By: John Schrey, Help For Our Heroes Alumnus

One of my biggest struggles in sobriety has been learning to deal with emotions.  Even as I learned how important emotions are to my mental health, I continued to have a hard time dealing with the death of loved ones and even learning how to love.  I knew my emotional switch had been broken but now what?  When I turned that emotional switch off it did something to me.  It turned off all emotion not just the ones I needed to be turned off to be effective overseas.  Some very important emotions like love, compassion, sadness, and joy were gone and although I knew I needed to “flip the switch back on”, I just didn’t know how to.

All I knew is anytime I had to convey those emotions it was an act and as much as a tried to say I was ok, inside it was tearing me to shreds.  Do you know what emotions hung around?  The ones that suited me in combat like anger, rage, and numbness.  It may be hard to understand why this happens but I’ve learned through continuous self-reflection and good guidance throughout this process that these were the emotions that kept us alive over there and the brain puts survival above all.  Conversely, love, compassion, sadness, and joy were looked at negatively by the brain because what good would love or compassion do when you were literally trying to kill everyone you saw and they were trying to do the same to you?  You couldn’t have an inkling of compassion or sadness when you saw an enemy combatant pop out or even when one of your guys was dead or dying because any hesitation or loss of focus could and did result in more casualties.  I can’t say enough to someone who feels guilty or shameful for not being able to love their own family or grieve the loss of a loved one, it’s ok and I understand.  It’s not only ok, it’s normal when you’ve been through the stuff we’ve been through.

When I was about to have my daughter I remember this dude telling me how it was gonna change my life and how it was going to be the greatest feeling ever.  Well, she was born and although I felt some relief that she was healthy and her mother was ok, I felt none of those joyous feelings.  You know what I did feel though; guilty that I didn’t have those emotions.  Do you know what I did about that?  I numbed it with drugs and alcohol because at this point that was how I had learned to cope with the emotions I did or didn’t have.  You see where this is going right?  I would drink and drug to numb myself from the guilt and shame I felt over not being able to love my daughter and her mother. That led to more guilt and shame over the things I began to do in my active addiction.  I stayed in this vicious cycle for years.  In and out of rehabs and psych wards, countless overdoses, and what I thought was irreparable damage to my family.

Hopelessness had set and I felt there was no coming back.  That’s the lie our mind begins to tell us. If it weren’t for others sticking their hand out and telling me they understand and they’ve been there and it is possible to get better I’d of died trying to numb the guilt and shame.  That’s precisely why I’m writing this.  We need to know recovery is possible.  Not just from drugs and alcohol, not just from guilt and shame or lack of emotions and numbness but from all of it.  We can’t do it alone and we must be willing to get vulnerable and most importantly we must have hope.  We can only find that in each other.  Someone can tell me all day long that it’ll be ok but until I see it happening it’s just some bullshit you’re telling me.  In order for this to work, we need to show strength in numbers and attack this together with love, compassion, and even a healthy grieving process. Most importantly we must have HOPE and belief that WE can get better.

Today I love my daughter more than I ever thought possible.  I know exactly what my friend was talking about when he said it was going to be the most amazing feeling ever.  I also have the deepest love and appreciation for my daughter’s mother and cherish our relationship as coparents.  I have grieved the loss of my oldest brother and one of my closest brothers in arms while in sobriety.  Both were lost to the disease of addiction and mental health.  I have learned that instead of numbing myself and finding ways to not feel sadness over their deaths I must honor them by feeling the emotions of sadness and loss because they are worth it.  Instead of trying to be tough and say things like “fuck this” or “it is what it is” I have learned to use their deaths as motivation to fight on and help others.

This new way of LOVING and GRIEVING isn’t new at all.  It was taught to me by men and women just like me who have felt the hopelessness I felt and found a way out.  You can too.

If you or someone you know is struggling, we’ve got your back!