I’m compulsive at times. I have compulsive thoughts; I sometimes engage in compulsive actions. It’s a function of my anxiety and it’s been a problem for decades. The word “compulsive” echoes in my brain when I fall into the behaviour, not so much definitional or descriptive but accusatory and judgmental.
If you asked me to describe compulsion however, I would be at a loss for words. For me, it’s non-verbal. It’s feelings, urges that push me towards thoughts and behaviours I’d rather not engage in. It’s a pressure in the head, a racing in the chest, and a drive that feels almost impossible to resist regardless of the harm level of the behaviour.
Once again, the dictionary is a boon, describing compulsion thusly:
the action or state of forcing or being forced to do something;
an irresistible urge to behave in a certain way, especially against one’s conscious wishes;
Turns out identifying it primarily as a feeling was on point.
Compulsive feelings are hideous. The pressure they engender is almost past bearing or so it seems in my head. They jack you up, make your movements a little quick, a little jerky, a little aggressive. Your thoughts start to race.
And, it’s hungry. It starts off as a tickle but quickly grows in strength. It spins you on your moorings and the pressure keeps building until it feels like you’re going to explode into a thousand pieces of pink mist unless you do something to ameliorate it.
Enter the dysfunctional coping methods. Not everyone who has compulsive thoughts develops them, of course. Some people have more positive ways of dealing with anxiety-driven pressure. Deep breathing, progressive relaxation, understanding that it will pass. The lucky people come to the realization that these tools work early on.
Some of us learn the hard way.
It doesn’t matter what your compulsions are based on or what your particular dysfunctional way of dealing is. It’s all destructive. The maladaptive behaviours that feed and temporarily sate the beast carve out bits of your soul. Not to mention what they can do to the body.
Eating disorders, cutting and self-mutilation, drug addictions, alcoholism, shopping, exercise, sex. Gardening. Cooking. Collecting books. Anything that is taken to destructive excess.
When I was growing up, a lady who lived across the street was compulsive about vacuuming. She’d start at five in the morning and repeat at least five times a day. It must have been hard to be her. It must have been so painful inside her head.
The problem with compulsions is that often, the coping skills you develop to ease the distress don’t really work. They seem worth it in the beginning; you want to believe they’ll erase the internal distress that feels unbearable. Simply sitting with the feelings seems impossible. But they turn on you and become as bad as, or even worse than the feelings that birthed them.
“What do you think will happen?” The unanswerable question posed by counsellors and therapist. “What will happen if you wait, if you sit with the feelings?” The questions themselves cause panic. The compulsions don’t want you to go there. Because the answer “I don’t know” is the beginning. The fears don’t survive when you analyze, when you question, when you let in the light of logical thought.
Challenge doesn’t mean compulsions no longer come, though the longer I go without acting on them, the weaker they get. It means most of the time I remember that contrary to what my gut is telling me, waiting will not result in my death and destruction.
You survive compulsions by riding out the feelings. By not leaning on the problematic coping behaviours. It’s that simple and that horrible. I find most things in life are like that; simple but not easy. Letting compulsions run their course without acting will not make things worse. Even if every cell in your body is screaming at you that it will. You can survive uncomfortable feelings.
And then what? I worried about this. The first battle was exquisitely hard. Would this be my life now, sitting through urges to binge, purge, cut, and mutilate forever? What a fatiguing thought.
Here’s what I didn’t understand at the time. Here’s what I couldn’t quite bring myself to believe: the longer you avoid giving in, the weaker the attacks get. It’s really annoying how often other people are right. It makes me regret all the years I wasn’t ready to listen.
Once you start starving the beast, it loses strength. Time passes, battles are waged, and eventually the compulsive thoughts and urges come less frequently. Until one day you realize it’s been days since you thought about cutting, drinking, shopping, or rearranging the furniture.
I have no idea how long it takes until the compulsions die in earnest. I know they’re much weaker than they used to be. They pop up strongly though, every now and then, as the unfortunate wound on my chin will attest. Prolonged death rattles of a sort.
I am compulsive at times. I have compulsive thoughts and I sometimes engage in compulsive actions. But less than I used to. You get used to riding it out. It isn’t as bad as the compulsion tells you it will be.
And yes, the slow and deep breathing people regularly mention helps. Much to my chagrin.
Do you have compulsive feelings and behaviours?