I have a small confession to make. A relapse of sorts.
I signed back in to a dating app and I swiped.
I swear it was only one time!
Ok, I mean it was only for the one weekend and that’s ALL I did! Only swiping. We didn’t meet in person, there were no dates, we didn’t talk on the phone. You have to believe me!
Feels good to admit it actually…..and that IS the first step, ….right???
Relapse humor aside, swiping is a major RED FLAG for me, something I’ve used to numb myself from real life. So when I realized I was backsliding into this addictive behavior pattern, I knew I couldn’t let it escalate. I had to dig deep to figure out why. Why wasn’t I content with my own company? What was missing? What was I avoiding?
When I got to the core of it, I was surprised to find that I’m actually kind of lonely right now.
I didn’t think this was possible for me – I’ve been a mom since I was 16, so there’s always been at least one other human around me. I tend to keep my days very busy…multiple jobs, volunteer work, and a decently full social roster. Or maybe I’ve just been oblivious. Being an expert at chemically numbing discomfort, I’ve probably been totally unaware.
Now that I’m sober and giving myself permission to feel all the raw feelings. It’s one thing to feel them; harder to accept them.
Like any good relapse, my tinder-lapse started weeks before I participated in the behavior. The environment around me had become particularly stressful. In a short period of time, I bailed someone out of jail, helped another into a detox center, and handled a series of drunk-texts – both from friends and a potential client.
My phone felt like a ticking time bomb; I was nervous that every call or text was another negative or triggering notification, and I started taking it personally. “Did I cause this? Am I helping too much? Not helping enough? Is my sobriety doomed? Don’t they love me enough to stay sober?”
As my safety net of sober friends dwindled, emotions that I’ve made a lot of progress coping with– like doubt and fear – compounded. Before I knew it I was deep in a pile of self pity.
“My friends are all relapsing. My friends are not OK. Sobriety isn’t guaranteed. My future is unclear. I don’t have any friends. I don’t have any security. I’m not OK.”
The “I’M NOT OK” neighborhood is a scary place to hang out, and seems like it’s never ending. It’s a strong trigger for all kinds of addictions, because it makes us feel lonely. “LONELY” is one of the key 4 emotions that recovery specialists encourage us to avoid or immediately remedy before they spiral out of control.
H.A.L.T. Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired.
Hungry Angry and Tired? Those I can relate to. Anger in particular triggers me. But I’d ignored “lonely” because “it doesn’t pertain to me.” When it snuck up, I was taken by surprise without a plan of action.
My experience of loneliness has little to do with being physically “Alone”. I love time to myself, and boredom is hardly in my vocabulary. I don’t lay in bed at night wishing someone was there with me, it doesn’t depress me to travel with just my dog.
My loneliness isn’t the absence of another person in my presence. It’s the fear that I’m completely unanchored to a consistent, stable support system. Unattached, Uncertain, Unstable. As though life’s waves could sweep me away at any time. I notice it when I fill out a form at the doctor, and there’s no name for me to write in the spot “emergency contact”. My heart sinks. I begin to think that maybe I’ll never have an emergency contact. I picture myself a little old lady, puttering in the house, losing her keys, and having no one there to remind me where I put them. I know… I’m totally aware that I’m ‘catastrophizing’. But these are the kinds of thoughts that convince us to “settle” for a partner that’s totally wrong for us. The kind of thoughts that feel so uncomfortable, we might just do anything to avoid them. Like drink. Or go on an unadvisable date.
Two years ago, I had 3 men in my life/family that I felt I could call on at any time to be there and save the day if I needed. Today, for different reasons, I don’t. One of them is my father, who passed in 2017 – there’s no doubt this is a major factor in why I feel so unhinged.
This isn’t to say I DON’T have a support system. I do! A wonderful tribe of women (and some great guy friends) that love and encourage and empower me. Depressed and anxious thoughts aren’t generally based in reality though. Gone unchecked, they’ll swarm through my psyche and before I know it, they’re in the drivers seat of my behavior.
In the midst of this loneliness tempest, feeling like there was nothing solid to grasp onto, I reached for the next best thing – a virtual connection. Any port in a storm right? Ten swipes later and bingo – a selection of potential “shelters” displayed in front of me. Substitute sanctuaries for a floundering female.
You know where this is going though….there’s no romantic fairy tale ending. No knight in shining armor arrived on horseback to rescue this princess.
A few vapid conversations and a boatload of disappointment later, I realized I’d made a major detour that wasn’t leading where I wanted.
I LIKE being single. And I LOVE the forward progress my life is taking since become sober and focusing on self love and self actualization. But conditions got rough, and I got scared. I went right back to needing to “get high” off the little ego strokes my phone offered. “You have a match” “Jeff sent you a message!” It increased my dopamine, and soothed my fears – in a superficial, temporary way.
So what can I do differently, to prevent going down this rabbit hole of seeking out external validation? Because trust me – it WILL happen again. Triggering events are not going to go away. Life will continue to be difficult sometimes. And online dating apps will always be there, even if I delete them time and time again.
Here are the 4 lessons I learned to prevent future relapse and cope with the loneliness in a healthier way:
1. Make Boundaries
Relapse happens in the recovery community. I can’t control external events, but I can create safe, compassionate boundaries. Example: I called my friend and told him that I won’t respond to his drunk texts, even if he’s being nice or funny. My boundary: creating space for genuine communication. This was really empowering, and he responded by thanking me for my honesty and willingness to forgive
2. Know the Emotions.
Until now, I didn’t even know I felt lonely. Noticing the triggering emotion and naming it helps us deal with it. “I feel scared.” “I don’t feel safe.” “This feels like loneliness.” Pinpoint where you feel it in your body. My lonely feeling is heaviness in my shoulders and tightness in my chest. Knowing where it is helps me notice it early, so I can tackle it early.
3. Question Your thoughts.
“I’m not safe” – Is this true? No, I’m perfectly safe. I’m alive, breathing and well. “I don’t have anybody”. I have lots of somebodies! I have friends I can call right now. “Dating will fix everything. I just need someone to like me.” I know this isn’t true. I’m seeking immediate gratification.
4. Increase positive energy.
Where do you spend your time? What’s the usual content of your thoughts? Get involved with a program that has members with long term recovery who offer solid support. Listen to or read solution-based self-improvement materials. Begin a routine of daily meditations and self-affirmations.
Dating apps themselves are not overtly “bad”. My use of them is a behavior that I’ve identified as risky and potentially self-harmful. Dating can easily escalate into a drinking relapse for me, and is a co-dependent behavior that reinforces “I am not good enough alone”. Seeking male attention, and feeling insecure being alone, is generally because I’ve let self care lapse and I’ve not adhered to my boundaries. Someday, this won’t be the case. I’ll have made strides in my health, and will be ready. I trust myself completely to know when I’m there (and I likely won’t be swiping for a significant other.)
Participating in life according to my values means focusing on mindful, honest, compassion towards others and myself. I can do this by setting boundaries, exploring emotions, and responding with care, not out of habit or fear. This season in my life is one of Radical Self Love, and that means some things are going to have to shift. It’s not easy, but that’s ok. And I’m ok. I’m perfectly safe, supported and totally OK.
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