are already fully grown?
I’ve got bad news for you. I’ve got an answer to my own questions, but you’re not going to like it any more than I do.
We live in a culture full of quick-fix solutions to any dilemma. In most cases, we can find a medical professional to prescribe a pharmaceutical to help us go back to pushing down our emotions just like when we self-medicated with booze or shopping or starvation.
Or we can try a new diet fad, change spiritual practices, or take a spin-yog-lates-jazzercise class to cure what ails us. As long as we can start this morning and expect results by this evening, we are all in. Why would I have patience when I’ve got a credit card instead?
I might only be in my second decade of development when it comes to emotional maturity, but I’m in my fifth decade of making mistakes and learning stuff. And one thing I’ve learned over and over from failed shortcut attempts and money wasted on fads and empty promises is that growth takes time.
There is no performance-enhancing drug for maturity, and the patience that is in such short supply in our society is as necessary as oxygen.
In recovery from addiction, I’ve been advised literally hundreds of times that I’m going to have to learn to sit with my emotions since I can no longer drown them with alcohol. But I’ve never been told I’m going to have to get used to the twisting and plummeting, and the bruising and emasculation from my emotions.
Being a grown-ass man who feels like a scolded child is as much fun as eating tomato soup with a fork. The patience and tenacity required to overcome the challenge is daunting and unexpected, no matter how much I’ve mastered the art of sitting.
Time: I wasted a lot of it in self-medication, and now I’ve got to spend a lot more of it developing my emotional muscles and finding maturity.
And while I’m sitting, while I’m growing, while I’m maturing patiently: I’ll shave everyday, too.
~ If you’d like to learn more about the lessons I’ve learned by leaving my self-medication behind, please download a free copy of my ebook, Guide to Early Sobriety.