Whatever Water is to us in recovery, it’s deep. It’s mysterious and even frightening at times. Like the ocean, it has hidden treasures and hidden perils, and it’s an endless frontier. Like actual water, Water moves us in different ways: emotions crashing over us like waves, our rhythms and moods rising and falling like tides, even old emotional patterns wearing us down like the relentless dripping of a faucet.
Like many of us, I never learned how to “swim” in Water when I was growing up. I didn’t have the chance to watch people coping with Water in a healthy way: grieving losses, expressing needs, looking at their internal cues to see what they’re feeling. From where I was standing, Water only seemed to cause trouble. So I learned to fear it because it made you vulnerable, it was most likely polluted, and who knew what predators lurked under the surface?
When I think about Water in recovery, I think about tears. They are not the only kind of Water, but they’re something we have to deal with differently in recovery. I don’t just mean that we have to cry, though we do. I mean that, if we do the work of recovery on more than a surface level, we are led to form a new relationship with tears.
I think the culture I grew up in doesn’t do tears very well. I was taught that strong emotions or tears make other people uncomfortable, and that the best way to be accepted was to suppress them and return to a “normal” manner as fast as possible. It’s worse for men, in my opinion; at least as a female I could theoretically cry without being shamed for diverging from a gender role. Still, I can remember very few times I cried without fighting the tears, times that I let my sadness wash over me instead of damming it up until it had no choice but to spill into other channels.
I’ve seen people sob through meeting after meeting when they’re going through certain stages of recovery or just life. I’ve seen people dry-eyed but with that spent, quiet look that tells of recent and frequent weeping. I’ve listened to people with many years of recovery tell of their wrenching emotional experiences and I’ve even thought “Well, here’s a sales pitch! I stay around and work the Steps and I get to be in intense emotional pain too? Sign me up!”
Of course I felt this way, because I had not yet experienced much of the cleansing and healing power of Water. I didn’t know that actually crying is a lot less painful than trying not to cry, and I didn’t know that expressing real, undiverted grief leaves me feeling better when I’m done. How could I know? The nonverbal part of me held a belief that negative emotions must be not only repressed but kept out of my consciousness as much as possible, lest they consume me forever. I didn’t know that emotions come and go.
The other thing I didn’t know about being present with Water is that feeling sadness until it’s done for the moment leaves me able to feel other things. That it makes me more able to feel all emotions and transition from one to another more cleanly. It makes me feel closer to other people, and it makes me more capable of love. There’s no greater gift I can give someone I care about than my honest emotion, because with it I give my trust and my willingness to risk being hurt, rejected or judged. So I seek safe places to experience Water and work with my fears until it flows more naturally. Tears can come freely; tears need not be held back by fear or vanity or the need to control.
In Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, offering water to another symbolizes a commitment deeper than marriage. In Frank Herbert’s Dune, the planet Arrakis is so short of water that sweat and urine are recycled, and spitting is considered a gesture of great honor and respect. A character from a different world finds himself attending a funeral here, and he sheds a tear for the dead man. The tribespeople are awe-stricken, and they touch his face reverently. “He gives water to the dead!” they whisper to one another.
We give of ourselves–from all of the Elements–when we work to become who and what we truly are, including our emotions. We give to those who have died, and more importantly, we give to the living.