I think it's something we all do. When something is painful, our brains find a work-around. As an active alcoholic, I found escape from uncomfortable thoughts or feelings in the bottom of a glass.
You know when there is a thunderstorm and the lights go out? And even though you know they're out, every time you walk into a room you turn on the lightswitch? That's what early sobriety felt like for me. I'd have an uncomfortable feeling, and my mind would automatically search for the nearest exit - a drink - and then I'd remember: Oh, yeah. Not anymore.
So there I was, left with an uncomfortable feeling, and my brain was still programmed to find the shortcut - the trapdoor away from feelings. The illusion of control. And so, without consciously knowing it, I reached for comfort in food, all while telling myself that I eat healthy, I exercise, and so I can eat what I want.
I'm not a junk food eater, I would say to myself, smugly. The other day I was cleaning out a drawer and found it full of stashed candy wrappers. I don't remember eating the candy or hiding the wrappers. My denial was in full bloom, so I just didn't see it. Even when clothes started fitting poorly or not at all, I would think it was simply water weight, or the old 'it shrunk in the dryer' stand-by.
When the truth finally broke through, it hurt. I stood in front of my full-length mirror and cried. How could this happen? How could I be so out of touch with reality? I'm sober!
I know, now, how it happened. It's so hard - so damn hard - for me to sit with a difficult feeling. My brain, long denied the ability to work through emotions on its own, simply found the next work-around. When I'm hit with anger, resentment, boredom or sadness, oftentimes I can't even identify the feeling. I start feeling edgy, itchy, and I reach for something to distract me from myself.
When it is the witching hour and the kids are fighting, the house is a mess, the groceries need to be put away, the dog is barking and my husband is working late I get angry, edgy. What do I want to do? Hide. Now I don't drink and I don't eat poorly (coming up on 50 lbs lost), but I still want to dive into the computer and Tweet for hours, play a video game, or call a friend to complain and gossip.
What I'm trying to do now is stop - sit and identify the emotion that is making me want to cower behind mindlessness.
The simple act of sitting with difficulty, not wishing it away or trying to step around it, has been life changing for me. Those shortcuts, those mental trap doors I so crave, only make the road to the truth more circuitous and painful. The only way out is through.
In some of the Buddhist teachings I have been reading, these cluttering thoughts and distractions are described like a monkey loose in the brain, running around messing with our access to peace, to the truth.
I'm trying to get to know my monkey, give him a peace offering, a mental banana, and tell him could you keep it down, please? I'm trying to be. here. now.
"To stay with that shakiness—to stay with a broken heart, with a rumbling stomach, with the feeling of hopelessness and wanting to get revenge—that is the path of true awakening. Sticking with that uncertainty, getting the knack of relaxing in the midst of chaos, learning not to panic—this is the spiritual path."
~Pema Chodron, Buddhist nun