I’ll never forget my first year of recovery. After the initial relief of waking up without a hangover wore off, I was left with me: a 32-year-old woman with not much sense of who she was, or how she ended up drowning her existence for the last 20 years. I’d never felt so lost. Early recovery — and many moments since — was like finding myself in the middle of a crowd and not knowing how I got there, or where I was headed. Added to my general sense of confusion was a bright, loud, and un-anaesthetized reality.
For many of my peers in early recovery, they thrived in their new friendships, and sober lifestyle. While I was grateful to have support of this new community, I felt drained. All the time.
My sponsor would consistently tell me to go to a meeting. Whether I was exhausted, sick, or feeling overwhelmed the answer was always the same: go to a meeting. After rolling my eyes, I often took the advice, and dragged my tired body to a meeting. Initially, a meeting did help, which I now realize was because there were moments of silence. There was time to collect my thoughts. But I would quickly become tired, irritated, and intolerant of hearing the same old sad stories, and people regurgitating a book. So frequently had I heard chapters from the Big Book, that — like learning the times table at school — I was soon able to recite these pages from memory.
It took several more years to have a number of realizations: that I didn’t have to go to so many meetings, or any at all eventually; and that I was so tired all the time because I am an empath. Learning about being such a highly sensitized human being that was highly intuitive, but also likely to absorb energy and emotion from others, was like a light was switched on. It made perfect sense. No wonder I was so exhausted! I thought to myself.
Empaths have key traits that can make them susceptible to becoming overwhelmed, and in my case, was part of the reason I used drugs:
According to psychiatrist Dr. Judith Orloff, there are common traits of empaths:
1. Empaths are highly sensitive, meaning our feelings can be easily hurt.
2. Empaths absorb other people’s emotions. We are highly attuned humans and can often pick up on emotions, which can be draining if we are around negativity.
3. Many empaths are introverted. Often feeling overwhelmed by large crowds, or parties, some empaths prefer smaller gatherings.
4. Empaths are highly intuitive. We often have a strong sense of gut instincts and can spot someone being untruthful.
5. Empaths need alone time. It is essential for us to have alone time to recharge.
6. Empaths can become overwhelmed in intimate relationships. Too much time together in a relationship can be draining for some empaths.
7. Empaths are targets for energy vampires. As sensitive people, and natural healers, dysfunctional people are often drawn to empaths. This includes those who always have drama, narcissists, and neurotic energies.
8. Empaths become replenished in nature. The natural world, particularly green areas and bodies of water are replenishing for empaths.
9. Empaths have highly tuned senses. Empaths can feel overwhelmed by smells, noise, or excessive talking.
10. Empaths have huge hearts but sometimes give too much. As open, big-hearted people, empaths try and soothe the challenges others face, by taking on way too much. This often leaves us feeling drained.
For a while I thought of my empath traits as a curse. I hated being too sensitive. Now it’s a very different picture: I own who I am, and I see being an empath as a quality. I have a strong sense of who I am, an in-built system telling me who to avoid, and I know how to restore my energy. No longer do I sit in endless meetings picking up others negative vibes, and instead I spend more time in nature, and around people who energize me.
Perhaps most valuable in my realization that I am an empath is the importance of boundary setting. I now know that it is okay to say no to something that doesn’t feel right, to cancel at the last minute because I’m exhausted, and to leave a situation that is overwhelming. I no longer think twice about saying I don’t want to participate in certain elements of the holidays, or that I don’t want to travel across the world after a challenging year.
Being an empath is actually my superpower!
"Located in Portland, OR, Olivia Pennelle (Liv) is an experienced writer, journalist, and coach. She is the founder of the popular site Liv’s Recovery Kitchen, a site dedicated to helping people flourish in their recovery. Liv is passionate about challenging limiting mentalities and empowering others to direct their own lives, health, and recovery. You can find her articles across the web on podcasts and addiction recovery websites, including The Fix, STAT News, Recovery.org, Workit Health, and Ravishly. Liv was recently featured in VICE.