Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Abuser In My Head

The other day I was walking down the hallway at work when the thought of a sandwich popped into my head. The neat stack of bread and fixings coalesced before my mind's eye with no apparent associative chain leading up to it.

But just because there was no associative chain doesn't mean there was no cause. Moments before I thought of the sandwich, an old, angry, embarrassed feeling had surfaced. I wouldn't have noticed this two and a half years ago. But since then I've gotten good at seeing how my mind leaps to thoughts of food to avoid feelings it doesn't want to feel.

I visualized the sandwich and remembered how it felt to reach out for food without a thought in my head of stopping. My behavior was a simple reflex arc; I saw food that I liked, my hand reached out and it went in my mouth. I touched that old feeling, and the contrast between then and now shocked me. I no longer exist in a state of perpetual hedonistic freefall.

In the midst of that overwhelming contrast, there were striking similarities. My new way of eating has so deeply ingrained itself in my behavior that I spend very little time thinking about it. So when I start eating, I have exactly as much thought of stopping as I did years ago, which is none at all. The difference is that the structure provides limits. I'm no longer in freefall. I'm standing calmly in a landscape that has fallen deafeningly quiet.

Now here's the odd thing about that sense of quietude: it felt lonely. I was bemused and curious at that. I wanted to explain the loneliness. At the time, the closest I came was to say that the act of mindlessly eating everything in sight had carried with it a sound and fury. It was reckless and exciting, like a wild party in my head. Now that the party had fallen silent, I was experiencing the silence as loneliness.

But that didn't do it. The feeling of loneliness still didn't make sense. After all, every fiber of my lucid self saw my new way of eating as joyous and free, and saw the loneliness as peacefulness. I was feeling the hush in the wake of decades of binge eating and self-loathing. But that's not how my emotional self experienced it. So for days I rolled more metaphors around in my head, wondering if I was merely overthinking it.

Then the muse came to me unexpectedly in a conversation with my sister about my ten-year-old nephew. She said that he feels constantly pestered by his eight-year-old sister, yet recently he had a day at home without her, and he missed her. I smiled and exclaimed to myself "That's it! That's the feeling!" My relationship with food had been a constant, pestering presence, but once that pestering was gone, I missed it.

I mused on the sibling metaphor and soon found myself extending it, shifting from sister and brother to abuser and abused. I thought of how often people stay in abusive situations. This image of the abused struggling against all reason to stay with the abuser resonated so strongly with me that it seemed like the metaphor I'd been fumbling toward all along.

Maybe my loneliness is analogous to the urge to stay in an abusive relationship. Maybe the silence in my head is not that of the house after the loud party, but rather that of the house after the abuser has left. For decades my house was full of tumult. It hurt, but it was exciting and I didn't know how to live any other way. Maybe, no matter how long I stay away and no matter how good I feel about being away, part of me will always want to be back there.

And maybe this all seems fatuously Freudian to you. Maybe you don't think of yourself as a convocation of sub-selves. But when you ask yourself a question, to whom are you speaking? To whom do the voices belong that debate ethical questions in your head?

To a greater or lesser degree we are all sandboxes in which cavort calved-off aspects of ourselves: personality constructs granted sufficient autonomy to compose the dialectic on which cognition thrives. And maybe it's that granting of autonomy that gets people like me into trouble. Maybe a brutish, heedless part of me overpowered the rest.

Maybe my addiction was an abuser in my head.

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