One also comes to realize that we don't just emotionally eat, but we also emotionally __________. For some people, it's emotional binging, and perhaps a subsequent purge. Some people emotionally exercise.
For sixteen years I've been a skin picker (dermatillomania). This is not an easy admission for me to make, though it's not something I necessarily hide (I've mentioned it a few times in passing). If you're not familiar with skin picking, you might be familiar with some of its sister disorders such as trichotillomania or other anxiety/self-harm/body dysmorphic disorders such as cutting.
When I was younger, my mother would have me lie down on the living room couch, face-up on a pillow on her lap. She would scrutinize my face for pimples, blackheads, and whiteheads. She would use her fingers/nails, tweezers, and occasionally a pin to exorcise the little demons on my face. Excitedly, she'd show me what she was able to excavate and then tell me to run to the bathroom and wash my face with hot water. My skin would fade from red to its pasty white before I had to go to school the next morning, but my skin was none-the-less traumatized by what happened.
After my mom died, the habit continued. Often when I'd feel my anxiety level rise, I'd find myself picking at scabs, or popping pimples. Over the years, the skin picking would evolve to a point where there wouldn't even need to be something tactile or visible for me to pick at. I would dig into my face until I was bleeding believing that there was something there that didn't belong. I would pick at my face, my scalp, my arms. It has evolved into some aspects of trich as well. Just anything to feel the pain/release of the action. (The irony is that I can plunge a safety pin a quarter inch into my own skin without flinching and yet I'm petrified of needles and will often faint.)
I tried to address it on my own -- removing my "tools" from the bathroom, cutting my nails short, wearing gloves to bed, covering my mirrors. I even tried hypnosis mp3s. But doing those things never really got to the heart of what was going on. There was something inside of me (emotions) that were buried under the surface. The picking was just a coping mechanism for dealing the emotions, or having an emotion (guilt, shame, horror) that was more readily accessible.
I've been to a cognitive-behavioral therapist to help me stop skin picking. Though after I first told the story, he told me he had never heard of anything like it (part Munchausen by Proxy, part grooming gone too far). The first step is that I had to realize (and eventually forgive) that what my mom did was not out of care, but was an extension of her own anxiety disorders (agoraphobia with panic attacks). The second step was me cultivating the ability to stop, which was threefold: (a) acknowledging when it happened; (b) wanting to stop; and (c) developing coping mechanisms to help ease the anxiety.
After a year of twice-a-week therapy, the picking had tapered off, but was still present in times of duress. During one session, I had barely sat down before I started bawling -- saying "I think it's time to talk about medication." It was the point I didn't want to reach. The night before I had spent a good hour scrutinizing my face, crying the whole time, wanting to stop but unable. I hated what I was doing to myself.
I tried a few different SSRIs with a specific purpose: alleviate the anxiety long enough to deal with the emotions, then get the fuck off the SSRIs. One kind made me shake constantly. Another gave me migraines. One made me lethargic to the point of barely being able to get out of bed. After discussing it with my doctor (who proscribed the pills) and my psychologist, I ended my foray into medicating my problems (as it was right for me -- though I will not judge people who find relief -- just wish I had been one).
About the same time, I had started reading Thich Nhat Hanh at the recommendation of a coworker. I started with Being Peace and moved on to other volumes of his (such as Anger). He often repeats a familiar story, a story I needed to hear:
Thay [Vietnamese for "teacher"] often compares our anger to a small child, crying out to his mother. When the child cries the mother takes him gently in her arms and listens and observes carefully to find out what is wrong. The loving action of holding her child with her tenderness, already soothes the baby’s suffering. Likewise, we can take our anger in our loving arms and right away we will feel a relief. We don’t need to reject our anger. It is a part of us that needs our love and deep listening just as a baby does.
After the baby has calmed down, the mother can feel if the baby has a fever or needs a change of diaper. When we feel calm and cool, we too can look deeply at our anger and see clearly the conditions allowing our anger to rise.
It was the permission I needed to actually feel what I was feeling. For too long, I had been expressing my anger, hurt, confusion, abandonment by hurting myself -- either with food or with skin picking. Here, I very clearly understood that all emotions (not just anger, and not just the positive emotions) have their place, have their time, and have their own needs.
What I learned was almost like the difference in Spanish between "soy" and "estoy" -- the former being more about identity and the latter being more transitory (i.e. estoy borracha means "I am drunk"; soy borracha means "I am a drunk"). I learned that I could be angry without being anger itself. I could feel hurt without being mortally wounded. I could let those feelings exist and not feel like they were steering the ship.
I still skin pick in times of extreme anxiety, insecurity, or duress. But I stopped judging myself about it. I didn't do it because I was weak or lacked control. Something took me out of the moment, got me off balance. I stop when I can, and always go back to ask myself "okay, what's really going on here?" All too often I'm looking for something to be wrong, something to pick at as a distraction from feeling negative emotions.
If I can stand at the mirror, catch myself scrutinizing, and say "Insecure" or "Anxious" -- I am practicing the dharma. I'm inviting Mara to tea. I'm acknowledging that I see or feel the insecurity, doubt, or anxiety. I invite those feelings in and hold them a while until they pass. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't. But the journey of a bodhisattva is one of practice and forgiveness.
To quote Jack Kornfield:
In the end, forgiveness simply means never putting another person out of our heart.
And yes, that means our very own self as well. We must inhabit our own heart in a meaningful way -- it is vast and accommodating of even your worst mood or emotion. Jack Kornfield later goes on to suggest a meditation on forgiving one's self:
Just as I have caused suffering to others, there are many ways that I have hurt and harmed myself. I have betrayed or abandoned myself many times in thought, word, deed, knowingly or unknowingly.
Feel your own precious body and life. Let yourself see the ways you have hurt or harmed yourself. Picture them, remember them. Feel the sorrow you have carried from this and sense that you can release these burdens [my emphasis]. Extend forgiveness for each act of harm, one by one. Repeat to yourself:
For the ways I have hurt myself through action or inaction, out of fear, pain, or confusion, I now extend a full and heartfelt forgiveness. I forgive myself. I forgive myself.
Or to quote the Buddha himself:
You can search the whole universe
and not find a single being
more worthy of love than yourself.
Since each and every person
is so precious to themselves,
let the self-respecting
harm no other being.
I forgive myself. I forgive myself......
I am loveable. I am worthy of love.
[Side note to all of this -- for as hard as it has been for me to go through this, I personally know of three people now that suffer from this. I know just how hard it is to put a brave face in light of something that is very misunderstood (no, we don't have acne or rosacea). It breaks my heart to know other people suffer from dermatillomania, especially people I love and care about so much. But I don't think I could have written this without knowing I'm not alone. So thank you for being brave enough and trusting enough to share your personal stories with me. <3 <3 <3]