Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Binge And Purge

For people who truly understand this term, binge and purge, it's well understood that a feeling of nausea should overcome any mental images accompanying the phrase. For those who don't know what this means, I'll explain: you gorge yourself on (typically) alcohol until you're senseless, then vomit it all out, along with other miscellany that may come with it. Sounds like a blast, eh?

The Red Book uses the terms emotional intoxication and emotional sobriety. The first is a state of mind brought on by the influence of whatever behaviors accompany a person's dysfunction and/or addiction. Point: it's the behaviors that cause the state of mind. It could be any number of things, from raging to codependence to avoiding a bill, but the effect on one's emotions is the same effect that alcohol has on the body: an intoxication that allows the indulger to believe that, just for right now, everything is okay, even though all around him/her, some situation that is usually perceived as a threat is swirling and ready to bring chaos. Just as with chemical/physical intoxication, emotional intoxication allows for a temporary escape.

Disclaimer on escaping: Knowing how to care for oneself well enough to recognize when it's more healthy to not deal with something is a serious life skill, and it necessarily involves the complementary skill of being able to plan to deal with the thing before it's too late, penalty or pain is incurred, etc. Doing this right ensures that, when you take the time to deal with an issue, it's done with an appropriate amount of attention and adequate resources. There are entire industries created around the need to escape (vacations/travel, recreation/sports, entertainment, etc.), but this all becomes unhealthy the moment the escape takes priority over dealing with the problem.

Some people spend the majority of their lives in a state of emotional intoxication to varying degrees, depending on the severity of the problems they're avoiding. Clearly, it's dysfunctional when avoidance is the default behavior as opposed to setting an appropriate priority to dealing with a problem, figuring out how to solve it, and putting that plan into action.

Emotional sobriety is the process of recognizing one's emotional intoxication and getting rid of it. Unlike physical sobriety, which, on the surface, just means not boozing or drugging it up, emotional sobriety is much more subtle and complicated to achieve. Many substance addictions are easy to recognize because, well, something must be consumed to engage in them: alcohol, painkillers, food, etc. But behaviors are usually harder to recognize, at least from the addict's point of view, and therefore harder to stop.

Imagine growing up in a house where, anytime the family ran out of bread or milk before grocery day, everyone got out the vodka and took shots until the problem was forgotten about, even the kids. Unhealthy, right? These people would all become physically intoxicated. It's almost funny how inappropriate this reaction would be to the stimulus. Now imagine if, in the same house and situation, everyone started yelling at each other, maybe about who used the last of it, or why we didn't make it last longer, or how some of it was wasted two days ago and now we're all out... ad nauseum. These people would become emotionally intoxicated. Ever seen a house like that? Ever lived in one? If so, you know that, growing up that way, you learn that yelling is the right response when things go wrong. Yelling takes the place of the addictive substance. Over time, dozens or hundreds of these lessons build up in children, who grow up thinking these behaviors normal, until one day they have a home and family of their own, and the bread or milk runs out before grocery day... (Repeat After Me)

Just like with substance addictions, addictive behaviors come with motivations and underlying causes that make perfect sense (subconsciously) to the addict. Stopping alcoholism isn't as simple as keeping a person from tipping the bottle. Addictions are preferred because they satisfy a need, usually emotional, which must be rooted out through a lifelong process and serious lifestyle changes. A person cannot simply stop addictive behavior, wither it involves consuming a substance or acting out, without understanding and addressing those needs. Even people who claim to have beaten an addiction have usually only moved on to some other substance or behavior (smoking, exercise, religion, work, rage, etc.) if they haven't dealt with the underlying issues.

Notice that, at no point in the previous examples, does anyone ever bite the bullet and go out to the store, or pull out the powdered milk and make everyone suck it up until grocery day because the powdered milk isn't nearly as good as the real thing. This is a rational response to running out of milk. It's true that none of these actions answer the questions about why some was wasted or who didn't stick to the rationing plan; the only way to do that is through rational discussion and candor with calm questions and honest answers, and then better planning. But this takes a tremendous amount of effort when the yelling response (and/or other myriad dysfunctional behaviors) are at work. And this is the challenge with emotional sobriety.

