*Trigger warning – descriptions of cutting and self-harm
I have an addict’s brain. Not in a jar on my desk or anything like that. It’s the one in my head. I don’t know if I was born this way or developed the tendency, if my addict brain is nature or nurture. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter. My reality is what it is.
Eating disorders have a lot in common with addiction. Some schools of thought want to wholly classify them that way. I’m not sure I agree – there are elements within eating disorders that align more closely with mental illness – but there are similarities. Perhaps my eating disorder contributed to my addictive bent? It’s an unsolvable chicken and egg puzzle; who can tell which came first.
I never met an addiction I couldn’t embrace. I’m luckier than some, however. I recognized that tendency early on. As a consequence, I have kept a tight chokehold on my behaviour. Except for that whole eating disorder thing. And the cutting.
I think I gravitate towards addictive behaviours because they take over the brain. The intense focus that comes with addiction appeals to me. I like it when my thoughts are subsumed, when my focus is narrowed. Addictions are also a way to dissociate. They become all consuming. They allow you to deflect, to push aside the darkness and the pain, if only temporarily. Their essential transitoriness is why you need the next hit. Of course, addictions come with their own set of problems; the “cure” is often worse than the condition you’re trying to treat. Life is ironic like that.
Cutting and self-mutilation are behaviours that often show up in people with eating disorders. In the early days of my bulimia, I exhibited both. I cut my arms and legs repeatedly for about a year. I executed some odd needlework on my forearms as well. At the time, it seemed like a normal, logical thing to do. Why wouldn’t I cut myself? I also started cutting at my face; this would escalate into what would be called a self-mutilation tic.
These similar behaviours, though they came from different emotional places, were also addictive. I found it very hard to stop. The latter behaviour is still an ongoing problem.
I started cutting my arms because I felt dead. Empty. Walking and talking, but empty. Not really present. Not really there anymore. The only thing I thought about was my eating disorder. The only thing I felt consistently was self-hatred. Cutting let me feel something, even if the something was pain. If I could feel pain, I was still alive.
My facial mutilating started at the same time. It was a function of Body Dysmorphic Disorder, also related to the eating disorder. A good read about BDD and be found here.
It seemed so simple in the early days. All I wanted was symmetry. All I wanted was to be perfect. As I stood in front of the mirror, getting ready to throw up, I would notice all the ways in which my face wasn’t perfect. All the little blackheads and milia. The fine hair that grew on the skin. The uneven eyebrows. The strange flat spot under my right eye. The bump in the middle of my nose. All imperfections. All intolerable. No wonder I struggled in my life. No wonder everything seemed wrong. I was imperfect. Ugly. It wasn’t enough that my body was grotesque; now I had to deal with a questionable face as well.
I have resisted surgery’s call over the years though it has been close at times and I have had minor peels. But when the problem first emerged, I didn’t have the money. And when I came to understand the nature of the problem, I realized that surgery wouldn’t “fix” me. Things would still be bad. So, I held that line. No plastic surgery.
I did have pins and scissors and tweezers though. I would poke and cut and extract and cut some more in an insane effort to make things perfect. As though slicing and dicing your face could lead to perfection. But then, mental illnesses seldom require the logic to hold up. It doesn’t need it to, because I never thought to challenge it. Keep working at it, keep cutting, keep trying to fix things. Eventually, you’ll get there. I would persist, ‘til the wounds were larger than a centimeter, ‘til they were hard to bandage, ‘til I thought I might cut right through my face to the inside.
Countless cuts and snips, countless infections and IV antibiotics and corrective surgeries to deal with the abscesses I created later and I’m as far from perfect as one can get. And I still struggle with the behaviour. I still look in the mirror and see all that is wrong. I see the scars and wonder: what if I had a razor or even a scalpel? Should I try to fix what I’ve done? I had the opportunity to steal a scalpel recently. It took a great deal of self-talk to convince myself not to do it, to make myself believe that nothing good would come of me having regular access to such a sharp implement.
But I wanted it. It is hard to stop. Despite the pain and the damage, the thoughts are still there, intrusive. The equipment is still here. I’ve thrown it out countless times only to repurchase it in a well-concealed frenzy. The problem is not the things. The problem is internal.
I wish I would get addicted to healthy behaviours. Except, if I did, they wouldn’t stay healthy. I would warp them to serve the addictive and compulsive bent of my soul. I may not always have been wired this way but I’m wired this way now.
So, what to do with an addictive brain? I cannot speak for all. What do I do to help guard against acquiring new habits that I’ll ultimately have to break for health? I gave that some thought, and there are four things I think I do to address this tendency in myself. It’s important because letting the addictive behaviours go is hard.
I’m cautious about behaviours I adopt. I know myself and my tendencies. I keep them in mind when I think about trying something new. I’m cautious with gambling. I stay away from hard drugs. I drink infrequently. I keep exercise to a reasonable level. Not because my brain doesn’t want to do these things but because it wants them far too much. It is still and always searching, on some level, for that magic thing that will make me perfect and therefore at peace.
I pick my battles. I have learned over my lifetime – and yes, it took decades to get to this point – that one can’t be perfect (despite the parts of my brain that still insist on pushing that narrative). Yes, I’m addicted to diet Pepsi. No, quitting it isn’t really a priority. I have adjusted a lot of things in my life, changed a lot of behaviours. It’s okay to let the minor things go.
I try to stay calm. I do better when I’m calm. When I’m calm in my life and when I’m thoughtful and meditative and slow in my behaviour, I’m less likely to need the escape addictions provide. Meditation proves helpful once again. A mostly quiet life, for me, leads to a quieter brain.
I make the behaviour inconvenient. One of the reasons I’ve been able to work towards abstinence in my bulimic behaviour is because I came out of the closet. Everyone knows. At times this is embarrassing, though it shouldn’t be; my friends and family don’t understand the details; the incidents that horrify me so much in retrospect are not only ones they don’t know about but scenarios they could never imagine. But because they know about the eating disorder, they watch me. Or at least, I perceive that they watch me. It makes me more motivated to resist the urges to binge and purge.
Resist denial. I have an addict’s brain. Sometimes, I pretend I don’t. Sometimes, I pretend I can stop smoking whenever, that I want to cut, that it’s not a big deal, that everyone obsesses about food, and that taking pain pills to zone out is totally fine even if you don’t have pain. But I know I lie.
Lying to yourself when you have an addict brain, when you are compulsive in your behaviours is absolutely one of the worst things you can do. If even you can’t admit the truth to anyone else (yet), be honest with yourself.
Do you have an addict brain?