When the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.
Numbing strategies like food and alcohol enter our lives long before any deep and deliberate education about how to feel our feelings without losing our grip on happiness, reality, ourselves or our most important relationships.
Upset? Here, have a cookie.
Bored at the supermarket? Here, have a packet of crisps.
Lost the race at school? Let’s go out for some ice-cream.
Didn’t get the job? Let’s go for a beer together and commiserate.
Got the job? Let’s celebrate with some champagne!
It wasn’t until I became a parent that I realised how little I was doing to help develop my childrens’ emotional health and how much I was (am) doing to set them up for a life of numbing.
Like millions of others, my ‘hammers’ were food and alcohol. Despite having struggled with bulimia for over 25 years, I actually thought alcohol was my biggest problem. The first time I committed to quitting for 100 days, I was terrified. I genuinely couldn’t imagine how I’d ever become someone who didn’t drink alcohol. How would I have fun? What would I do at the end of a long day with the kids? How would I keep my friends after I became completely boring?!
Writing this blog during that first 100 days helped me immensely because it placed me in the role of observer in my emotional life. I’d be thinking, “Hmm. That feels horrible. I wonder what’s going on? I need to figure it out so I can write about it.”
Observing emotions and habits
I think this is probably the number 1 skill I’ve learned in my efforts to quit drinking.
I learned to notice the triggers, feel the sensations in my body and stop to listen to the thoughts I was replaying. I learned a lot about myself and gradually learned how to change the patterns that had kept me trapped for so long.
Over time, I actually got quite cocky. I had alcohol in a headlock. I was winning the battle.
I thought I was no longer numbing. I was taking charge of my emotions and changing my habits. It took me a while to realise that, with my attention on alcohol, my brain quietly rerouted many of the numbing duties back to food. I say rerouted but, to be honest, even when alcohol was in the picture, food was always there too.
I’d often drink so that I could eat without that incessant guilty mind chatter.
Glass of wine? Let’s open a bar of chocolate with that. Gin and tonic? I’ll put out some crisps. Not drinking? Oh yay! I’m saving the calories. I can have that slice of cake instead!
Without the alcohol, the guilt of eating would almost always overwhelm me and if that happened, I’d end up in a binge-purge cycle. With alcohol, I stood a chance of “feeling normal”.
Life is stressful. We have to have our treats!
Getting weaker or getting stronger?
I’m not sure when it hit me how damaging that thought pattern was – even if it is ‘normal’.
If life is so bad that the only way through is booze and chocolate, what the hell is the point? Where is the inspiration, the light, the adventure? Where is the challenge and the excitement? Is Game of Thrones the closest we get to something enthralling? (A dated reference, I grant you, The Queen’s Gambit seemed too ironic to include and I don’t watch much TV so was a bit stuck!)
What quitting alcohol taught me is that choosing to face life’s difficult moments without a numbing strategy is a bit like choosing to go to the gym. At first, it feels shit. You doubt your ability to stick with it and you need a lot of motivation and/or support to keep going back. If you do go back though, it stops feeling so difficult, you get stronger and you always feel better afterwards.
Apply that to the world of emotions and it has profound effects. When you feel stronger, the stressful moments don’t actually knock you over. You don’t need to numb them because you’re not overwhelmed by them. Compare it to the exercise example – if you always take the elevator, a single flight of stairs can knock the wind out of you; if you’re working out every day, you could trust yourself to climb all the way to the top of the building, even if you did get a bit breathless on the way up so the climb doesn’t stress you out.
That’s the power of leaving the numbing strategies behind. When it takes more to stress you out, you can do so much more, experience so much more and bring a lot more colour to life.
One more to go
My trouble is that I still have one more numbing strategy on the menu and I believe my dependency on it continues to weaken me.
I still eat for emotional reasons rather than hunger. I know many people would say it’s normal. We all do it – and our lockdown bellies are proof of that – but I want to be stronger. I want to become an inspiring coach and I want to make a difference in the world of mental health. I want to help a million people become strong enough to live a life they’d be happy for their kids to copy. And I don’t believe I’ll do that with my head in the biscuit tin.
On 4 Jan, I kicked out my final numbing strategy. Food. Not that I’m going to starve myself, of course. The goal is to learn to eat for nourishment and vitality rather than comfort, boredom, entertainment, commiseration, celebration, fitting in, standing out or ‘treating’ myself.
Today is Day 5 and I have technically already failed – by eating for entertainment rather than hunger or nourishment. That would normally indicate the point at which I throw in the towel but I’m treating it like those early gym sessions. When I first joined a gym, I lasted just a few minutes. My first run was on a treadmill and lasted 62 seconds but I kept going back.
I’m going back in.