Now back to binge and purge. Just as alcohol can be overindulged in as an addictive substance, so can something like anger or withdrawal. Using these 'substances' instead of physical ones has the same effect: as a user, you become totally immersed in the effects of it, eventually extraordinarily so. You begin to feel the extremes of the behavior. Unfortunately, too much of the 'substance' halts normal emotional processing: you no longer listen or think rationally, you can't have a reasonable conversation, you're unable to use the social skills necessary to interact with people in a professional, social, or family setting. You hurt people.

And then comes the pain of realization. Just as the body begins to reject too much alcohol in the system by vomiting, so does the mind recognize lost connections or missed deadlines or failed obligations. Just as the body heaves to release the perceived poisons, the mind panics and goes into a stress response, and you as the 'user' undergo emotional extremes as you struggle to understand the impact of your behaviors and the damaging consequences. This is the purge, and just like puking doesn't always get out only that fifth of vodka you drank, emotional purges can also bring up other feelings and thoughts that were part of the mix during the bingeing.

I'm not saying that being emotionally intoxicated constitutes an emotional binge, nor am I saying that you are an addict (either of substances or behaviors) if you 'use' recreationally to explore those dark parts of yourself. Like alcohol, which can be recreationally misused (either accidentally by people who lack the experience to know how much is too much, or intentionally by those who want that escape once in a while), it's okay to 'recreationally' 'use' anger as a means of expression at times when it may not be completely appropriate, as long as you recognize and manage the potential risks. Indeed, since anger is a perfectly healthy response to some stimuli, learning how to control your anger, and your behavior while angry, including the way you act and speak to people, is really the only way possible of becoming skilled in using anger when it's called for. Another way to learn this is by watching how healthy angry people act, but now we're back to whether the family uses vodka or yelling or conversation to deal with running out of milk.

Emotional purging is a necessary part of being a behavioral addict. This is due, in part, to the frequency of emotional binges that occur, as compared to physical/chemical binges. Unfortunately, addictive behaviors are usually so subtle, or even socially acceptable (reality TV, anyone?), that it's sometimes difficult to recognize when they're being used without social interaction. At least, that's true in my case. As a result, emotional purging must occur. Through whatever activities are involved in the purge, the addict is hopefully able to sort through several emotions and/or behaviors at once, sorting out which ones are relevant and which ones are not, and string together a chain of remembered events or feelings that will he or she hopes to use as a sort of decoder key the next time some stressful stimulus presents itself and demands to be dealt with. That's how this blog was born and, most of the time, the purpose it's meant to serve. I share it publicly partly as a means of accountability, and because I occasionally wish to rant, criticize, or entertain to the lucky few who happen by. You know who you are ;)

Many thanks to my muse for today for shaking up the pieces of these thoughts well enough to fall together into a (semi)coherent post. This self-exploration was much-needed.


Postscript: When I wrote this, I was -in no way- making reference to the binge/purge cycle of bulimics  Any insensitivity encountered is purely unintentional.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Repeat After Me

This morning, we had a little craziness in my house as we all prepared for our days. I was getting myself ready to leave at 7:30, my kids were finishing up breakfast, and my wife was in the bathroom finshing her business. As I headed out the door, I said goodbye to everyone.

Less than a minute later, my phone buzzed in my pocket. In my pants pocket. I was on a two lane residential road with unpredictable patches of ice. There were school busses and other commuters moving in both directions. I was buckled in with two layers of coat over my waist and gloves on my hands, and I'd already spilled tea onto my breakfast of toast and peanut butter. I realize, every time this happens, that the caller has no idea of this--they are only calling for what they perceive to be a good reason--but each time it happens, I feel anger.

Repeat after me...

I got the phone out too late to answer, and in the process spilled more of my tea onto my center console. So I wouldn't have to repeat the previous process of unbundling the damn thing, I set it down next to me. Immediately it lit up again. It was my wife, saying she'd tried to flag me down when I pulled away because our son was late for orchestra practice. Knowing what was coming, I asked what she wanted me to do, and heard the answer. This is when the stress reaction started: fight or flight.

