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.


  1. i needed to read this today. thank you.

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