Monday, 10 August 2015

A rummage through emotion

This illness is a way of coping with intense feelings. Whenever I feel a surge of emotion, or encounter a really difficult situation, my head leaps straight into eating disorder mode. I take the scorching mess in my hands, and mould it into a shape I can deal with. It's effectively a stress reliever, and it has been my Plan A for a long time. But it's a crappy plan, so I'm working on a new one.

In theory, I know what's needed. I have to let all the difficult emotions be as they are, go about my day, eat, drink, feel hideous, and find other, healthier ways to dial things down. I've always been emotional - my rational mind lags behind by a mile. I hurt easily, love deeply and have intense reactions to the bright and demanding world around me. At the moment, I'm especially raw, and like an open wound I'm vulnerable. I would think I am as full of emotion as humanly possible, but if it's true that I use the eating disorder to numb my feelings, it means there is more emotion to be had. It's a little alarming.

It got me wondering: Just how much is going on under the surface that I'm not aware of? And what is it all, exactly? I decided to do an experiment. Over the space of two days, I paid very close attention to everything I was feeling. I carried a pen and paper with me everywhere I went, and each time I felt an emotion rise to the surface, I scribbled it down. Some emotions, like the fall of tears into my bowl of watery porridge, were easy to catch. Others were sneaky and difficult to identify - perhaps registering as a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, or a sort of heat near my neck. At the end of each day, I gathered the information together, then began sketching a plan of how show it all. The diagrams I drew are proportional (more or less) - so the larger the space given, the more of that emotion I experienced in the day. I had to group some of the feelings together, because there were so very many - for example 'fascination' and 'intrigue' were scooped up under the 'interest' umbrella. Even with those simplifications done, look at the jumble I found:

Day 1 - Pretty colours for some ugly emotions

Day 2 - A marginally better day

By chance on these particular days, bad things happened, so they are not exactly glowing examples of my internal life. The swarm of emotion was constant, which was both fascinating and disturbing. There must be a phenomenal amount of processing going on within us all to moderate our emotions. That we're not exploding into tantrums every two seconds and scratching each others eyes out is a miracle. And no wonder we reach for any method we have on hand to manage it - be it reasoning, ignoring, praying, drinking, smothering, smoking, hyperventilating or starving.

To build resilience, I know I need to expose myself to the hard emotions (like anger, fear, shame and sadness), and learn to deal with them. The more I understand these feelings, the better position I will be in when I face them. It's easy just to think them as the 'bad guys', but what lies in the heart of many a villain is a kernel of goodness, or likeability, or at the very least a reason for being that we can understand. This is true of the role these emotions have had in my eating disorder - they have conjured all sorts of evil, but have also powered some life-changing good.

For me, fear is the worst of them all. I felt its icy grip take hold with the violent bucking of the Christchurch earthquakes, and in the slow creep of starvation. When intense fear is justified (as it was in these cases), it is incredibly powerful and positive. It gets you moving - and moving fast - up and out to safer ground. Fear comes in lower grades, of course, and I have it in abundance. Only through the process of writing my last post did I recognise just how significant it was, and see how it's undermining my recovery. Most of my fears aren't justified - a dot of olive oil screams DANGER! to me - but it doesn't actually pose a threat to my safety.

Anger is a whirling maelstrom that sucks up mental energy and fires it back out in all directions. It can get ugly. Sometimes my therapist has to duck out of the way, and I feel sorry for her. Anger seems to ask for action, and in the eating disorder, this action has taken the form of self harm. Inflicting the pain (of starvation) is an expression of anger aimed at myself. At other times, I have managed to use its energising action to do good. Every major step up in my recovery has been preceded by a gradual build up, then explosion of anger.

Shame is a gnarly one, and it's embedded deep in the core of this illness. Accessing it, then trying to unpick it is really hard. Shame is the heat of self loathing. It's the belief we are terribly flawed and unworthy. In an eating disorder, the feeling can be so strong we think we don't deserve a space in the world, so quite literally shrink away from it. I am a long way from coming to grips with shame, because it feels so uncomfortable to question these beliefs. But I'm making a start. I'm planting seeds mostly: putting up boundaries for myself in relationships when I've set none before, asking to be heard, and reminding myself I am allowed a small spot simply because I'm a human, and that's enough of a reason. One of the best things I have done to tackle it, I think, is to set up this blog. I'm hollowing out a bit of room in cyberspace, where I tell my story. It doesn't matter if it's only me reading it either. The point is I'm saying what I want to about my experience and it is evidence of a bud of self worth. Speaking up defies shame.

If there is one hard emotion that I think I do okay with, it's sadness. It's a grey drifting cloud that's been hanging over me for a good, long while. Sometimes it swells and darkens, then spills rain all over me. When that happens, I generally don't run and hide - I sit and wait for it to end, then watch the cloud diminish. The eating disorder wouldn't exist without sadness. It works easily alongside the 'control' and 'calm' of restriction. But wonderful things have come in the midst of sadness too. Even in the deepest of lows, when I am certain everything good in me has gone, creativity stirs and tells me otherwise. Between sobs, a flicker of a thought will appear. It quickly fills out and becomes an idea, and I pay attention. My tears dry up and I begin to draw or write. Before I know it I am carried away out from under the cloud.

Navigating my way through all this feeling is not easy, but avoiding it will get me nowhere. I'll stay stuck and hungry. It's really interesting learning about emotions, and pulling them apart. I know vast amounts more than I did one year ago. I know that fear keeps me safe, but also traps me. Anger is motivating, but I need to learn to steer it in the right direction. I understand shame is a feeling that stems from beliefs that can be changed, rather than something I have no agency over. I know that creativity can flourish in the presence of sadness, and that, in turn, breeds hope. And hope, my friends, is my ticket out of here.


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