The fight or flight response was originally intended to save mankind from sabertooth tigers and ensure he had the strength to respond when assaulted by an enemy. It still serves a purpose. For example when stepping off a curb, if we hear a horn close by, our senses are heightened and our blood quickens, our muscles become instantly ready to react when we realize a car is heading for us, and we're able to back up in time to get out of the way, thereby saved by our cavedweller instincts. However, although our social evolution and lifestyles rarely demand a real life-or-death fight or flight reaction, one still takes place upon perception of some stress. Our blood vessels still constrict, our hearts begins to race, muscles tense, adrenaline is released... the whole biopharmaceutical package is delivered, even when we get a call from a bill collector or we suddenly realize... oh shit, my son is late for orchestra practice.

Back to that moment on the road: even before my wife answered my question, I knew she was going to ask me to turn around, come back home, and take our son to school. For some reason, this enrages me. Rationally, I of all people understand forgetfulness, even the occasional willful negligence. This is what happened to my wife and son: they forgot. My wife's alarm went off right about the time I probably put the car into drive and then they remembered. It makes all the sense in the world that she'd try to stop me so our boy could get to where he needed to be.

Emotionally, however, I was livid. All manner of questions about unmet responsibilities that weren't mine crossed my mind in an effort to justify telling her hell no, take him yourself. Fortunately my higher thinking intervened and I made the decision to help, but not without some malicious flavor. Because I was right near an intersection with no nearby traffic, I didn't take the time to answer the question, hang up the phone, and proceed back home. No, what I did was throw the phone onto the passenger side floor and do a quick U-turn. This is the only seemingly angry part of my reaction I can justify, as it really did save me probably two minutes--remember I'd only been on the road about a minute at this point. But everything after that, until my son exited my car, was pure dysfunctional response. The only part of the return trip I really remember well was getting caught driving like a crazy man by my neighbor as he walked his dog past my house.

Repeat after me...

By the time I'd pulled back into the driveway, I was fumbling around trying to find a place for my (wet) toast. It only took a few seconds for me to decide to just go back inside and grab towels. The door opened and my son exited; I told him to get in the car and headed to the kitchen as my wife stood there with wet hair and my daughter sat on the floor donning her boots. I flashed a mean look at my wife to express an ambiguous rage for being asked to come back home. I got my towels and stepped back through the foyer, again throwing as much angry energy at my wife as I could muster. I knew beneath my raging that she didn't deserve it, but I dished it out anyway, not because I didn't care that I was wrong to do it, not because I don't love her, not because I think she ought to be treated that way... just because my reaction had taken over, and some part of me insisted on driving home the point that I'd been horribly inconvenienced by her (yes, perfectly normal) forgetfulness. I know my rational mind was present because I expressly avoided eye contact with my daughter, with whom I not only had absolutely no quarrel, but also was terrified that she'd pick up on the way I was treating her mom and realize her dad is, in fact, a monster. My wife said, "Thank you," timidly; I grouched, "You're welcome," back; and stepped out of the house, slamming the door behind me.

Repeat after me...

I even grilled my son in the car. This was completely unfair. I know he's learned his share of dysfunctional responses because he replied to me with a raised, angry voice. I was reasonable enough to use words that expressed my simple need to figure out what had gone wrong, and tell him not to yell at me, but my tone was a million miles away from my intent. Hopefully, he'll remember that I told him I loved him when I dropped him off more than he'll remember the rest of it. Of course, that doesn't mean the rest of it won't have an effect on him, not to mention the impression my daughter got when I left the house.

Repeat after me...

None of what I can remember takes into account what may have happened in the house this morning after I left. I can imagine my wife and son's reactions upon hearing the alarm and realizing what it meant (panic?) I can imagine the mad shuffle to get me on the phone, and the response my wife may have had when I tossed the phone away (confusion? anger?) I can imagine the meaning of the words spoken as my son hurried to get his stuff together (your father is angry and it's all my fault? your father is angry and he's an asshole for acting this way?) I can imagine the thoughts of my daughter as she put on her boots, seemingly outside the situation, but completely immersed in the reactions both her parents were having (why is daddy angry? why is mommy crying? why didn't he say anything to me? why did he slam the door? why do I get punished when I slam a door?) Of course, all of this is speculation.

