Guilt. I don’t know about you, but I feel a whole lot of it. Over the years though, I’ve become very adept at suppressing my emotions. This means that, a lot of the time, I’m not aware there are issues I’ve yet to resolve. On a good day, I’m convinced I’ve dealt with all my fears and insecurities. They’re done with. In the past. I’ve moved on. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, a truckload of emotion will land on me, all at once, and totally floor me.I’ve come to realise that most of the things I struggle with haven’t left me at all. They’re always there, simmering gently underneath the surface, just waiting for a trigger that will cause them to come bubbling over.
Sometimes, I’ll be totally fine; then something completely trivial will happen and I’ll suddenly feel like bursting into tears. Other days, I wake up and all my serotonin seems to have simply vanished overnight. When this happens, I don’t know what to think. Is it just a bad day? Or a bad moment? Have these negative thoughts popped up out of nowhere? Or, are they always there and because I’ve let my guard down, they’ve taken the opportunity to escape? I’ll ask myself, is it normal to have these sudden and extreme swings of emotion? Is it a chemical imbalance? Am I just tired?
Like most things in life, there’s never a simple explanation. It’s just part of being human.
Over the years, we all pick up a load of baggage.
Events, thoughts, feelings, become memories, which become engrained in our psyche. If we’re not careful, painful memories can take precedence in our mind, distorting everything and leading us into dark and twisted territory. We end up chained to negativity, lugging it round with us everywhere we go. And so, it can be that nothing is wrong in the present moment, and yet the weight of the world is on our shoulders.
The thing is, the human brain is an expert at focusing on, and over-weighting the impact of, the bad things in our life, rather than the good.
I’m sure you’ve noticed painful words, actions and events stand out much more prominently than kind words and gestures.
A knife cuts deep and leaves a scar that takes time to heal. And whilst, over time, scars fade, they leave a life-long blemish on the skin. In contrast, an embrace leaves nothing but a temporary feeling of warmth and closeness.
I’ve always tended to dwell on the past
Past hurts have taken months, and sometimes years, to heal. The first time I had my heart broken, I avoided anything remotely romantic for years. In my head, I knew, just knew, that the only outcome, should I meet someone again, would be to end up broken again. Basically, I convinced myself I could see into the future, which is slightly insane if you think about it. But the human mind has a tendency to be illogical and driven by emotion. We are all insane. You might think you’re the exception to the rule. You’re not :P It’s a side effect of being human. One look at the state of the world is proof enough.
Now that I’m more aware of how the human mind works though, I’ve been able to work on myself and take steps forward. Self knowledge and understanding is key to positive change and healing.
Going back to guilt!
Recently, I’ve been in a weird place. Pretty up and down. Like, more than usual. The reason for this is that I used to cope with emotions (aka block them out and not cope) by bingeing and purging. Now that I’m not doing that any more, I’m actually experiencing emotions on a regular basis. It’s weird. And intense.
Today (Friday 19th October) marks 36 days since I last threw up. Before that 40. Before that 26. I told myself that after 30 it would happen no more. So, in theory, this is it. The numbers should just keep adding up and up. Considering that at the peak of my illness I could make myself sick up to 30 times a day (sometimes more, if it was a really, REALLY bad day), I’m pretty f*cking proud of myself. Bingeing and purging has always been the part of my illness that has given me intense feelings of guilt and shame. My goal, above anything else, was to stop. Just, stop.
I used to berate myself. There are people with genuine problems. And yet, here I was, blindly shoving food down my throat, just so I could force it back out again. It was so wasteful, so hurtful; an act of violence against myself. And for what? Nothing.
The guilt was ever present in my mind.
Most of the time, I pushed it as far down as it would go. However, it was always there, muttering in my ear. I’d fight it, try to block it out, but each day it would overwhelm me.
Guilt for getting ill in the first place. Guilt for not being strong enough to get better on my own. Guilt for needing help. Guilt for not doing more, for not achieving more, for not being enough. Guilt for not being able to stop, even though I wanted to. Guilt for being me.
When I binged, the guilt, the voices in my head, would disappear. My full focus would be on the act of eating. Then the purge – release. I was expelling at the wrongness, all the me-ness from my body. For a second, I would be light. Free. A rush of euphoria, of bliss, of invincibility.
For a second.
Then, the guilt would come crashing through the temporary dam of the binge, a hundred times stronger than before, fed by the act of the binge. Why was I so weak that I couldn’t stop doing something I hated? I loathed myself with a fierce and intense bitterness.
Every morning I would tell myself, this is it. The is the first day of never again. And every evening, I’d find myself repeating the same behaviour. Stuck in a never-ending cycle. Starve, Binge, Purge, Hate. Starve, Binge, Purge, Hate. Over and over and over and over again.
When I decided that I no longer had a choice. It was stop, or die, I thought that understanding how the brain works would help. I had a habit I couldn’t break.
So, what exactly were habits, how did they form and how could they be changed?
Now I know, in my very basic science, that habits are neural pathways that form in the brain. The pathways are called habit loops. A cue, whatever that may be, happens. Neurons fire and follow pathways in the brain. The part of the brain that does this is called the Basal Ganglia, which is also involved in the forming of emotions, memories and pattern recognition. And it’s automatic. The part of the brain that is involved in decisions is called the prefrontal cortex, which is in a different area of the brain. Once that initial neuron fires, your brain goes into autopilot and you behave without thinking (probably why everything would go so quiet in my mind).
Finally, I had some understanding why this goddamn habit was so hard to break. My emotions, habits and memories were all mixed up in an automatic part of the brain, and now that I knew this was the case, I felt like finally I could do something about it. Neural pathways can be changed. New habits can be formed. It takes time, determination and consistency, but it can be done.
It’s been hard work. Really hard. Undoing nearly 18 years of bad habits is like climbing a mental Everest. At first I had no equipment, no map, no clue. So I bought loads of books – on behavioural science, self-help, spirituality, biology, psychology. Everything that seemed relevant, I got my hands on it. I started to listen to motivational speeches every morning. I started writing (hence this blog) I opened up to friends and family more. I started to practice meditation and yoga. I started trying to train more regularly at the gym, sleeping more, eating regularly and healthy foods, dancing with friends…All the obvious stuff, which for some reason, many of us find hard to do.
I still struggle with low mood, anxiety and self acceptance, but the key is to practice each day, with consistency and with compassion. I’m excited to see what the future will bring.
<3 <3 <3