Not to brag, but in the span of two weeks, I handled a dental drill to the mouth AND a tattoo needle to the arm without having a complete nervous breakdown. I didn’t even cry! I mean, I’m still kind of sore from the full-body tense-up I held for an hour at a time, and my hands are still stuck in a bit of a claw from death-gripping the chair arms/table sides…but all in all, I did good.
If you want to go back a month to the date of my COVID booster shot, you can even add a drama-free injection to my big-girl resume.
I proudly texted my friend earlier this month, upon returning home from getting inked for the third time (see above: two wolves on left tricep), that my pain tolerance had finally reached adult levels. 💪🏻
I’m a couple months shy of 44. 🤷🏼♀️
It only took a few decades of downward-spiraling into in an alcohol addiction, and 31 action-packed months of sobriety, but I’m starting to get the hang of facing my fears — and feelings — without my old favorite security blanket.
Physical pain was never really a big sticking point, having lived most of my life in various states of athletic-induced muscle soreness, and occasionally, outright injury (see above). But my mental fragility and emotional sensitivity always made everything harder than it had to be.
So, no, it really does not hurt much to have a tooth filled, much less get an immunization injection. And if you pick your spots carefully — like, say, the flabby and bone-free backs of your upper arms, tattoos actually feel like a slightly “spicy” deep tissue massage.
To me, it wasn’t the actual physical sensation of the drill or needle. It was the thinking about what was actually happening — 🧠: My body is getting hacked up with a power tool! I am hemorrhaging blood! It was the self-perpetuating cycle of anxiety-fueled rumination that caused me so much distress.
We’re talking head-to-toe tension, racing heart, sweaty hands, hyperactive movements…the whole fight-or-flight experience.
Just ask my husband, who sacrificed part of his body in the execution of the above. It’s literally one of the smallest tattoos ever tattooed, but I squeezed the living shit out of his hand for that entire 30 minutes on the table. (BTW, he didn’t even come with me for the last two tatts).
It was an over-the-top overreaction, for sure. But then again, between like 1997 and 2019, everything about me was too much.
The cacophony of catastrophic thoughts in my brain was clearly the precursor to, and the lifeblood of, my drinking problem. I mean, seriously: If you lived in my head, you’d drink, too.
I don’t know if all Highly Sensitive Persons have this experience, and it probably sounds suspect to “normal” folk, but as far back as I can remember, the outside world felt really harsh and sharp to me. Or, I should say, the civilized world, with all its crowded spaces and loud sounds and (gasp!) other people doing and saying all the things they do and say.
I’ve written repeatedly about my relationship with nature, and I’m telling you, looking back, the reason I always cherished time outside by myself was that being around humans and trying to navigate social dynamics felt traumatic — the fight-or-flight experience, over and over again.
To always be fighting is exhausting, and flight was my natural coping mechanism. I spent all my life yearning to fly — in the metaphysical sense…I mean, I was petrified of heights — and when I discovered alcohol, well…
My booze tolerance was something to behold, and when I was doing one of my semi-regular mental check-ins (to remind myself why I never want to go back) the other day, I tried to calculate just how much I was drinking over those last few years.
I came up with 3 liters of tequila per week. Every week.
That’s one full handle (1.75 liters) for Thursday-Sunday, a regular 750-ml bottle for Monday-Thursday, and several straight double Patrons (roughly 0.5 liters) if my husband and I went to one of our favorite bar/grills on Friday or Saturday night.
I wonder now if, during that time, I ever didn’t have some alcohol in my system.
Which would totally explain why my senses have felt so heightened and my emotions so raw in these first 2 1/2 years of recovery. That security blanket I talked about was like an iron curtain — I mean, you try drinking 3 liters of tequila in a week and see how alert and functional you feel — and without it, I’m like one of those flayed men in “Game of Thrones” after the Bolton bastard rips off their skin.
The fact I can write that and not get the dry heaves shows I am making progress in the coping department. (TBH, I’m already thinking about my three-year tattoo 🤔).
This post is already too long, so you’ll have to take my word for it. My mental and emotional toughness is building — slowly and subtly, day by day.
I mean, the fact I’m sitting here sober in Year 3 of a pandemic and in the midst of my annual bout of seasonal depression (it’s like clockwork, every February and March 😔), after having to go back to a job I voluntarily left because I couldn’t land anything else in four months of being laid off, AND I am continuing to inch through a really demanding second semester of grad school (we are doing actual mock counseling sessions with clients!) while still making time to blog…
That’s just the macro view, and there are so many tiny, almost imperceptible ways that the recovering brain lets you know: “Hey, I am a truly amazing mechanism that can function at a level you never imagined, once you stop poisoning me with THREE F*CKING LITERS OF TEQUILA EVERY WEEK!”
The third tattoo I so bravely sat through, in celebration of my second full year of this…shall we say, “Poison Control program”…honors an old Native American parable that I heard on a podcast early in my recovery. It spoke to me on a deep level, for obvious reasons.
It’s about choosing fight over flight, choosing to meet every moment of your life with a clear head and true heart, no matter how hard it is, and without any guarantees of “success,” and then seeing what happens.
The struggle never ends, unless you want to stop living. To that I say, “No thanks; my life just started,” and now that I’ve finally put on my big-girl pants and accepted responsibility for it, I know what I have to do to continue growing up, big and strong. 👶🏼🍼🐺