Repeat after me...

It is in this way that my wife and I perpetuate the broken and dysfunctional behaviors we learned in our families of origin. These reactions are a disease with which we were infected as children and continue to be affected as adults, and we are fully engaged in the process of passing it along to our own kids.

Today, for example, the lessons were:

  1. Even though you're not perfect, it's okay to expect others to be
  2. You should hold other people's mistakes against them
  3. If you are asked to help someone who's made a mistake, they should pay for it somehow
  4. Someone else's mistake is a cause for you to be angry
  5. The proper way to act when angry is shows of verbal and physical violence
  6. If you make someone angry, you deserve to be mistreated
  7. The proper way to react to an angry person is to yield to whatever abuse they dish out, or lash back at them with an even bigger reaction

Thinking about some of the arguments in my house in the past, I know my kids are learning these lessons well, and using each other to practice their own dysfunctional behaviors for when they are grown and have families. As I look back on it now, I am ashamed, as I am every time something similar happens. Deep down, my heart breaks for it. I am working hard at just being able to recognize these behaviors. I know the only thing I can do afterward is apologize. Many days I still have no idea how to prevent the reactions before they occur, but when I am able to, I am met with a special brand of resistance only a fellow dysfunctional person can deliver, which only deepends the mess.

The fact is I am sick, and at this point, I am always left wondering how to move forward. As with every day, there is work to be done, and I can't afford to stop for long. Rarely do I have the luxury of stepping away from my existence and responsibilities to examine the behaviors that tear apart my relationships, and even when I do, I'm out of the context of those relationships, so any proposed solution is only experimental until I'm back in my 'real world,' and therefore subject to a response by the people in those relationships (who are also sick) that might completely dismantle whatever outcome I may have hoped for.

Rays of such sunlight are ever fleeting and must be appreciated when they appear, or healing will never happen. To ignore the problem just keeps the brew acidic, and every new episode of dysfunction sours it further, poisoning the family and ensuring future generations will be just as messed up. This cycle must stop, and I yearn with every breath I draw to find a way to start over.

For now, in this moment, I must concede that the only way to start over is with each new moment, each new day, and each apology and admission of guilt or explanation I give the kids in the hope that they won't grow up and repeat my unhealthy behaviors. I also hope that, as I strive toward emotional and spiritual health, I will also demonstrate an increasing number of behaviors that enhance their ability to function as healthy people: to have fun and be frivolous, to believe in themselves because there is no legitimate reason not to, to take risks that might create a better life for themselves, to love vigorously and loyally, and to only accept vigorous and loyal love.

Oh, what I wouldn't give to break these chains, but the fact is I wouldn't know how to live without them should they all just fall immediately. They are safe and familiar. They were forged one link at a time, both by my parents when I was a child and by myself as I've built an adult life using the rules I was taught. Breaking them will only happen with the same slow process.

Repeat after me. SCWA.

Addendum: I owe many of my original realizations, and some of my continued recovery, to the book Repeat After Me, by Claudia Black. Anyone who finds themselves in similarly distressing and confusing situations should definitely give it a look. Dr. Black is a pioneer in studies of children from addictive and dysfunctional homes, and I honestly don't know what kind of mess my life would be without the intervention of a counselor and the realizations of Repeat After Me and other books, videos, and meetings I've needed to realize what was happening to me emotionally. I'm still a long way from being truly healthy, but I'm on the right path.
This one....................................not this one.
No infringement is intended on the book Repeat After Me, its cover, or the images of Claudia Black, Ph.D or the actress Claudia Black. Please email me should you have any issue with their being included in this post.

Friday, January 4, 2013

55: Priorities

She took entirely too long in the bathroom. As she slid into bed, looking gorgeous, smelling lovely, wearing her new lingerie, she began lightly touching my shoulder and neck. “I have a headache,” I lied. We kissed goodnight and she rolled over.

Finally, I thought, I could focus on my real interest: my Facebook games!
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FFF-55 Vol. XLVIII. Tell a story in exactly 55 words. Go see G-Man.