Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Mental Banana

Getting sober robbed me of the ability to manufacture the emotions I wanted. In the early days of sobriety, every feeling, even the good ones, slammed into me like a linebacker on steroids. My brain had to relearn how to be bored, joyful, anxious, happy, fearful and angry - all without its usual anesthesia. Without realizing it, I found other ways to numb myself. I turned to food.

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


  1. I am just now learning that it's okay to be uncomfortable - that not knowing what to do isn't a command, necessarily, to figure out what's to be done.

    I'm not good at it yet, not at all. But I liken it to waiting for my first child to be born, when the euphoria and relief of the epidural stalled the labor, when the Dr told me it didn't work this way, that I would have to get uncomfortable to achieve the desired result.

    I don't accept it yet without a fight, but it's more than okay to get uncomfortable. The desired result is so worth it.

    Thank you for the inspiration.

  2. Learning to be comfortable in your own skin is such a difficult thing at times. I have never been much of a drinker, but I am a thinker, and when times get uncomfortable, I hide as well, I hide in myself. I get really quiet, I disconnect from the room around me, I get lost in my thoughts. I tune the world out.

    I definitely need to work on being here, being now, not wishing it away.

  3. it's funny how that food\chemical\sex part of the brain will seem to kick in to overdrive when we take away our preferred numbing coping mechanism. i'm trying to get some structure within the food arena myself.

    i like to think of feeling the feelings as building an emotional callus. i have to do my best to non judgementally experience them in order to train my brain to be balanced. thank you for your inspiration, as always :)

  4. In one of the yoga classes I've taken the teacher talked about the monkey brain :)
    It's so hard to sit with just ourselves, let alone pain or emotions we don't understand...

  5. All I have to say is, "Love the monkey. Love, the post"

  6. The monkey really is a good analogy. I have struggled to learn to just 'be'. The mind racing is difficult to work through. After a few months of therapy I've learnt methods to cope with it, how to be with it like you've said and figure out what's at the root of what I'm feeling. It's a process.

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  8. Ellie, what a perfect post, once again an example of how your posts keep me focused on where I need to be at!

    I love Pema chodron, and yet I find her suggestions so hard too, that I often avoid even going there with her books. My favourite book of hers – and hardest challenge – is 'Comfortable with uncertainty'. If there is one thing I hate (more than making people upset) its uncertainty. And if its uncertainty about whether people are upset oooh boy. Right now I'm trying the mantra 'it is as it is' - to apply to feelings, life, everything. It's definitely a good one for me

    Thanks again for reminding me to stick with the feelings, and not turn to my many quick fix strategies :) (Liesbeth in Oz)

  9. Oh. I know addiction far too well in the form of food. And I'm just as you described. When I feel, I reach for the distraction -- through out most of my life it was food. I've been in a state of recovery for the past three years, learning how to deal with emotions and how to celebrate or deal with a bad day without trying to drown those feelings in a bowl of ice cream. It's hard to just feel. Not to self medicate.
    This was a wonderful reminder that other things are distractions, too. I need to calm down my monkey brain, too.

  10. Wow. I needed to read this now, this morning. I was noticing about an hour ago that I was thinking of something that was stressful, but didn't feel stressed. Yet my very next thought was of a drink. So clearly I was anxious, yet I couldn't even feel it. All I did was reach in my mind for the drink ahead. I too, need to allow the feeling, and learn how to sit with it and move through it. I already use food as well, so I need to be aware of that. I'm worried that it will be an easy replacement for the alcohol. Enough of me though! You! You are amazing. Look at you go! This is such growth. Go Ellie!!!

  11. Learning to be comfortable in your own skin is such a difficult thing at times. I have never been much of a drinker, but I am a thinker, and when times get uncomfortable, I hide as well, I hide in myself. I get really quiet, I disconnect from the room around me, I get lost in my thoughts. I tune the world out.

    I definitely need to work on being here, being now, not wishing it away.