Some tragedies, the outrage and unspeakable nature of them, leave us feeling unsettled and emotionally at sea. The ground under our feet has turned to quicksand.
One response suggested in AA circles is to exercise ‘restraint of tongue or pen’ when we are distressed or thrown off-balance and I’ve been thinking about this. The key for me as regards ‘restraint of tongue or pen’ is understanding what is appropriate communication in a particular context. Many of us come into recovery with all the cognitive distortions of alcoholism and need to unlearn habits of never speaking up or using passive-aggressive communication that pushes others away. Silence and withdrawal or disengaging is not always the best or most useful response. There needs to be limits to self-protection as an habitual and ingrained attitude.
And when it comes to looking at appropriate communication, I have found it helps to understand that certain times or events are very reactive — in the aftermath of a tragedy like Newtown or during December when many people are ambivalent about family reunions or financially stressed. We all tend to react rather than respond.
My first sober Christmas was outwardly calm and carefully planned but I was haunted by memories of past Christmas disasters and really wanted to run away and hide all the time. Everyone expected me to be lighthearted and sociable and I could hardly get more than a few words out of my mouth without feeling tearful or just lost. I remember that when I’m with newly sober people in December, how shaky they might feel and more in need of a hug than bracing conversation.
In AA meetings as well as in social situations right now, I’m noticing so much passive-aggressive behaviour and that gives me pause for thought. Social media at this time is rattled and volatile and sometimes downright abusive., but there I can click away, unlog and go elsewhere, pick up a book, go out into the garden. Social situations are harder.
People who are being passive-aggressive are sending an indirect message that they are angry while denying that they are doing this. Their body language is defiant or hostile, they don’t answer questions honestly, insist they are not upset while sniping or glaring at you. (Think of a sulky teenager shrugging and saying ‘Whatever…’ all the time.) Passive-aggressors come at you sideways and have an excuse for everything. This behaviour is very common in active alcoholics.
I’ve been there myself. As my drinking worsened, I pretended there was nothing wrong and would get angry or defiant with anyone who tried to talk about the problem. Secretly I was trying and failing to control the drinking. I felt helpless when day after day I drank despite all my promises and efforts, but at the same time it was important to show I was in control and a large part of me did not want to stop drinking. And I didn’t want anyone else to control or interfere with my drinking so I would lie or deny the obvious in order to protect my addiction, avoid any attempts at open and honest conversation. Defendedness and defensiveness felt more natural than to approach others with hands open and unclenched, with a receptive heart, risking intimacy. I was always on guard, always vigilant and keen to outwit others, negative and judgmental behind others’ backs, a mocking and withering outlook — and predictably always angry and determined not to let anyone know what was going on. This is where alcoholism leads us, this is how the dead end or cul de sac feels.
When I stopped drinking, the need to protect the drinking stopped. I had no need to keep secrets or hide or lie. But those long-established habits of being fearful of others’ opinions, distrusting others and not daring to expressing myself openly took a while to unlearn. And practice. I had to take risks and make mistakes and deal with sarcasm, misunderstandings, hostility, correction. Like many others I had a kneejerk distrust of what others would say if I spoke my own vulnerable truth: I assumed they would not hear me, I assumed I would be rejected or laughed at, that I would be patronised and criticised. It was easier to just creep back into my old rigid shell and say nothing, pretend I was above the need to get involved or tell myself that my speaking up would make no difference. Cowardice and avoidance had long become a way of being physically present without really being there with others.
If we are afraid to speak up in a difficult or conflicted situation, we are not practising restraint of tongue. We are just acting out of fear or a pattern of avoidance. When we freely choose not to speak up because we want to communicate respect or self-control in a volatile situation, we are exercising non-verbal diplomacy. And at a time like this, as at any other time, we need both silence and speaking up.